Tips for tracking deer after the shot

Some of the most memorable deer I’ve shot were not deer I harvested. There haven’t been many, but there have been a couple of deer I have shot and not recovered. That fact weighs on me to this day. I’ve relived my shot placement, questioned if I should have taken more time and waited for a better shot or whether we could have done a better job of tracking. No sportsman wants to lose a deer, but unfortunately it happens on occasion.

Ideally, we make the perfect shot and the deer drops in its tracks. But that doesn’t happen all the time, especially with archery gear. More often, the deer takes off at the shot and the tracking process begins. By following a few simple rules, the tracking process can end successfully 99 percent of the time.

The first thing to do after the shot is settle your nerves and do nothing for 20 to 30 minutes. Calm down, shed clothes if you expect to be walking and tracking, and ready the things you need for recovering the deer. Visualize the shot and how the deer reacted. It will give you an idea of where the deer was hit. 

A high jump and kick followed by a high-speed run usually indicate a shot in the vitals. You can expect to find the deer within 100 yards. The deer that runs off and stands hunched up is likely shot low in the stomach or guts. Get another shot in the deer if you can. Otherwise, expect to wait a considerable amount of time before beginning tracking. Deer wounded this way want to bed down. Most will die in the bed if you let them, but it might be a minimum of several hours before you can go after them. What you don’t want to do is push the deer.

Deer shot with a gun may be harder to track than those shot with an arrow. It’s common to hear deer shot with archery equipment crash within hearing distance. Listen after the shot to get an idea of the direction the deer is heading and possibly the results of the shot. Deer shot with archery gear are intended to bleed out, making it easier to follow blood trails. Deer shot with a firearm die from shock and tissue damage, but there is often less blood to follow.

Identify a visual landmark to give you an idea of where the deer was standing the last time you saw it. It might be a rock, a tree, or an opening in the forest. After waiting, go directly to the spot where you last saw the deer and determine if you indeed hit the deer. Place a marker for a point of reference. It can be a strip of surveyor’s tape or a piece of tissue. 

If you can’t find a blood trail, go back to where the deer was standing when you shot and look for blood there. Once you find blood, blood color will help determine where you hit the deer and provide a visible trail for recovering the animal.

Bright, pink, frothy blood with bubbles indicates a lung shot. The deer shouldn’t go far and your chances for recovery are good. Rich, vivid, red blood indicates a shot close to the heart or an area supplied by multiple blood vessels. Major blood sign indicates that the deer will not be far. A marginally hit or nicked organ is usually fatal, but it may take a while for the animal to die. Best to be patient, wait, and prepare yourself for some difficult tracking. 

Dark, crimson-colored blood suggests a liver or kidney shot. A shot like this is fatal, but will take time. Wait two to three hours before you begin tracking. Blood sign may be minimal so be observant, patient, and use your best tracking skills. 

Blood with plant matter or food mixed in it, or a yellowish-green tint to it, is not good. The clues indicate a stomach hit. The deer eventually will die, but it may be a while. Wait at least half a day before tracking, taking into account weather conditions and the coyote population. 

How the blood is dispersed can give an indication on how good the hit was. Blood from a walking deer will be right in its tracks in the trail with little splatter and uniformly sized drops. If the blood trail moves side to side, weaving on the trail, the deer is about to expire. Blood from a running deer will spray or splatter. Major blood indicates a pass-through shot and a hit of a major artery or heart shot. Look for blood sign not only on the ground, but also on vegetation and trees. 

Many times you won’t find blood immediately at the point where you hit the deer. Pass-through shots with an arrow or bullet will produce plenty of blood sign, but an arrow that doesn’t pass through or a deer shot with a slug or buckshot may not bleed profusely until the body cavity fills with blood and begins draining from the entrance wound. Even then, blood will clot or fat or hair may plug the hole. 

That’s why it’s important to stay to the side of the trail in order to not disturb sign. Tie pieces of surveyor’s tape or tissue to branches at the last sign of blood. This gives you an idea of the direction the deer is heading and a reference point to return to should you lose the trail. One or two trackers works better then a whole group.

Hair can give you an indication of where the deer was hit. You often find it where the deer was shot, where it lay down, or where it crossed a fence. Dark, coarse, hollow hair indicates a high hit. Hair on the side of the deer will be thinner, brown, and not as coarse and should signal a good hit. White hair is not good. It means a low shot, but it could indicate an exit wound from a high-angle shot. Silky, white hair and bone fragments suggest a brisket shot. Such a deer may or may not die.

There is gear that can aid in your search to recover a wounded deer. One company makes a blood-trailing flashlight that illuminates blood and makes it visible to the human eye. There also are spray products that do the same thing.

Once you find the deer, don’t just walk up to it. Take your gun. Many hunters have walked up to a “dead” deer only to have it jump up and run away. Look at the eye. If it’s open, it’s probably dead. If it’s closed, use caution. Gently touch the deer’s eye to see if it blinks. 

Tracking deer is often a judgment call. Approaching weather or a healthy coyote population may require that you start tracking sooner than you’d like. Use patience, be quiet and methodical, and it should turn out for the best.

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