Last season, I was sitting on a Pennsylvania hillside overlooking an overgrown cow pasture when I heard a shot from above me. I turned just in time to see what appeared to be a 4-pointer running down the hill to a swamp below. Pennsylvania has an antler restriction rule in place and I knew the buck wasn’t legal for me, but it was for a junior license holder or mentored youth.
Shortly after the deer disappeared in the thick swamp, a father and his young son walked slowly down the hill following what I assumed to be a blood trail. As I watched, the father saw me sitting there and said, “The boy hit the deer and we were following the blood trail, but we lost it. I think he was headed toward the swamp so, we’ll head that way.”
I wished them well and headed across the field to hunt a different part of the farm.
What struck me about the situation was that the pair were following a blood trail, but not marking it in any way. What’s worse, they gave up on it when they thought they lost it. In my opinion, anytime you follow a blood trail it should be marked in case the blood stops and it becomes necessary to back-track. If the blood is profuse, I simply follow it to where it leads, but many times there are only a few drops that appear along the trail, and this is where marking the last blood becomes imperative.
Marking the trail keeps me on course and lets me know exactly where the animal went. A trail that stops cold might mean the animal has stopped bleeding or, that it may have turned and headed in a different direction. If a blood trail is suddenly lost, it’s often possible to determine the animal’s new direction by checking the back trail to verify the general direction the animal was originally headed. After marking the last blood spot, I begin checking for blood on either side of the trail I was following. If the animal changed direction, I can usually pick up the trail again.
Aside from its obvious use, I’ve found the best material for marking a blood trail is toilet paper. When following a blood trail, I like to tear off a piece and place it on a limb or twig above the blood droplets. Markers placed off the ground are easier to see when looking at the back trail and, after a few days, the white markers quickly degrade leaving no visible sign.
Some guys I know use plastic surveyors’ tape to mark a trail, but the tape won’t disintegrate as will toilet paper and will have to be removed when the tracking chore is completed.
The first rule of tracking a wounded animal is to stay on the blood. Wandering around aimlessly hoping to stumble on the dead deer usually doesn’t cut it. By marking a sparse blood trail, the hunter can use the information to determine the animal’s line of flight and if need be, come back the next morning to easily pick up where he left off.