Nose to the wind, I stood silently on the remote ridgeline. It had been 16 hours since last blood — a single speck, shaken loose when the buck jumped a crumbling stone fence. Straining my ears for the sound of crows or ravens, I sniffed the air for clues that would lead me now to something I hoped not to find — the spoiled carcass of a whitetail deer.
I had lost the trail at dark on day one when the buck backtracked rather than crossing an old logging trace. At daylight the second day, I unraveled his deception and followed the hours-old trail to his second bed.
Over the next six hours, I gained another half mile as the buck angled uphill toward a ridgeline. Branch searches gained me another 200 yards to a single drop of dried blood. I stayed with him off and on through new territory, and at sunset on day two, I found his bed near a long-abandoned homesite. Coyotes howling in the distance heightened my lonely feeling. If you bowhunt long enough, you’ll eventually make a “bad hit.” How you handle it will determine whether you recover the deer — and it will give you a measure of yourself. Through this article, I want to share ideas I have gained from over 50 tracking jobs and from conversations with surgeons, veterinarians, and game biologists. My goal is twofold: 1) To enhance your tracking skills, and 2) To instill an attitude that will carry you past last blood.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Tracking begins the moment you release the string. At that moment, burn two key locations into your mind: the spot where the deer stood when the arrow struck, and the point where you last saw the deer. Accuracy in marking both can mean the difference between a short trail and an aimless search.
For 30 minutes after the shot, stay in your stand and let the adrenaline seep from your veins. As you calm down, try to recall every detail of the shot, and visualize the route you will take to the place you last saw the deer.
When you climb down, still-hunt to that point. Regardless if you find blood at this site, mark it with fluorescent flagging. Next, return to the point of impact and study the sign left by the departing deer. Light, frothy, odorless blood indicates a lung hit. A foul-smelling arrow means a paunch hit. Dark blood indicates a liver hit. Bright, oxygen-rich red means a cut artery.
Often, you’ll see no blood. Don’t get discouraged. In the case of a high double-lung hit, a deer may leave no blood trail for 50 yards or more.
At the first clear print, one not distorted by motion or terrain, carve a track stick — a branch laid over the track and notched by knife to record the length and width of your deer’s hoof. This tool may prove critical later in sorting out your deer’s tracks from others.
Follow the trail until you reach your first marker, then stop and assess the situation. Based upon the deer’s reaction to the shot, sign at the point of impact, and sign along the trail up to this point, you’ll have a good idea if you’re “tracking dead” or “hunting wounded.”
If you are convinced you are tracking dead, stay with the trail. Tracking is 95-percent mental. Constantly assess the situation, and ask yourself: Am I still following good blood? How far has the deer traveled? How long have I been on the trail?
In general, I will stay with good blood until I find the animal. Deer hit through both lungs or the heart seldom travel more than 200 yards and are dead long before you leave the stand. With a lacerated artery, a deer will bleed to death, but it could take 30 minutes to an hour. Hit in the leg or other muscle tissue, a deer most likely will keep going and recover unless you can get a second arrow into it.
What is “good blood?” A few years ago, a friend and I were tracking a large buck that was dropping dime-sized beads of blood every 10 to 20 feet, when my friend asked,
“How long can he keep going, bleeding like he is?”
My reply was, “Best guess? Two weeks.” Deer can do a lot of bleeding before they die from blood loss. Good blood to me is a steady flow, punctuated by puddles when the deer stops. You don’t have to look for good blood. You have to avoid getting it all over you.
There are two exceptions to the 30-minute rule. In the event of a paunch hit, don’t even consider taking up the track for at least four hours. Better yet, leave quietly and return the next morning. Paunch-hit deer will not bleed to death quickly but will die from a combination of physiological workings that require hours to complete their task.
The second exception is in the case of a clearly nonfatal shot. If, at arrow’s impact, you hear the clack of steel hitting bone, followed by the deer’s stumbling or falling, you know the arrow hit a leg or other heavy bone. Take up the trail immediately and stay on it to prevent the wound from clotting. Time is your enemy.
If you think you’re hunting wounded, go for help. If no help is available, do anything to kill time and keep from doing what you really want to do — going after your deer. Pursuing a wounded deer is a two-man job. Use topographic maps, aerial photos, and your knowledge of the area to predict your deer’s escape route. Have one hunter silently circle ahead and set up downwind of the deer’s anticipated path, while the tracker takes up the blood trail.
The goal is for the tracker to push the deer to the stander, allowing for a follow-up shot or at least another sighting. The terrain, cover, and data you’ve collected along the trail will dictate how far ahead to circle, but the minimum is 200 yards.
If the deer veers off the predicted course, the tracker calls the stander back to last blood, and they plan the next push. When I’m the tracker, I communicate with bird-like whistles. One long tone indicates that the deer is heading toward the stander; a series of short peeps means the stander should come to me.
COVER AND WATER
When tracking deer, hunters often refer to a “grid pattern,” but that is not tracking, it is searching. Grid patterns are a last resort when all your tracking skills and efforts leave no other alternative. Even when based on a pre-established method, searching relies primarily on hope and luck. And if done incorrectly, it will erase evidence that could lead you to your deer.
When the blood stops, you must stop. Analyze the situation. Theorize — don’t guess — which direction the animal went. Wounded deer want two things, in this order: cover to evade predators, and water to replenish depleted blood. Mortally wounded deer normally do not travel uphill for any distance. More commonly, they will follow paths of lesser resistance. Use your knowledge and any available aids — maps, aerial photos — to identify areas that will provide cover, water, and ease of travel, and then focus your efforts in those areas.
When tracking bloodless, I use what I call the “branch method,” so named because a diagram of your efforts would look like the spreading branches of a tree. Mark last blood and then continue for 100 yards on the path the deer had been following. If you find no sign, return to your marker and start checking each “branch” or side trail that intersects the main path. Repeat this process for every intersecting branch, marking each to avoid duplicating your efforts. Use your track stick to scrutinize any fresh prints. Eventually you will find sign of your deer.
IN THE OPEN
All deer, wounded or not, hesitate to cross openings during daylight hours. Look for blood at the edges of clearings, logging roads, and creeks, where deer will stop before crossing.
Conversely, once a wounded deer crosses an opening, it most likely will bed just beyond the clearing to watch its backtrail. Avoid crossing such openings where the deer will see you. Instead, circle well into the cover and hunt the edge in search of your deer or sign of its passing. Openings and trail obstructions are also prime places to lose a blood trail. Rather than expose themselves to danger or tackle rough terrain, wounded deer often backtrack to avoid these zones.
While tracking, you naturally want to keep looking down — that’s where the sign is — but you also want to keep “eyes front.” If you look nowhere but down, you 1) miss opportunities for follow-up shots; 2) miss the chance to plan an effective push on a deer you see bedded; 3) can get lost, even on familiar ground. As you move silently along, stop every 10 yards to study the cover around you.
Crows, ravens, and coyotes are drawn to wounded game and are vocal about it. When you have tried everything else, follow the sounds of these scavengers. You might not like what you find, but at least you will “know.”
Use the wind. The human nose can detect dead or wounded game. I have also used dogs to assist in the search for deer where legal. Keep the dog on a lead, and work into the wind.
In the end, dying deer will forego protective cover in search of water. Their physiological need to generate blood overcomes their instinctive drive to evade predators. When all else fails, walk the water.
GET OVER IT
If you draw blood, it is your responsibility to pursue — relentlessly — until you have exhausted all options. When, despite your best efforts, you fail to recover a wounded deer, take solace in the knowledge you gained from the experience, and in knowing you have done all you could do. I learn something from every tracking job, whether a 50-yard walk to a dead deer or a three-mile trailing ordeal.
If you are a true hunter, you will feel deep regret at the loss of an animal. It may be that the animal survived its injury — deer are remarkably resilient. Or it could be that your deer fed a pack of coyotes. You’ve done all you can, and you must get past it. At sunrise on day three, I re-turned to the buck’s bed near the old homesite, knowing I was hunting either a deer that would survive, or one torn to pieces by coyotes. If the latter, I still wanted “to know.” Late that afternoon I found where the coyotes had been screaming the night before. The remains of a freshly killed piebald button buck left no doubt. I found no further sign of my deer.
With only a short time left before dark, I walked a stream back to my Jeep, scanning the underbrush in pathetic hope I might still stumble upon my buck. I found no trace, and driving home that night, I considered giving up bowhunting forever.
Early the next morning, a nudge from my wife woke me. “I know you’re still bummed about losing that buck,” she said. “But it’s the last day of bow season, there’s four inches of fresh snow, and our freezer is empty. Get over it.”
I grabbed my bow and headed out. Author’s Notes: I grew up in the rugged hills of southern Ohio. As a teenager in 1977, I bought my first bow and began hunting whitetails throughout Ohio and West Virginia. Perhaps due to the low deer densities in my early years, I developed an attitude toward game recovery that persists to this day. I simply will not give up on a blood trail. Friends and strangers frequently call to ask for my help in locating wounded deer, and I will give up my own hunting time to help others “finish what they started when the arrow left the string.” The author is a resident of Canfield, Ohio. This is his second appearance in the pages of Bowhunter.