The two key factors to recovering every arrow-shot deer are patience and practiced blood-trailing skills. Generally speaking, the more patient you are, the longer you wait before taking up the trail, and the more persistent you are, even to the point of getting down on your hands and knees and studying sign, the more successful you will be.
During my 25 years of hunting exclusively with a bow, I have shot about 250 deer. Notice, I said shot. In my early years of bowhunting, I failed to recover some animals because I began tracking too soon after the shot and had no blood-trailing knowledge. However, I did learn a lot about the recovery of animals during those first few years and have continued learning for a quarter century, and now I virtually never lose a deer.
All blood trails are different, of course, but general principles apply to the recovery of all game animals. From the experience I've gained in recovering my own animals and from helping other hunters trail and recover many deer, I have developed "A Bowhunter's Guide to Blood-Trailing Deer," a concise, easy-to-read reference chart you can carry in the woods with you. If you apply the principles in the chart on the next two pages, you won't be hanging your head at the end of a blood trail. You will be celebrating.
General Deer-Tracking Comments
Use all of your senses. At the moment you shoot, watch and listen carefully to gather all clues. While tracking, look, listen, smell, and feel. Do not wander aimlessly, looking for the deer. Stick with the blood trail. The pointed edges of blood drops point in the direction of the deer's travel.
In addition to looking for blood, look for tracks, broken limbs, and disturbed leaves and soil. Imbed the size, shape, and stride length of a wounded animal's tracks in your mind so you recognize those distinct tracks immediately. Also, look for concentrations of insects and spiders. Ants, flies, daddy longlegs, and other little creatures rapidly find and feed on the blood and stomach contents along a blood trail. They will find sign you would otherwise never see.
If you must wait several hours to track a deer -- as with a paunch hit -- look and listen for buzzards, ravens, crows, and jays that may have found your deer before you do. Listen for coyotes that sometimes call others when they find a ready-to-eat deer. Look for a large mound of leaves and dirt where predators or scavengers may have fed on and buried your deer. As you're tracking, listen for the crashing sounds of a jumped deer, and listen for the sounds of labored breathing or struggling movements.
Smell your arrow to determine if it has passed through the stomach or intestines, and smell for stomach contents on the ground to assist in determining a gut-shot deer's direction of travel. Many deer, particularly during the rut, have a strong musky smell, and a well-trained human nose can detect this smell for many yards on a steady, mild breeze. Occasionally, feel the blood while tracking to determine if clotting has begun. Also, the thickness of blood can indicate where the deer was hit. Use a dog where legal to assist in finding the deer.
Above all, be persistent. Dogged determination may be your most valuable tool in recovering any arrow-shot animal.
Sound of Hit: Thump sound like a wooden bat lightly hitting a green tree, occasionally with slight gurgling sound.
Deer Reaction: Mad dash "death run" with the body low to the ground and little concern for obstacles. Occasionally, deer kick up back legs at moment of impact. Tail is tucked when running.
Arrow Appearance: Bright pinkish-red blood with small bubbles from broadhead to fletching. Coarse brown hair with black tips may be on the arrow.
Blood Trail: Little blood for 30-40 yards, then abundant bright pinkish-red blood with bubbles. However, some deer may bleed internally and leave little blood on the trail. Travel distance typically less than 150 yards.
Waiting Time (unless you see deer fall): 1 Hour
Sound of Hit: Thump sound like a wooden bat lightly hitting a green tree, occasionally with slight gushing sound.
Deer Reaction: Mad dash "death run" with the body low to the ground and little concern for obstacles. Often, deer kick up back legs at moment of impact. Tail is tucked when running.
Arrow Appearance: Bright pinkish-red blood from broadhead to fletching. Long brown to gray hair with may be on the arrow.
Blood Trail: Little blood for 30-40 yards, then abundant bright pinkish-red blood. Travel distance typically less than 150 yards.
Waiting Time (unless you see deer fall): 1 Hour
Sound of Hit: Thump sound like a wooden bat lightly hitting a green tree.
Deer Reaction: Deer trots off a short distance, then walks away slowly, stopping occasionally, sometimes with back hunched and sometimes twitching tail.
Arrow Appearance: Thick, dark-red blood. Medium length brownish-gray hair may be on the arrow.
Blood Trail: Thick, dark-red blood may not be overly abundant. May travel less than 200 yards if not pushed and may head toward a water source.
Waiting Time (unless you see deer fall): 4 Hours
Paunch (Stomach) Shot
Sound of Hit: Hollow thump sound like a wooden bat hitting a dry, hollow log.
Deer Reaction: Trots off with hunched back and then slows to a teady, slow pace. Sometimes rapidly twitches tail.
Arrow Appearance: Brown watery appearance with little blood. Arrow smells of stomach contents. With high hit, medium-length, brownish-gray hair on arrow. With mid-level hit, lighter brown hair on arrow. With low hit, white hair on arrow.
Blood Trail: Small amounts of watery blood with brown stomach contents. Distinctive smell of stomach contents. Deer may travel a few hundred yards before bedding and may travel toward a nearby water source.Waiting Time (unless you see deer fall): 12 Hours
Haunch (hindquarter and neck) Shot
Sound of Hit: Slight thud, sometimes with a ripping sound as skin and flesh cut.
Deer Reaction: Deer runs off at a medium speed with no unusual movements.
Arrow Appearance: Red, watery blood unless artery is cut, then abundant bright-red blood. Pieces of meat may be on arrow passing through muscle or flesh. Fat or tallow may also be on arrow passing through rump or back. Recovery unlikely unless broadhead severs artery or other major blood vessel.
Blood Trail: Muscle wound leaves a moderate amount of red, watery blood. Blood gets jelly-like if clotting begins. After clotting begins, blood trail may disappear and recovery will be difficult. Severed artery leaves abundant amounts of bright-red blood, often in a spray pattern. Deer will travel less than 125 yards if an artery is severed.
Waiting Time (unless you see deer fall): For muscle wound, follow almost immediately to keep blood pumping. For severed artery, wait 1 hour.
Sound of Hit: Muffled cracking sound.
Deer Reaction: Typically falls immediately and is partially paralyzed, trying to escape using front legs.
Arrow Appearance: Penetration minimal. Arrow usually remains in deer.
Blood Trail: None
Waiting Time (unless you see deer fall): None. Shoot follow-up shot immediately.
Sound of Hit: Loud cracking sound like breaking a handful of dry sticks.
Deer Reaction: Falls immediately but often will regain consciousness and run.
Arrow Appearance: Very little blood.
Blood Trail: Minimal red blood in drops if deer manages to run off.
Waiting Time: None. Shoot follow-up shot immediately.
Sound of Hit: Loud cracking sound like breaking a dry stick.
Deer Reaction: Quickly runs off, limping on wounded leg.
Arrow Appearance: Very little red blood.
Blood Trail: Small amounts of bright-red blood in drops.
Waiting Time: None. Follow immediately. Recovery will be difficult and probably unlikely.