Happy Trails: How to Use Alternative Game Recovery Tactics

Happy Trails: How to Use Alternative Game Recovery Tactics
This might seem contradictory, but the dark can be a major trailing aid. If you make a good hit, as I have on this buck, don't hesitate to take up the trail after dark.

Bowhunter regularly runs stories on game recovery, all of which offer good advice. Because these stories offer proven advice regarding shot placement, follow-up, blood trailing, and tracking, I won't replow that ground here. But I will offer a few less-common ideas that have led me to hard-to-find animals over the years, and resulted in a number of happy trails.

Use Your Eyes

A few years ago, an elk I shot just before sundown ran a short way and lay down. Stupidly, I'd forgot my binoculars, and I could not clearly read the elk's body language in the fading light. Thinking he was dead, I slowly crept closer until, when I got within 20 yards, he suddenly jumped up and galloped into the darkening woods.

I ended up recovering that bull the next morning, but it took a long, tiring trailing job, and a lot of anxiety. With binoculars the night before, I could have seen he was still alive, backed off to let him die right there, and recovered him with little effort and anxiety.

Always carry binoculars for game recovery. They may be most valuable in dusky light, but that's only a fraction of their worth. Right after the shot, use them to follow a wounded animal and, most important, to see precisely where the arrow hit or exited, details you won't see with the naked eye. In open terrain, sit on one hillside and pick apart the opposite side with your eyes. You'll see more than you would on foot, and save yourself a lot of energy. As you follow a blood trail, study the brush and terrain ahead with your binoculars to make out an antler tine, white belly, or hoof in the grass — again, details you might never see with the naked eye.

Use Your Nose

When an elk I'd shot got into some tangled blowdowns, I lost the trail. Stymied, I marked last blood and, with the evening thermals drifting steadily downhill, walked slowly below the trail. After 200 yards, I caught a whiff of elk and, following my nose into the wind, found a smear of blood on a log. Back on the trail, I soon found the bull.

Deer, elk, moose — all big game — have a distinct smell that can reveal their whereabouts. Any time you have a steady breeze, you potentially could follow your nose to your trophy.

Use Your Ears

Wounded animals make many revealing sounds. Immediately after the shot, stay motionless for several minutes and listen intently. You might hear the animal go down, or get a solid bearing on its travel route. And as you're trailing, use your ears as much as your eyes. The sound of a twig breaking, an antler whacking a branch, or a sigh or cough could tell you where an animal has walked or bedded. Your ears often can tell you as much about an animal as your eyes can. Use them.

Measure Stride

An elk I shot quit bleeding as he walked along an old skid trail. With no blood to follow, I measured his stride length at 28 inches and used one of my 28-inch arrows to gauge where the next track would fall. Able to stay on his track for several hundred yards, I eventually found a spot of blood to confirm that this was the right track.

In that case my arrow made a perfect stride stick, but you can cut a branch to match the exact stride of any animal. With stick in hand, lay one end of the stick in a clearly defined track, and then sweep the other end slowly in an arc to predict where the next track will fall. Even if you cannot see a track, you can estimate its location. Measure again from this spot to the next hoof mark, and continue projecting where the hooves would hit until you see an obvious track — or blood. (This idea is not original with me. I got it from Larry D. Jones, who got it from books by Tom Brown. Whatever the case, it works.)


After a friend and I lost the blood trail of his deer, I noticed some kicked-up pine needles. To look closer, I began crawling and inspecting individual needles, and after 10 minutes I spied one pin drop of blood. Back on the trail, we eventually recovered the animal. Without crawling, I would never have seen that blood.

The same could be said for many other signs. When an animal with blood on its fur pushes through the brush and grass, the blood wipes off on the undersides of leaves and branches. You must crawl to see these subtle signs under the vegetation.

And you must crawl to see animals under the vegetation. When my companion shot a buck in Alabama, we lost the trail within 100 yards. Crawling along, looking for blood, I peered under low-hanging vines and saw an antler tine back in the tangle. The buck was dead. Standing, I would never have seen that deer.

Use Your GPS

Nothing could be worse than losing a trail. To prevent that, mark the starting point on your GPS so you never lose that spot. Then set the GPS on tracking mode to get a clear picture of the trail as you move along.

If you eventually lose the trail, use the GPS to establish a systematic grid pattern, and if you resort to random searching, check your GPS for gaps in your search where you might have overlooked the animal. Plastic tape or toilet paper work okay to mark a trail, but a GPS is more precise and revealing.

Use the Dark

As editor of Bowhunter for 15 years, I reviewed dozens of stories in which writers told of shooting deer in the evening, and then backing off and returning the next morning to retrieve the deer. If you know — or think — a deer is gut shot, that's the only acceptable response.

But if you're sure of a good hit, why wait? In fact, for a couple of reasons, I think you should take up the trail that night. For one, in about half of those stories mentioned, coyotes or other predators had mangled the deer by morning, or the deer had spoiled from heat.

For another, night is an excellent time to trail. In the beam of a bright headlamp or spotlight, blood virtually springs into view. And surrounded by dark, you're forced to focus on the trail, crawl, and micro-inspect — all elements of happy trails.

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