Q: As a novice bowhunter, I was asked by a nonhunter whether tracking a hit deer in the dark is wise, or even possible. Got any tips for nighttime blood-trailing? Russ Wilson, via e-mail
A: Yes, nighttime blood-trailing is possible, and I don’t really consider it much of a disadvantage. In some cases, it’s a necessity. If you hunt in coyote country, you may not have the luxury of leaving the trailing work until the next morning. I’ve seen coyotes get on a dead deer in less than an hour, so you could end up with only a spine and a head. Learning to follow blood at night is a necessary skill. In fact, I don’t mind trailing at night, because the blood glistens in the light of your flashlight or headlamp and is often more visible than it is the next morning after it dries.
For gear, you’ll want a quality headlamp and extra batteries in your pack, but you’ll also benefit by using a handheld flashlight with a strong beam that you can cast through the woods, looking ahead for a white belly or antler tines. One or two buddies can also help, but don’t bring an army of helpers, as they will only trample your blood sign.
Let’s skip through the process of evaluating the shot and deciding how long to wait, and get right to the trailing part. Hopefully, you have marked the exact spot where the animal was standing when shot. Using a lighted nock can also help you locate the spot, and your arrow. Unless you have a definitive spot to skip ahead to, such as a creek crossing where you know exactly where the animal crossed, it’s best to start at the beginning, stick with the blood, and not skip ahead.
I like to use my spent arrow with a lit Lumenok to mark “last blood.” Have your partner stay at last blood, then catch up as you find each speck of blood. Notice the character of the tracks, just in case you lose blood for a distance. Wandering around for hours with your head down in the dark can leave you disoriented. If you have HuntStand or onX on your phone, start a trail so you can keep track of where you are, and especially of property lines. Occasionally scan ahead with your flashlight, looking for a prone body or a pair of eyes looking at you, and note landmarks to keep you oriented.
If you’re in the woods and blood is getting sparse, look ahead for gaps, trails, or thick vegetation like cornstalks or ferns that can capture blood. With last blood marked, check those openings one by one for blood or a familiar track. If you find nothing in the first 10 or 15 feet or so, move to the next gap. Turn over leaves on brush, examine tree trunks or fallen logs, until you locate the next blood. If you find nothing, return to last blood and get down on your hands and knees to see if the animal turned sharply, which is somewhat rare. The tiniest speck will get you going in the right direction.
If the blood runs out, your night blood-trailing is probably over. Grid-searching in the dark, especially in thick brush, is difficult, so you may have no choice but to wait until morning. Leave your arrow at last blood and mark your trail digitally or otherwise, so you can find your way back.
Obviously, making a good shot is Job One. If you have to trail a deer for more than 100 yards, your shot could have been better. But don’t let darkness dissuade you from taking up the trail. Make sure you have good lights and good friends, and then get after it.