October 25, 2023
Last year, I was in a ground blind hunting with a buddy of mine of more than 40 years. Right after sunrise, a mature doe stood 25 yards in front of us.
Before I knew it, his arrow was on its way. The deer did the classic mule kick and sped away into the forest. Although we didn’t hear the deer fall, I felt his arrow hit perfectly and I started to congratulate him. The look on my friend’s face told me a different story… He was clearly upset when I started to unzip and get out of our ground blind. “What are you doing?” he hissed. “We’re going to wait 30 minutes before we start trailing, right?”
I was a bit surprised at this response, because unless I’m not sure where I hit, or know I have a liver or gut-shot animal, I almost always start trailing immediately. And if I don’t find the deer within 100 yards, I will back out.
Surprisingly to me, many of my very experienced hunting buddies always wait 30 minutes. Are you one of these hunters?
Data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources showed the average distance an arrow-hit deer will run after the hit was 74.2 yards. Interestingly, 55% of all recoveries were within 50 yards, and only 11% exceeded 100 yards. Obviously, a lot of factors go into how far a deer travels after a hit: Location of arrow entry/exit, habitat structure, topography, and of course, stress of animal. Some deer will stop bleeding regardless of where they are shot. For example, fatty tissue, organ material, muscle, and skin movement can stop a blood trail quickly.
There are occasions where I thought I made a “perfect” hit, only to find out I was wrong. Anyone who has enough TV-filming experience will tell you that sometimes what you think you saw through your mind’s-eye, isn’t always the case when you go back and look at the footage.
For example, my daughter once shot a buck right through both hindquarters on film. She’s a decent shot, but her arrow accidently hit the edge of her blind’s window — causing the errant shot. Video replay showed she most likely missed the femoral artery, and most watching it felt it was just a muscle hit.
After a difficult, 400-yard tracking job the following morning, we found the buck dead. When we field-dressed her deer, we were all surprised by the in-field autopsy: Her arrow deflected off the buck’s femur, and then went through the abdominal cavity, diaphragm, and one lung.
Remember, we all viewed the tape multiple times and were convinced her shot was a muscle hit. Yet, we were all wrong. We didn’t push that deer, but when we found it the next morning it was obvious that it had died quickly.
Data from John Jeanneney’s classic books, “Tracking Dogs For Finding Deer” and “Dead On,” suggests all bowhunters rethink the conventional wisdom of waiting 30 minutes after the shot. I totally agree, but I’m finding out I may be in the minority when it comes to how long to wait.
You should remember a deer’s heart pumps at least three times faster while running than it does at rest. By pushing the deer, you keep its heart pumping — accelerating blood loss. Additionally, moving deer have a better chance of flushing out any potential clots.
That said, by pushing a deer too soon, there’s always the possibility it will run farther away…but at least you’ll have blood to follow. Each circumstance is different, and your experience should lead you to the right decision.
Some of my hunting areas are in suburban backyards. Thus, a deer could go through several properties before expiring. Still, I’d rather find the deer in someone’s backyard during daylight hours than wait until dark and use my flashlight and disturb the landowner and have them potentially mistake me for someone else.
There’s no way this column will end this argument on waiting versus pushing a deer, but there is some old data from Africa that’s very interesting. The classic paper authored by J.V. Ludbrook and A.J. Tomkinson entitled, “Evaluation of Bow Hunting as a Form of Recreation Hunting in Natal,” compared rifles (.222, .30/06, .375 H&H mag) to compound bows (50, 60, and 80 pounds) and crossbows (100 and 150 pounds).
A total of 96 animals were harvested with rifles, compounds, and crossbows. The researchers shot these critters in the thorax, spine, abdomen, hindquarters, neck muscle, lower leg, and withers/back muscle, with the aforementioned weapons.
To compare the weapon types against one another, the researchers first shot the various critters with archery equipment. Then they used rifles to place their bullets at the same location where the arrow entered and exited the animal. Granted, there are some discrepancies in shot locations for the various animals, but this type of research is literally one of a kind.
On average, the bowkilled animals traveled 92.8 yards, while those shot with firearms went 59.3 yards. Although the South African game went a little farther than whitetails after being shot with a bow, you must remember they live every day with some of the world’s top apex predators, so this really isn’t surprising. But what about the time it took to become immobilized? The researchers found the times between bow and rifle kills were not significantly different on any of the shot locations.
Grouping all the shot locations together among the different critters, arrow-hit animals usually took 20 seconds longer to die than those shot with rifles. If you only look at the thorax (heart and lungs), archery immobilization was 29.7 seconds; 22.3 seconds for firearms. This is one reason why you’ll find most mortally hit deer within 100 yards.
While we recovered my buddies deer quickly, how soon to take up the trail will continue to be debated.
“What’s the best time of day to kill a deer?” is another common question. Although many states/provinces have this data, very few publish the results.
With the help of Roy Grace and P&Y Director of Records Tim Rozewski, data was given to Tristan Swartout, a graduate research assistant at the College of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, Auburn University Deer Laboratory. As you may assume, most P&Y deer were killed during the morning and late-afternoon time periods.
Although the late-afternoon timeframe may seem a little better, there’s no way to determine what percentage of hunters are hunting specific times. For example, 75% of all hunters may only be hunting in the afternoon. Obviously, this would skew the results.
Unlike the P&Y’s numbers, data from my years of hunting notes indicate mornings are better — especially for larger bucks. Either way, it would be interesting to look at the P&Y data set for harvest trends during different periods of the season.
The 30-minute waiting game after the shot will always be a topic of conversation around hunting camps. Bottom line is this: Your shot placement is critical to recovering your deer within 100 yards.