Tracking A Wounded Deer

By Chris Larsen

No matter how hard we try to make responsible and ethical shots, there are times when blood trailing a deer is necessary.  I have successfully tracked several deer.  Some shot by me, some by friends.  Unfortunately, I’ve also been a part of a few fruitless deer tracking expeditions.  Some shot by me, some by friends.  

Finding a deer at the end of a blood trail is one of the most exciting moments a hunter will experience.  Ending the search without finding a deer is one of the most agonizing.  No one is in the woods trying to wound a deer.  Our goal is, and always should be, to kill a deer as quickly and humanely as possible.  There are too many variables to have 100% certainty that your shot will be perfect.  I use the reasonable doubt rule.  If I have any doubts, I don’t pull the trigger.  It’s a good rule for archers and firearms hunters.

Once the shot is taken, the recovery process begins.  The first step is watching the deer.   Where was the deer when you shot it?  What direction did it go in after it was hit?  Do you know where on the body you hit it?  Visually mark where the deer was when you shot it and then make a mental note of the direction it went in.  Knowing where you hit the deer is often more difficult to recall, especially for novice hunters.  I’ve had hunters say they hit a deer perfectly only to recover a gut shot deer.  

A gut shot deer often hunches up when hit.  Think of how you would react to being hit very hard in the stomach.  A deer hit in the vitals will often “mule kick” as the shot passes through.  The mule kick is a good indication but I’ve hit a lot of deer in the vitals that haven’t kicked.  Over the past three seasons, I have filmed all of my hunts.  This gives me a good look at not just my shots, but how deer react to them.  One thing is constant in every deer I’ve hit while filming, when they run away their tail is down.  If the tail is up, there is a good chance you missed.  I would still look for blood.  But if a deer runs away with it’s tail up and you can’t find any blood, you can rest easy. 

Getting good confirmation of shot placement is a big reason I use lighted nocks when archery hunting.  Obviously, if they’re not legal, don’t use them.  Some hunters avoid them because the Pope & Young Club won’t recognize a trophy killed with an arrow with lighted nocks.  Knowing where my arrow hits a deer or confirming a miss is much more important than being in a record book to me.  But everyone has to make that decision for themselves.  

The second thing you should do is nothing.  Sit back, take a deep breathe and relax for a moment.  If you know your shot was good, congratulate yourself.  Quietly gather your gear but take your time.  Even if I see a deer hit the ground, I generally give it 30 minutes to expire.  It’s probably dead 15 seconds after it drops, but there is no reason to push it.  If I feel really good about the shot but don’t see the deer fall, I’ll wait an hour or two.  A deer will usually bed within 100 yards of where it was shot.  If you let the deer expire there, you won’t have to track it very far.  

If the deer was hit poorly, wait six to eight hours before trailing.  With today’s modern ammunition and wide cutting broadheads, even paunch shot deer will generally expire within eight hours.  The pressure you put on a wounded deer will determine whether the deer dies near your stand or a mile or two away.  It’s much easier to track them when they die within a hundred yards.  

Archery hunters generally have an excellent source of information.  The bloody arrow tells the story.  Bright red blood is a good indication of a shot to the lungs and possibly the heart.  Brown, smelly blood is the tell-tale sign of a gut shot deer.  If you’re a gun hunter, put some blood between your fingers and rub them together.  If it has a grainy texture, there is a good chance the deer was gut shot.  A rotten smell is another good indication.  

Once you’ve started trailing, look at the way the blood hits the ground.  If there is blood on both sides of the trail, you’ve hit the deer well.  Stay on the trail but keep looking forward.  A follow up shot may be required.  Act as if you’re hunting.  Look for deer as you move.  If the deer gets up, you’ll be ready.  If you spot the deer laying dead in the woods, your tracking job is over.  

What happens if you don’t spot the deer?  If I haven’t found the deer within 100 yards of the shot, it’s time to pull out.  Mark the last place you found blood with trail marking tape or something else that will be easy to find.  Allow the deer time to lay down and expire.  When returning to track, go to the last blood and start tracking from there.  If the blood trail ends, start walking in concentric circles(in a bullseye pattern) around the last place you found blood.  At this point it becomes helpful to have others assist in the tracking.  Your circle may get as wide as a hundred yards before blood is spotted again.  I’ve seen deer found two hundred yards from where the last blood was found.  

When should you give up?  This is an ethical dilemma every hunter has to decide for themselves.  I know of hunters who have searched for days and even voluntarily ended their season after coming up empty on a tracking job.  My best advice is to do everything you can.  Sometimes a wounded deer will run onto a piece of property that you’re not allowed to access.  Most property owners will allow a hunter to pursue a deer on their land.  But some will not.  At that point, your tracking efforts may come to an end.  Perhaps you can gain access to a neighboring property and walk the perimeter looking for blood.  Maybe the deer passed through the property you couldn’t access.  If you can walk away knowing you did everything in your power to recover the animal, that is all anyone, including yourself, can ask.  It is a difficult decision but one many hunters face.