Tracking Deer after the Shot
Recently, my editor asked me, after he heard from readers, to write an article on recovering deer after the shot. What a good idea, I thought. I must say it all starts with selecting your equipment, selecting the shot, following through during the shot, observing the shot, and paying attention to the details after the shot. All this takes place before you even start the actual tracking.
Ask any veteran hunter the most important factor in tracking a deer or any other animal after the shot and I expect theyŐll tell you the same thing. Start by making a good shot. TheyŐll also tell you that eventually you will have to deal with a bad shot. Add up all the above-mentioned factors to be more successful in the recovery your deer. Be certain to have tracking equipment with you or at the truck. Two of the most important to me are markers like flagging tape/toilet paper and good flashlights.
The best method of tracking a shot deer is proper shot placement. ItŐs the humane, ethical, much easier and itŐs just frankly the right thing to do. Pick ammunition and broadheads that are proven to do the job and has sufficient energy to get the job done.
Your arrow and broadhead set up should have at least six grains per inch of arrow. Understand your capabilities. DonŐt take a shot that you have never practiced. For example if you only practice at 20 yards standing up, then do not take a 40 yard shot while sitting down. ItŐs just common sense. If you are not confident in the shot you are about to take then donŐt squeeze the trigger or release an arrow.
Just a few years ago if you asked me how far away would I shoot at a deer with my muzzleloader I would have told you not over 100 yards and thatŐs only if I knew the distance within 20 yards. Just over a decade ago I would have said 50 yards. Now I feel confident at 200 yards.
I took a mature doe at 196 yards a few years back. I knew the ballisticsŐ of my Barnes TMZ bullet and the Blackhorn 209 powder and had sighted in the gun with many practice shots out to 250 yards. The conditions were perfect. I ranged the deer, had a solid rest and the air was not moving. The doe went 10 yards and was down. My point is that shot is not for everyone, but I knew what I needed to and executed it.
Archery hunting with bow or crossbow offers a huge benefit in that often you can see where the arrow hit the deer. Use brightly colored fletching and nock or better yet, a lighted nock. Another huge benefit is that the arrow will hold evidence of where the arrow passed or didnŐt pass through.
After the shot; time is on your side. First watch how the deer leaves after the shot. A deer running at full out speed is most likely hit in the vitals and will only run a short distance before falling. A deer that doesnŐt really move after the shot obviously could be a clean miss or shot in a non-vital area.
I have seen deer hit in the vital area and act like they were not hit at all, but this is rare. Another good sign of a vital hit is the deerŐs tail. If the tail is tucked and the deer running low and fast itŐs most likely a good hit. It the tail is normal or up or the deer is loping along or hunched up in back, more than likely itŐs not a good shot to the vitals.
Take mental notes of landmarks in the path that the deer ran and a landmark of where you last saw the deer. If a bad shot is made, this can be crucial in the recovery efforts. As you watch the deer you also need to listen very closely to any sounds made. Did the deer stop? Did you hear it fall? Did you hear water splashing? All these noises heard will help the put the puzzle together during tracking.
Now for the wait. This can be tough. DonŐt go after the deer immediately. Instead mentally replay the shot, keep looking at the path the deer took, especially if youŐre in a tree stand. Once on the ground the picture will look very different and you will need to rely on those mental notes to find the area the deer was standing and the path it took. Most deer will run back to where it was coming from. It knew that was a safe area because it just walked through there.
Once you make it over to the where the deer was standing when you shot, start looking for sign. If you shot an arrow, try to find it. Look at the blood on it. Is it dark, thick blood or lighter collared with air in it. Are there bone fragments? Is there intestine or stomach matter in it? Does the arrow or leaves have a bad smell to it? If it appears you have a gut shot deer, then see if there is a blood trail. If a really good blood trail exists, then track slowly and cautiously only a short distance then stop and evaluate if you should continue tracking. Often a deer wonŐt bleed a lot at the shot spot. Many times it may run 15 to 30 yards before you see good blood sign.
Sometimes a gut shot sign indicates that the arrow or bullet entered or exited the gut area. If the deer was standing broadside to you chances are you did completely pass through the gut. However if the deer was standing quartering away you may have hit vitals as well. The hole on one side may get plugged up with gut matter and could make the tracking job harder with less blood. If you determine that the deer was completely gut shot, then back out and wait six to 12 hours before picking the trail up again. The deer will likely bed down a short distance from the shot.
If there is a good amount of blood thatŐs easy to see, follow it while occasionally looking up the trail ahead just in case the deer jumps up. ItŐs also important to note that a deer that was nervous prior to the shot will typically run farther than a deer that was relaxed. Often the relaxed deer will only run a short distance before stopping to observe the surrounding area before walking again. ItŐs really important to find this spot if you havenŐt recovered the deer at this point. This is often the spot that the deer will walk a familiar traveled area. If there is a creek, fence, or gully crossing nearby most likely the deer has turned to that direction. The blood will be either really good or barely any right there.
If you have someone tracking with you make certain one person is taking point and another is marking the trail. There will be points, especially if the deer turns that you lose blood and have to go back to the last marked spot. You should always keep a visual of your back trail and have an overall idea on how the deer is moving. Is it walking a straight line or making a lot of turns? If a deer has made several direction changes to the left then chances are it will make another unless it keep makings those turns to avoid something like a field, road, pond, etc. IF you know where the deer you shot was bedding chances are itŐs eventually going to try and make it back to that area where it feels the safest. Make certain to look at the growing vegetation for blood as well.
If you still canŐt find the trail again move ahead in the direction you think the deer went and look at obvious spots for blood. DonŐt go too far ahead. If you havenŐt found blood in the first 15 -25 yards back up to the last spot and try a different direction. Hopefully youŐll pick the blood back up. If you still canŐt find blood, now is the time to worry and put a new plan together.
Plan B is to start looking for the deer from place of last blood. That buddy that you helped last year needs to be called to duty or someone that you know that is a good tracker, especially if you do not have much experience with tracking.
As I noted earlier, often deer will end up making a shot back to the area that they were originally shot if that was in the core area in which they normally stay. A buck on the roam looking for does however may not or may head back to his core area. So I typically first walk 75 to 100 yards to one side of the last spot. Then I turn a quarter turn and walk to where I can still see the edge of the area I just walked through and then parallel the 75-100 yards and then do the same thing until you have covered a square area. Then I take the next square 75-100 block and do that again. ItŐs a grid pattern and everyone helping you track should stay within sight of each other.
When passing lap piles/fallen trees, creeks, gulleys, or small thickets, I walk over to them and inspect them closer. If you donŐt have success in finding the deer, do the same thing in the direction of where you shot the deer. Keep an eye on landmarks when doing this as well as the ground for more blood sign or fresh hoof tracks or areas that the deer may have stumbled. Deer die with their eyes open so often the eyes will reflect the light when you shine it. Make certain to investigate any reflection or anything that looks white. The white belly of the deer will stand out most. Binoculars are also a good tool to have for stopping and scanning an area for the downed deer.
Hopefully following these tips will lead you to your deer. It can be a quick short tracking job or be an all night tracking job. I know I didnŐt cover every situation. It would take half this magazine but these basics should help you recover the deer, which is the ultimate goal. Take each tracking job as an opportunity to learn how to track. Even when I see or hear the deer go down. I always evaluate the trail and where the shot hit so that I can learn more and interpret the sign.
Edwards key points
1. Only hunt with equipment that has the proper energy and accuracy
2. Practice and understand the capabilities of your equipment and you
3. Select good shot placement. Study atomy charts and donŐt take risky shots
4. Pick a small spot on the deer to shoot at. ŇAim small – Hit smallÓ
5. Watch where the shot hits. Even with a gun you can sometimes see where the bullet entered as the deer is running
6. Visually mark landmarks like rocks, trees, and stumps where the deer was standing when you shot, the path the deer took and the last place you saw it.
7. Wait a minimum of 30 minutes after the shot unless itŐs just too hot to do so
8. Evaluate the blood, hair, and direction of travel
9. Flag areas as you track. A little flagging tape, toilet paper, rocks, sticks laid in an arrow pattern or scrape the leaves away
10. Go slow. Really take your time or you can lose the trail quickly and get frustrated
11. If you lose the blood, get more help and sign start circling the area.
12. Deer will often make a circle back to the area they got shot or came from
13. Deer will often seek a water source in the area when shot
14. Deer will go uphill or downhill after shot but mostly will travel the terrain as they normally do