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Recovering Your Trophy: Tracking Deer Blood Trails

Todd Amenrud | Originally published in GameKeepers: Farming for Wildlife Magazine

recovering a buck

Your knees begin to shake, emotions let loose and you reach up to give your cameraman a fist-bump because you just arrowed the biggest buck you have ever seen — let alone killed — and you just got it all on tape! However, your videographer doesn’t seem to be as ecstatic as you, so you review the footage and see that your arrow hit a little high and back. When you get down out of the tree you find your arrow coated in dark, burgundy-red blood with only a few sparse drops on the ground. Now what? This is where tracking deer blood comes into play. 

A good pass-through, double-lung hit or heart shot is what every bowhunter wants. If you achieve it, oftentimes you’ll watch your quarry topple over after a short distance, or at the very least you should have a very easy to follow trail. But what happens when your hit is not immediately fatal? What you do next will have a huge influence over whether or not you recover the animal. After a good double lung hit tracking a deer is usually very easy. After a less-conclusive shot you'll need to master the skill of “blood-trailing” and finely hone your talents of observation and deduction if you hope to recover your reward. 

Follow the Deer Blood Trail with Your Ears

blood on grass
This is why “young eyes” and bringing your kids can be helpful. Oftentimes
all you’ll see is a tiny fleck of blood to keep you on the trail and youthful
eyes can be valuable. Kids love the anticipation — it teaches them where
 their food comes from and they truly are useful. 

After you “drop the string,” watch and listen intently. Make note of the last spot you saw the animal. Pick a landmark so you can identify and pinpoint the exact spot you last saw the animal. Choosing an identifiable landmark is important because once you get down from your treestand or out of your blind, things will likely look much different. Seeing your arrow in flight and where you hit is valuable, but with the fast arrow speeds these days it can be difficult. Lighted arrow nocks and bright-colored fletching will help. I like to fletch my own arrows and will almost always use two white feathers and one brightly colored cock-feather. A white or bright-yellow “arrow dip” can also help. A lighted arrow knock like a Burt Coyote Lumenok will also make the arrow much easier to see in flight…and for that matter, afterwards when trying to recover your arrow. 

Make several reference points to where the animal was standing when you shot and where you last saw it. Watch the reaction and listen carefully as your quarry bolts — if they bolt at all. Pay close attention to sounds that might reveal the direction or heading. Listen after you cannot see the animal any longer — can you hear branches breaking, water splashing or a wire fence squeaking? Sounds can give you further clues as to the direction of travel. Listen for general sounds, but also for specific noises that might lead you to a unique spot. Keep listening for several minutes after the shot. Often you'll hear the animal change direction or crash and kick as it expires. Make reference points to where you heard these last sounds.

Notice Visual Clues

Every now and again you’ll shoot a deer that just stands there as if nothing has happened even though they’ve been skewered with an arrow or lead projectile. With surgically sharp blades on your broadhead, and if you don’t hit a bone, an arrow can slice through a whitetail like "a hot knife through butter" and they may not react at all — until they topple over from blood loss. Consider yourself lucky. If they do bolt, mark the exact spot that the animal was standing when you took the shot. If you can't find “first blood,” use it as a reference point and line it up with the last spot that you saw the animal. This can save loads of time when you're trying to pick up the trail.

Next, try to recover your arrow. If you can locate the arrow, examine it carefully. The color of the blood, hair samples, or the smell on the arrow can often tell you exactly where you hit. Dark-red blood (like our videoed hunter in the opening paragraph) typically means a liver hit. Pink, frothy blood almost always means a lung hit. Bright-red blood may be heart, arteries, or muscle — in this case, the volume of blood you see is a good indication of which. If you suspect a gut shot, you should easily detect a foul smell on the arrow. If the arrow is still in the animal this could lead to other important clues down the trail.

Be Patient…Most of the Time

Unless you saw the animal expire, I suggest leaving it for at least an hour. In fact, unless I'm far from my vehicle or someone else has dropped me off, I purposefully don't bring my camera or field-dressing equipment with me so I have an excuse to return to my vehicle to get it. This helps me avoid the temptation to get on the trail immediately, which usually isn't wise.

Many other places on a whitetail offer lethal hits. It's not humane to try for those shots, but sometimes it happens. With a gut shot, back out and give the animal at least six hours. It's usually a lethal hit, but if you push the animal your odds of recovery decline precipitously. A liver hit, characterized by its dark-red blood, is also lethal, but again, you need to give the animal time — I suggest at least three hours.

If you give the animal that time, more than likely you'll find it dead in its first bed, which should be less than 200 yards from the hit. The blood on a muscle hit often resembles heart or artery blood but there will be much less of it. You'll know if you hit a major artery or vessel. The occasional drop of blood can also resemble a gut shot where fat or intestines can plug the exit hole.

Again, this is NOT a shot we’re ever going to attempt, but a glance off of a branch can happen to the best archer. A hit in a hind-quarter will depend upon precisely where you hit, but all you need is to nick the femoral artery and the animal will likely bleed-out within sight. Otherwise, you’ve created a huge problem and possibly a very long trail. If you expect a hit in the “ham” there are two ways you could go ¬ if the animal can bed comfortably — if you don’t push him, the first bed will likely be close. However, as you can imagine, this could be very uncomfortable and you may see them switch beds often as they try to get comfortable. You MUST follow all trails until you exhaust all possibilities or you’re confident the animal will survive.

When to Act Fast

hunter checking arrow for blood
If you can find your arrow after the shot, it can offer you many clues.
The color of the blood, hair samples, or the smell on the arrow can
often tell you exactly where you hit.

My theory on a muscle hit differs from some. Normally, you would want to let the animal bed down and bleed to death. With a muscle hit, if the animal beds down, chances are the wound will start to heal. With this hit, I suggest hitting the deer blood trail to pursue the animal fairly quickly. Don't let up, be steady and ruthless. Keep pushing until you can either finish off the animal or you know it will survive.

Another exception to the “give the animal time” rule is in cases of inclement weather. If rain or snow is moving in, I'll scratch my usual wait time and take to the trail immediately. Only if I bump the animal out of a bed do I retreat and wait longer. Fresh sign is so much easier to track than that which has been diluted and wet or covered by snow.

Carefully Examine Clues

On tough trails, examine every tiny clue carefully. If a track is not evident, inspect blood splatters for the direction of travel. Remember that blood sign may not only be on the ground, whitetails brush up against many objects like trees, brush, and tall grass while they travel. An extra set of eyes and different perspective can yield huge results when you’ve run through all other options. 

One thing I have learned after being on hundreds of wounded-deer trails — they almost always “head home” after being wounded. If an animal suffers a wound that's not immediately fatal, he'll almost always head toward his primary bedding area. Scouting, trail cameras and knowing the buck you're hunting obviously helps here.

While some tracking help is great and will help immensely, too many people can have the opposite results. Everyone wants to be the first person down the trail, after all — it’s very exciting! But in that rush of scrambling for the front of the pack you’re probably destroying valuable clues. The rule we use is the hunter who made the shot is always first on the trail or gets to choose who goes first. Just like a CSI detective that tells the rookie to get out of the area so they don’t destroy evidence, the same goes for a blood trail. 

Especially on afternoon hunts when you’re tracking at night, you’re often destroying more sign than you can see. Three, maybe four people tops is perfect for tracking deer blood. Go slow! If you get to the point where you’ve lost the sign and you’re going to search a grid pattern, then the more people the better. The more “eyes” you have the better your odds, but if you have sign on a trail more people often extinguishes fresh sign.

Technology has come a long way with the Game Vector Deer Recovery System. This product has a miniature transmitter housed in a small module called the “HideRider” which is attached to the arrow. Upon impact this transmitter is released from the arrow, attaches to the animal and triggers the unit to begin transmitting.

If you're on a difficult-to-follow trail, carry small pieces of ribbon, toilet paper, or something else visible you can use to mark new sign and keep you on line. If you lose the blood trail, lining up those markers and following the same heading will usually put you back on track. It all depends on how easy the trail is to follow — if you can go at a constant walking speed, you can simply have your tracking buddy stand by the last sign. When the sign is harder to come by, marking the trail with ribbon or paper can be very helpful.

If you're on an afternoon hunt and dark is approaching, you'll have to be the judge of how good your hit was. Unless you're confident in a lethal hit, it's almost always a good idea to back out and come back at sunup, especially if you're on a tough trail. 

Outsmarting Clever Deer

I'm confident that a whitetail, especially a mature buck, knows when it's being pursued and trailed. I've seen them accomplish some amazing feats that I swear were done specifically to throw me off of the trail — like walking down a creek or through extended areas of water, backtracking down the same trail and then heading off 90 degrees, circling multiple times in a small area, or laying tight to the ground and waiting for me to pass by.

Technology is truly amazing. What if you could electronically track your quarry after the shot? Enter the Game Vector Deer Recovery System. This product consists of a miniature transmitter housed in a small, aerodynamic module called the “HideRider” which is attached to the arrow. Upon impact the “Hide Rider transmitter” is released from the arrow, attaches to the animal and triggers the unit to begin transmitting. The hunter then uses the compact receiver to hone in on and recover the downed game. It can be used with any arrow design or any type of traditional or expandable style broadhead and can transmit for a distance of up to two miles. 

The Bottom Line

When you're on the trail of a wounded animal, remain unrelenting and open-minded. Kids have amazing eyes — bring them along, besides being able to see what I often cannot, they bring a different perspective and it also teaches them the facts of life and where our food comes from! If the trail doesn't lead you to the animal, you can always search a grid pattern in a last-ditch attempt to find it. Persistence and effort will lead you to just as many downed animals as a deer blood trail will.

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