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Needle in a Haystack

Keys to Recovering Your Trophy

By Todd Amenrud


Here he comes — flaunting a set of antlers so big it looks like a rocking chair atop his head. Your legs shake and your heart is pounding so hard you wonder if he can hear it. You can’t look at the antlers because that just makes the nervous excitement worse. Your dream buck is closing the distance fast! He's about to cross one of your shooting windows — antlers, head, neck, shoulder … pick a spot. Release! Where did you hit? Did your arrow pass through? Now what?

A good pass-through hit in the vitals is what every bowhunter wants. If you achieve it, oftentimes you can witness your quarry topple over after a short distance or at the very least you’ll have a very easy to follow trail. But what happens when your hit is not immediately fatal? How you act and 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. 

After you “drop the string,” watch and listen intently. Seeing your arrow in flight and where you hit is valuable. With the fast arrow speeds these days it can make that difficult. Lighted arrow nocks and bright-colored fletchings tend to 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.

Make several reference points to where the animal was standing when you shot and where you last saw the animal. 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 for general sounds, but also for specific noises like water splashing, dry leaves crunching, branches snapping, or rocks clinking that might lead you to a unique spot. Keep listening for several minutes after the shot. Often you'll hear the animal change direction, crash or kick as it expires. Make reference points to where you heard the last sounds.

Every now and again you’ll shoot a deer that just stands there as if nothing has happened even though they’ve been shot. With surgically sharp broadheads and if you don’t hit a bone an arrow can slice through your target like a hot knife through butter and they may not react at all – until they topple over from blood loss. 

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 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 it is. If you suspect a gut shot, you'll easily detect a fowl smell on the arrow. If the arrow is still in the animal this could lead to other important clues down the trail.

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 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's anatomy 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 6 hours. It's 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 3 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.

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 trail to pursue the animal right away. 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. 

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. Think like a CSI (Crime Scene Investigator).

One thing I have learned after being on hundreds of wounded-deer trails in my day - 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 on the trail, make sure to scan the area in front of you with binoculars. Enlisting a tracking buddy is a great help. The first person on the trail should be scanning the ground in front of them often. There are several good brands and models of optics to choose from, but I like my Nikon Travelite V binos. They provide the separation necessary to spot meticulous detail without being too cumbersome. 

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, they same goes for a blood trail. Especially on afternoon hits that you’re tracking at night, you’re often destroying more sign than you’re seeing. Three, maybe four people tops is perfect for a blood trail. Go slow! If you get to the point where you’ve lost the deer and you’re going to search a grid pattern, then the more people the better. the more “eyes” you have the better your odds. 

If you're on a difficult-to-follow trail, carry small pieces of ribbon, toilet paper, or something else 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 helpful. 

If you're on an afternoon hunt and dark is approaching, you'll have to be the judge of how good of a hit you made. 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. 

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.

When you're on the trail of a wounded animal, remain unrelenting and open-minded. 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 blood trail will. 

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