The gun blast coming from the direction of my buddy's blind startled me. It was barely daylight and already he'd shot. A few minutes later, he called me on my cell and told me he had a good blood trail to follow.
Oh no, I thought to myself. He didn't wait.
As a former criminologist, I knew that rushing to follow a blood trail can have dire consequences, regardless of whether you're following a criminal suspect or a wounded whitetail.
Brad Harris, a renowned hunter and co-owner of Southern Cross Ranches, agrees.
"Hunters get impatient and overlook key pieces of evidence," Harris said. "They want to go from shot to whitetail recovery without taking the steps in between."
To find a wounded deer, hunters need to think and act like a crime scene investigator.
There's a lot of similarity between what forensic analysts do and finding a wounded deer. For one, whether it's a crime scene or a deer's blood trail, every situation is unique.
"I never say, 'A deer wouldn't do [this],'" added Harris. "Every animal is going to react differently."
Both also require patience, persistence and the development of a plan. The plan involves gathering as much evidence as possible and not overlooking a single broken twig, blood droplet or track.
Expert trackers like Harris know finding a wounded deer is like solving a puzzle -- take your time, put every piece of evidence together and use common sense.
Finally, investigators and serious hunters trail until they have explored every possibility.
"If you're responsible enough to take that shot, you need to be responsible enough to really, really go after that animal," said Tammy Koenig, of Leading Ladies Outdoors.
Let's delve into how hunters can use CSI strategies to find what could be the buck of a lifetime.
FIRST, DO NOTHING
After you've arrowed a deer, the first thing to do is nothing.
"Let your adrenaline come down, take a few deep breaths and think about how the deer reacted," advised Jerry Allen, expert tracker and owner of a blood detection supply company Blood Glow.
The deer's reaction at impact is an important clue about how badly it was wounded. Not all deer act the same when hit in a particular area, but based on experience, Allen, Harris and Koenig have found some consistencies:
- A wounded deer often keeps its tail down when running off.
- A deer that sustained a mortal hit in the front of its body often kicks its hind legs at impact.
- A deer hit farther back often hunches up at impact.
Recreate the shot in your mind, recalling its angle, approximately where the arrow or bullet hit and anything else you can remember. Carry a notebook and take careful notes while waiting to give the animal time to expire. This helps you calm down and construct a tracking plan.
Note any landmarks near the last place you saw the deer. Koenig recommends taking a compass reading of the direction it traveled.
Hunters often wonder how long to wait before tracking. Again, there are no steadfast rules, but Harris recommends waiting at least an hour before trailing a mortally hit deer. If the deer was gut shot, wait at least six or eight hours.
"Remember that a deer will often look back as it runs off," Allen added. "If it sees you getting out of your blind, you've pressured that deer to hide and turned a 40-yard tracking job into a 400-yard track."
If hunting from an elevated stand, use a ribbon or tracking tape to mark where the shot began. This helps determine the shot's trajectory, which can aid in figuring out where the deer was hit.
SCENE OF THE CRIME
After getting out of your blind, re-create the shot by walking in the direction the arrow or bullet traveled, which can help you remember a key piece of information you may have overlooked and sets the stage for solving the puzzle methodically and patiently. Don't forget to carry your notebook and record any clues you find.
"The first thing I tell my students is that you have to find the clues that will bring clues," said forensic analyst Mike Himmel. "The scene of the crime will bring you the information if you learn how to look at it and collect it."
All evidence is best viewed as pieces to a puzzle. No single piece gives you definite answers, but rather clues that need to be deciphered.
After arriving at the "scene of the crime," mark where the deer was standing at impact.
If you're bowhunting and you find the arrow, don't immediately pick it up.
"The angle of the shot and how the arrow landed can help you figure out where you hit the deer," explained Allen.
Without touching it, examine the arrow and area of impact for blood and hair. Blood color gives you an indication of where the deer was hit. For example, dark, brownish-colored blood points to a gut or liver shot, while bright blood indicates a main artery or heart shot.
Deer vary in color regionally, so hair color shouldn't be considered definitive evidence.
"One thing I do is try to assume the role of the perpetrator that's been shot by getting down low and seeing things from their perspective," said world-renowned forensic analyst Tom Bevel.
Hunters can do the same by getting on their hands and knees and looking at the direction the deer traveled upon exit. Doing this may uncover a small tuft of hair, broken limb or spot of blood easily overlooked.
Examine the area with all your senses. Touching the blood may reveal a grainy texture, indicating there's intestine or stomach contents in it. Smell the blood -- blood from the intestines has a distinct rancid odor.
Harris has found that gathering as much evidence as possible helps you determine how long to wait to trail the deer. For example, seeing a deer hunch up at impact and finding dark, smelly blood both point to the deer being gut shot, meaning you need to wait at least six hours.
IN SLOW PURSUIT
A white-tailed deer can run 35 miles per hour, covering nearly 200 yards in 11 seconds. That's a lot of ground to trail, so take your time.
"A deer not mortally hit will often bed downwind of the shooter," Allen stated. This is another reason to move slow, giving the animal time to expire.
Pay attention to the shape of the blood droplets.
"When a wounded animal's moving, blood droplets coming into contact with the ground will have a forward motion," explained Himmel. "Each droplet will have a tail, with the tail pointing in the direction the animal was traveling."
Remember that a running deer will leave blood droplets farther apart than a deer that's walking. Other tips about the blood trail include:
- Blood found on both sides indicates a double lung shot.
- A heavy blood trail for the first 50 yards that tapers off to nothing points to a gut or muscle shot.
- A marginal blood trail that suddenly gets heavy and then stops probably means the deer doubled back on the trail.
Now is no time to call on all your friends to help with retrieval. To prevent altering or destroying evidence, enlist the help of no more than two other people. Establish a chain of command and give each individual a set of responsibilities so everyone knows their role in finding the deer.
If the deer is not bleeding profusely, Harris recommends marking each spot with a flag or tracking tape.
This way, if the blood trail is lost, you can easily return to the last marker to re-establish the trail. Flags also enable you to see the deer's general direction of travel.
When you can't find any more blood, make ever-expanding concentric circles around the last droplet identified until the next one is found.
"An old-timer once asked me if I knew how to track a wounded deer," recalled Harris. "He said, 'Once you find the first drop of blood or piece of hair, you look for the next one.'"
It sounds simple, but it takes dedication, patience and a willingness to go the extra mile.
"Finding your deer represents the second part of the hunt, which can be as exciting as the first," offered Koenig.
By using CSI strategies, you'll be able to put both parts together.