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How to Follow Unconventional Blood Trails

All bowhunters will encounter tough tracking jobs at some point. Make smart decisions to recover deer under the worst circumstances.

How to Follow Unconventional Blood Trails

Ethical hunters must put forth every effort to recover game; be ready for any scenario you might encounter on the track. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Ethical archery hunters wish for all blood trails to be easy and short. But reality is a one-way train that travels in the real world, and sometimes, the stop is a weird, hard-to-follow track. Most of us have dealt with these bizarre blood trails, and those who haven’t likely will at some point. Being prepared for these can mean the difference in recovering wounded deer, or not.


Typical Blood Trails

To understand what a weird, abnormal blood trail is, you must know what it is not. In other words, you must know what a “normal” blood trail looks like. And even though no two blood trails are exactly alike, there are ways to know if the sign you’re seeing is good or bad.

Knowing where you hit the deer, what to look for and how long to wait is all part of avoiding weird blood trails, because taking the wrong step — such as pushing a deer too soon — can turn a typical blood trail that ends with a dead deer into a weird blood trail with a plethora of challenges.

Therefore, each type of hit on a deer requires a different blood trailing treatment. Know the appropriate wait times to allow. Generally, each category’s time allotment is more than needed, but that extra time helps mitigate for when hunters misgauge their shot placement. And remember, if you see the deer fall, always follow-up immediately, but be ready to make another shot, if needed.

Let’s start by analyzing the sign you might find when deer are hit in various major vital zones. See below:

Heart Shot: A heart shot deer is most likely done in less than a minute. These bright red blood trails are short and sweet. Still, if you don’t see it fall, wait 30-45 minutes before blood trailing.

Double-Lung Shot: High lung hits aside, most double-lunged deer expire within seconds, but some take longer. While blood trails are generally short, some of these bubbly-red blood trails extend further. Wait 30-45 minutes before blood trailing.

Single-Lung and Liver Shot: A one lung and liver combo hit is lethal, but it takes time for the deer to expire. Recognize it by a mix of bubbly-pink and dark-red blood. Wait 4-5 hours before blood trailing.

Liver Shot: Deer generally take at least several hours to die from a liver hit. Dark-red blood trails might appear promising initially, but typically screech to a halt, resulting in minimal external blood loss. Wait 4-5 hours before blood trailing.

Gut Shot: It can take a long time to die from a straight paunch shot. There will be minimal blood and sign. Pink blood, and green stomach matter, might be present. Where legal, use a blood-trailing dog. Wait 10-15 hours before blood trailing.

Ham Shot: The only real hope is hitting the end of the aorta, femoral, or another artery. If that happens, the deer should die rather quickly. Outside of an arterial hit, the deer will likely live. If it isn’t spewing blood everywhere, immediately follow-up and hope for a second shot.

Atypical Blood Trails

While many blood trails are easy to follow, some are very arduous, effectively creating a difficult-to-decipher network of blood. Blood trails don’t always do what you think they will.

Short and heavy blood trails are oftentimes relatively straight-line paths with minimal change in direction. They offer few complications. Challenges are minimal. In contrast, longer blood trails cover more ground and have more opportunity for trouble.

For example, some blood trails create long circular patterns. These begin and end in nearly the same location. Generally, when this happens, deer are trying to get back to the point of impact. This can be sparked by curiosity. It can also be an attempt to get back to where they feel safest, which might sound odd, but is the most likely scenario if the hunt setting was close to a bedding area.

Another odd blood trailing scenario is a deer that doubles back. When hunters are following sign, we rarely notice if or when the blood trail splits and goes in two directions, but it happens. Sometimes, wounded deer turn and retrace their steps due to an obstacle in their path or an encounter with something that scares them. When this happens, some deer double back to watch their backtrail.

how to follow unconventional blood trails
When a wounded deer doesn’t expire right away, it’s likely they’ll run for cover. That often means they’ll cross obstacles, water sources, agricultural fields, etc. in between. (Photo courtesy of Honeycutt Creative)

Likewise, this same behavior can lead to fishhook-shaped blood trails. Deer sometimes use this method to watch their backtrail and see if something is following them. This is common behavior for poorly hit and non-mortally wounded animals.

Not all blood trails qualify as “weird” because of their shape or patterns. Sometimes a blood trail lacks the primary component — blood. Poor shot placements, such as paunch, intestinal and high-lung hits generally produce little sign to go on.

Even weirder is when blood trails from two different animals cross paths. Of course, it’s highly unlikely. But it still happens, especially on public lands and shared private properties. When it does occur, it’s easy to go astray and follow the wrong trail.

Finally, perhaps the oddest blood trailing scenario is one where the deer expires but gets moved afterward. This can occur in areas with higher concentrations of large predators, such as bears, cougars and wolves. Usually, they don’t take the deer far, but it can still lead to a very different type of blood trail. And a dangerous one.

No matter the degree of challenges, or how weird the blood trail, hunters must do what they can to overcome these things. Every mortally wounded deer should be recovered, and can be, so long as the right steps are taken.

Deciphering the Clues

The first step in properly handling a blood trail is knowing the exact shot placement. Lighted nocks and self-filming the shot are two ways to see this. This allows you to allot the proper wait time, which prevents a premature recovery before the deer expires, or a late recovery that allows something else to recover the deer before you do.

The deer’s response is another indicator of shot placement. Certain reactions, such as a heart-shot deer mule kicking and a paunch-shot deer hunching its back and slowly walking off, are things to watch for. Visually marking the location of last sighting is, too. This can make the search easier if blood isn’t present at or near the point of impact.

Once other deer vacate the area, and you’ve safely descended the tree or exited the blind, analyze the arrow (if present). The color, consistency and volume of blood on the arrow generally — but not always — correlates to the shot placement. If it looks promising, observe the first few yards of the blood trail. Comparing where you saw the arrow strike, how the deer reacted after the shot, what the arrow looked like, and what the first few yards of the trail offered are the four factors for determining wait time before attempting the recovery.

how to follow unconventional blood trails
Look not just for blood, but also for fresh tracks, hair, stomach content, and more. (Photo courtesy of Honeycutt Creative)

If needed, back out for the right amount of time. Then, return with one or two helpers. Any more and they’ll likely get in the way. One person should run point on blood, while another helps search the ground immediately in front of the group (but stays behind the point man), and the third will look and glass further ahead for signs of the downed animal.

At night, a good flashlight is a must. Personally, I use Exude Lights, which offer a quality beam made for spotting small specks of blood. A quality light is especially handy on sparse blood trails. I’ve recovered plenty of deer that offered only a speck every 10 or so yards. You can’t make that work without a great tracking light.

When the tracking gets tough, and you just can’t find blood, it’s important to think about things in relation to the wound. Is it a high hit? Could the wound have sealed with fat tissue? Look not only at the ground, but also on the sides of trees, saplings and leaves.

For those who have poorer eyesight, or blood trails with minimal blood, getting on hands and knees might be necessary to see small specks and disturbances in the soil. When the going gets tough, mark each discovery of last blood with flagging, and try not to move until you see next sign, which includes droppings, tracks, hair and more. At times, non-blood sign such as tracks and disturbances might be all you have to work with.

Some hunters might choose to use an app, such as HuntStand, to trace their path. This helps you to know where you’ve been, how to retrace, and where to resume if you take a break during a long track.

And lastly, weird blood trails that can’t be solved using the traditional blood trailing process should still be completed. Once blood is lost indefinitely, use arching half circles to regain it. If that doesn’t work, grid search the area with as many people as willing and able to help. And of course, always use a dog, where legally allowed. They’re better at this than we are.

You won’t end up with a weird blood trail every trip afield, but you might have to deal with one from time to time. Knowing how to overcome unique challenges isn’t easy, but it’s possible. Get it done. Find that deer. Fill that tag.

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