After The Shot: Blood Tracking Whitetails
September 22, 2010
You've scouted and set up stands. You've sighted in your guns or practiced with your bow. Finally the buck you're looking for comes in and the shot is made. How long will the trailing process take you? Will you find your buck?
Understanding how to track and find blood can make the difference between having meat in the freezer and a trophy to hang on the wall or coming home with nothing at all. You make a plan when you hunt to increase your chance of success, but if you attempt to track without a plan, your chances of success are greatly reduced.
I sell blood-detection products to law enforcement, and my business has given me a lot of information on what to look for and what a blood trail can tell you about the hit you've made on a deer. I'm often called to help look for wounded deer after all hope seems to be lost, because people know that I can find blood that is not easily seen.
POINTS TO PONDER
Blood trails can be misleading. A lot of blood does not necessarily indicate a mortal wound. Nor does a seeming lack of blood necessarily mean the animal isn't dead. The reaction of the animal and the blood pattern will give us a better understanding of how to go about making a plan to recover an animal. Normally, deer do not bleed to death. An animal that weighs 160 pounds must lose 45-plus ounces of blood to die from blood loss alone. Deer will die faster from trauma than from blood loss, and a combination of both is by far the best scenario.
Most deer can travel very fast when wounded. They can hit 35 mph, and even if they die quickly after the shot, they can travel a long distance before collapsing. A wounded deer will not go far unless it is pushed. Therefore it's always a good idea to sit still for at least a half-hour after the shot, unless you want to make the tracking job a lot more difficult.
Deer often travel in loose family groups, and those in the rear of the group can help by showing you where the wounded animal traveled. Spooking these deer could remove helpful clues as to the whereabouts of your trophy, so always use caution.
Pay attention to the reaction of the deer the moment it is shot, as this is your first clue to helping you know how to find it. The reaction can be deceiving, but it is still important. I have shot deer and had them look at me like nothing happened, only to watch them fall over where they stood. I have also had many hunters tell me that they knocked the animal down, only to watch it suddenly jump up and run off, leaving lots of blood. That's the one that I hate to hear the most.
First of all, body shots that do not hit the neck or spine will rarely make deer drop, and if the neck or spine is hit, the animal is usually disabled and will not be able to get up. Experience from the "dropped and got up and left lots of blood" situations tells me it was most likely a low shoulder or leg shot. The falling down likely means the leg was broken. Leg-muscle hits leave lots of blood in the first 100 yards, but then the blood trail fades fast. There will be lots of large spots of blood as the animal stands in one spot or leans against a tree. Even with a broken leg (or two), a deer can run very fast.
FINDING BLOOD SIGN
Another common scenario is this: "I thought I hit him, but there was no blood." Anytime there is a wounded animal, there will be blood, even if it cannot be seen. Blood droplets, which are forced out of the body by gunfire, produce a high-velocity-impact splatter pattern. The pattern can be smaller than 1mm at the beginning of the trail. Shots taken with a bow leave medium-impact blood splatter patterns and will leave droplets around 3mm in size. Both can be difficult to see, even in the snow, so trust your instincts and follow the trail the deer took.
If the deer was hit, the blood will appear soon. If it was a high lung hit, it can take time for the body cavity to fill and blood to be forced out. Lung-shot deer often run right after the shot, and this causes blood trails to be harder to see, as the blood is spread over a larger distance. If there is no visible blood trail, wait and let the animal bed down. It will not go far and should die quickly.
Another common animal reaction is the hind leg kick. Although many lung-shot deer kick out after the shot -- whether the projectile that hit them was an arrow or a bullet -- this reaction could mean that the animal was hit farther back in the gut. The blood pattern and the color of the blood will be very important. Darker blood is from the stomach or liver. A liver shot is always fatal, but liver-shot deer are often hard to find because they can travel a long distance.
Green matter or food is from one of the deer's four stomachs. A stomach shot is also fatal, but it could take 24 hours or longer for the deer to die. Give this animal at least three hours to bed down and follow up for the kill in the daytime. Make sure to circle ahead from the downwind side.
The low forward double lung shot is the best-percentage shot to take. By hitting the arteries and lungs, it will cause massive internal bleeding and drowning, causing death within about 150 yards. This pattern can start out with little blood, but it will increase as the animal starts blowing blood out the mouth and nose.
10 TIPS FOR BLOOD TRACKING
- Always try to pinpoint the exact spot where your deer was standing when shot.
- If you deer runs off, always try to pinpoint the spot where it was last seen.
- Unless your deer goes down within sight, always wait a minimum of 30 minutes before taking up the trail.
- Use trail markers and a compass while following a blood trail.
- Working in pairs is best. Never have more than three people follow a blood trail.
- In addition to looking at the ground while following a blood trail, always look at the brush and foliage on either side of the trail.
- Bright ref or pinkish blood indicates an artery or lung shot.
- Blood with green or brown matter in it indicates a liver shot.
- If you think your deer is still alive, send a shooter around and ahead of the animal to try to dispatch it as you continue tracking.
- When all else fails, consider getting a tracking dog (where legal) or use a luminol-based blood-detecting product like Bluestar.:
Quartering-away shots cause the most damage, as the projectile will travel a longer distance through the body. Shots from a raised area (tree stand) generally give a better blood trail, as the exit hole will be lower and allow blood to leave the body cavity in greater volume.
Shooting for the tail is the worst shot anyone can make, and it often leaves only a wounded animal or spoiled meat. If the shot hits the back of the thigh, it will bleed well but the deer will not die soon, as the muscle will tighten up and help stop the bleeding. A deer shot in the anus will spread bacteria all over its insides, and the damage will be even worse if the bladder is also hit. This type of shot requires the animal to be cleaned immediately and thoroughly washed out in order to save any of the meat.
OTHER TRACKING TIPS
Blood trailers spend a lot of time looking on the ground but little time looking at the brush, where more than half the blood is usually found. Blood on brush can reveal how high or low the shot hit, helping in the recovery plans.
No hunter should be without a compass. Use it to get a bearing on the trail taken, using a marker like a unique tree to track toward. Working in pairs is best as well. One tracker should circle downwind and ahead 75 to 100 yards in case the animal is alive. The second person should take the trail. Repeat this until the animal is recovered. Remember to be safe when tracking because deer can be dangerous when wounded. Proper gun handling and line-of-fire rules must also be followed to avoid injury.
Timing is very important. Tracking too soon is the No. 1 reason why mortally wounded deer travel long distances and make recovery difficult or impossible. Tracking too slowly will cause the meat to spoil. Reading the clues properly will make the difference in how good the meat tastes, since recovery shortly after death is important. Meat with a gamey taste can be caused by slow recovery, not cleaning properly or hanging in warm weather.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE SHOT
Adrenaline runs high after the shot, and humans have a hard time controlling it. Relax, breathe deeply and take a few moments to reflect about what happened. The beginning of the trail is the most important place to get the facts about what happened and how to proceed.
The first thing we do at a crime scene is cordon off the area to keep people from altering evidence. Then we use only a few people to process the scene -- again, to keep from altering or destroying the evidence. Walking on a blood trail will transfer the blood pattern from its original spot to somewhere else, or destroy it completely. Never put more than three people on a blood trail unless you think it is hopeless to recover your deer without extra people.
Unless the animal drops within sight, no trail should be taken within 30 minutes. The deer you just shot will be looking at the spot where it was wounded to see what happened. It will bed down soon and try to lick or heal the wound, usually within the first 40 yards if there is good cover. Don't turn a 40-yard trail into a 400-yard trail!
I've often been asked to follow a blood trail that had a small amount of blood that suddenly had twice as much blood, then nothing. This usually means that the deer has turned 180 degrees and walked over the same trail twice, then cut off downwind at a 45- to 90-degree angle after it decided the trail it was following was not safe.
The blood left on the ground or brush is important, as it can tell much about the wound. Bright red or pink blood has lots of oxygen, indicating an artery or lung shot. Many deer trails I have followed were from shots that hit low in the shoulder or leg, leaving large amounts of blood. The blood is slightly darker with a very narrow trail 4 to 8 inches in width. This deer will likely need a second shot. Make plans to get a person ahead to dispatch the deer.
READING THE SIGN
Trails of blood more than 2 feet wide are complete pass-through shots and increase the chances of recovery greatly. Blood trails that have squirts of blood on the side of the trail 2 feet or more indicate arterial shots in the neck, heart or other major artery. As mentioned, brown or greenish blood, or blood with green or brown matter, is always a gut or liver shot. In either case, the deer will need extra time to die before you attempt to recover it. A liver shot will kill faster, but may still take two hours or more. Blood with green matter should dictate a minimum five- to six-hour wait before tracking. The tracker should attempt to put a shooter ahead to dispatch the animal in case it is still alive.
Many visual blood trails disappear when the animal's heart stops and the blood pressure drops, as the blood is no longer being forced out of the body. Most animals can still travel 30 to 45 seconds and cover 65 yards or more before dropping, and the blood trail will be almost impossible to find without blood-tracking aids.
Many times I have found animals within 40 to 50 yards of the stand. They died close by after having run 250 to 300 yards in a long, arching circle, trying to get back to the spot where they were safe before the shot. Knowing the bedding areas on your property helps a lot if you cannot find an animal. The wind is important to a wounded deer. They will always try to get downwind of the hunter.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
There are tools we can use in tracking. Dogs are now legal in many states, and a dog can be great tool if there is no rain or snow. However, most people do not have dogs or have the time to train them, nor do they have the money to pay a dog tracker. Dog tracker fees vary but often end up costing in excess of $150. Lights made for finding blood do not work very well, as blood absorbs light. Regardless of what you see on TV, law enforcement officials do not use lights to find blood.
There are a few luminol-based products (Tink's and Bluestar, notably) that make blood glow in the dark. I prefer Bluestar because it was first made for forensic use. Bluestar picks up hemoglobin. Hemoglobin transports oxygen to the cells. It contains iron, which is a basic element of earth and is nearly impossible to destroy without fire.
Much time was spent to produce a product like Bluestar that investigators could use with little or no training, and much time was spent developing a product that could tell the difference between blood and other items containing iron. Bluestar is sold in tablet form, and you simply add water. This is the best tracking agent I have found on the market today. At a cost of $19.95 to track up to four deer, the cost is very affordable. You can usually cover 100 yards in 10 minutes or less, and the time saved will be worth the money spent.
Small and lightweight and sold in packs of four, Bluestar gives the hunter enough product to cover even the longest trails. Bluestar also will work well in evergreens and moss. Because the reaction with blood is so much different from "false positives," anyone can tell the difference.
ALWAYS PINPOINT THE SPOT
Hunters often have difficulty finding the beginning of a blood trail. Before you leave your stand, use a waypoint to know where the deer was standing when shot. Also, try to pinpoint the last spot where the deer was seen after the shot was taken. A compass is perfect for this, using a marker such as a tree to find the spot.
Many times I use Bluestar only to find the start of a blood trail. To do this, spray while walking across the trail as soon as you find the blood. See if you can follow it with your eyes. If not, continue to use the Bluestar. I often use it to regain a trail when an animal changes terrain, going from leaf litter to grass fields, for example. Bluestar will work in the rain or snow. You'll learn a lot about trailing deer when using Bluestar since you'll see the whole trail every time you use it. Another advantage of Bluestar is that total darkness is not needed. It works well in low light just after shooting light has faded.
Since Bluestar glows bright blue in the dark, even people who are colorblind or whose eyes are "not as good as they used to be" can follow the trail without any help. No glasses or lights are needed -- just water and a spray bottle. Water can be taken from streams, lakes and ponds, along with any tap or bottled water. In extreme cold, you can use window washer solvent. When using, mix a set of tablets in a sprayer and spray on the ground where the deer was standing. If the deer was hit, there will be a bright blue glow.
Last but not least, always use trail markers. This will help if you need to leave the trail for any reason and will help anyone who is trying to join you later on. This also lets you see a pattern of travel. Most likely that pattern will be an arch traveling back to the bedding area downwind of the stand. Bedding areas are thick with a good view, and they always take advantage of wind direction. They provide a perfect area for a wounded animal to seek refuge in.
No matter what happens before or after the shot, these simple tools mentioned above cost very little and will save you lots of time. More importantly, they help us all remain ethically responsible by recovering game quickly and efficiently.