The moment of truth has come and gone. Your arrow or bullet found its mark and the deer -- maybe a doe or maybe a trophy buck -- has run off. Now you're faced with a question humans have been asking themselves since they first began chasing game with hunting implements. Should I start tracking now, or should I wait?
Take up the trail too quickly, and you might run off a wounded deer, ruining your chances of recovering it. Wait too long, and that fine venison might spoil or become a feast for woodland predators.
"Every hunter who shoots a deer wants to recover it intact and suitable for eating," said Doug Doty, owner of Illinois Whitetail Services LLC, who spends hours in the field each fall tracking deer shot by his clients. "That's the best possible outcome, and that's what we all work for."
The instant you squeeze the trigger or release an arrow, you are morally obligated to make every effort to find that deer. But how you should proceed varies from one situation to the next. This season, if you find yourself on the ground after taking a shot, trying to figure out your next move, work through this series of questions to develop a successful plan for blood trailing whitetails.
1. DID I SEE THE DEER GO DOWN?
If the answer is "yes," things are looking good, but that's no guarantee the deer is dead.
Don't go running after a deer just because you saw it topple. Proceed with caution and be ready to shoot again.
2. DID I HEAR A CRASH?
A deer that falls for good before it gets out of your range of hearing is going to make a pretty good racket -- cracking twigs, rustling leaves, a hollow thud. If you hear a big crash followed by dead silence, odds are you've struck paydirt. Wait an hour and take up the trail.
Life is pretty good for the hunter who sees or hears a deer go down. The road to recovery is often quick and painless. If you can't claim either, however, things can get complicated. To figure out what to do, you need information.
3. DID THE SHOT FEEL GOOD?
By the time you climb into a deer stand to hunt, you should have a pretty good idea how your bow or gun performs. You know what a quality shot feels like and you know when you've flinched.
A gun hunter isn't likely to see where a bullet strikes, although you might notice blood at the entry point as the deer runs off. Bowhunters, on the other hand, are highly likely to see their arrows hit. In either case, does it seem like the shot hit a vital area? If you know right off the bat your shot struck the deer far back in the liver or paunch area, don't follow right away.
4. HOW DID THE DEER REACT TO THE SHOT?
Whether or not you think you saw where your arrow or bullet entered a deer, the way that deer reacted to the shot can tell a lot about the true point of impact.
"One of the first questions I ask my hunters is, 'What did the deer do when you shot it?'" Doty said. "If he tells me it mule-kicked its hind legs straight up in the air and then bolted, that's good. But if he says the deer kind of hunched its back and walked off slowly, I know we're probably not looking at a good hit."
5. ANY SIGN AT THE SPOT?
Brown hair can indicate a shot in the deer's midsection, which can be good, while white hair usually indicates a low shot under the belly. Watery, bright red blood -- likely a heart shot -- or pink, bubbly blood -- lung shot -- are good signs. Thick, maroon blood -- liver hit -- or blood and green and/or brown material combined -- gut shot -- are bad.
6. HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE I SHOT?
A shot through both lungs and the heart might kill one deer within seconds, while another might live for several minutes. You don't know which one you've just shot, so sit tight for at least 60 minutes before doing anything.
If the evidence indicates a good hit, start tracking. But if the evidence changes along the way -- the blood trail thins out or gut material shows up on the trail -- stop and reassess the situation.
When faced with tracking a poorly hit deer, wait. Rest assured, liver and gut shots are fatal, but it might take several hours for the deer to expire.
7. WHAT'S THE WEATHER?
It's freezing and night is falling. No problem. Wait until morning to track. But leave a deer in the woods for several hours in temperatures above 40 degrees, however, and you're likely to lose the meat to spoilage.
So the question becomes, should you take up the trail sooner than you'd like because it's warm, or should you leave the deer for several hours, knowing it's likely to be spoiled when you get to it?
"I'm guiding hunters in Illinois, so I'm mainly helping guys find bucks -- lots of time the biggest bucks they've ever shot," Doty said. "In these situations, I would always rather risk the meat spoiling, but recover the rack and hide, rather than push the deer and not find anything for months -- if ever. That's a tough decision, but sometimes you have to chose between recovering something and recovering nothing.
When he's chasing a deer shot solely for venison and there's a risk of losing it to spoilage, Doty will press on.
"I don't want to jump it and lose it, but if I wait and it spoils anyway, what did I gain?" he said.
Rain and snow can wash away or cover up blood trails. Know what the forecast is calling for the day of and after your hunt. Factor that in as you decide whether or not to hit the trail to recover your whitetail.
8. ANY PREDATORS AROUND?
Leaving a wounded deer to bed down and hopefully expire usually is a good idea. But if you do so in coyote country, you might be turning over your deer to the dogs. Think about predators such as coyotes and wolves as you weigh decisions on tracking.9.
9. WHAT TIME OF DAY IS IT?
You can't find what you can't see. That's why hunters wait until morning to track deer they shot late the previous day. Shoot one in the morning, however, and you can be more aggressive.
"If you can see several hundred yards ahead of you, you've got a much better chance of spotting a bedded deer that's not dead yet," Doty said. "Just wait him out. And
during gun season, you might have a chance at getting a follow-up shot."
10. IS HELP AVAILABLE?
Anytime you can get help, call for it.
"If you can, pair up with a buddy before the season and set it up so that if either of you shoots a deer, the other will help in the recovery," Doty said. "It's not good just to have two sets of eyes, it's good to have someone removed from the excitement and emotion of the shot making decisions on what to do in the woods. €¦ Let the other person make the tracking decisions based solely on the evidence."
To track or not to track? That is the question. Think each situation through thoroughly, and hopefully you'll find yourself hauling more venison and trophy racks out of the woods each season.