Two years ago, I sat in a stand on public land in north-central Nebraska. As the sun lit the morning landscape and illuminated the remaining ground fog, I watched an 8-pointer trot through a stand of pines. The buck spotted my feeding-doe decoy and made a beeline for her, only to hold up at the edge of a patch of sumac. He started grunting and snapping branches with his antlers but wouldn't commit to the decoy.
I ranged the buck, and when he turned I drew, aimed and released. As the arrow smacked into him, I immediately thought it was a shoulder hit: not good. The buck spun in his tracks, reared up like a startled horse and bolted down the side of the bluff.
Because a hunting buddy was still on stand nearby, I waited out the morning before sneaking to the impact site. Blood had sprayed everywhere, and the deer's tracks cutting down the bluff had left an unmistakable trail. I sneaked out to get my buddy, and four hours after the shot we started quietly down the hillside in search of the deer.
At the bottom we entered a thicket, and that's when the buck burst from his bed. What hope I had of a recovery started to diminish as we sat there whispering about our options. And then, after waiting another 90 minutes, we started trailing again.
It soon became abundantly clear that after being jumped from his bed, the buck had started bleeding heavily. Within 100 yards, we jumped him again. Now he splashed across a small creek, bleeding so freely that standing bankside, I could see the sheer amount of blood staining the moving water. That's when I realized we probably needed to keep the deer going in order to get him. And that isn't the case on many blood trails.
After nearly a mile of this bump-and-trail routine, my partner spotted the buck bedded under an oak. At 30 yards my second shot proved much truer than the first. It wasn't my finest hour as a deer hunter, but it was another learning experience, courtesy of a wounded deer.
That certainly wasn't my first time to have something go wrong at the shot — and it won't be my last. It was a firm reminder of how many simple variables play into making a good shot with any weapon, and that there are some rules to follow for the best odds of a timely recovery on any deer that doesn't drop on the spot. The first step starts during and immediately after the shot.
You Don't Know What You Don't Know
Ask any outfitter or guide who's been in the business at least one season, and he'll tell you clients are often way off in describing where a deer has been hit. They're also consistently wrong about shot angles, distance and exactly where and how the deer left the scene.
Shots at deer — especially mature bucks — kick in our adrenaline and flood us with desire for a successful outcome. This is buck fever (even if the deer is a doe), and nearly all hunters get it much more than they admit to.
This common malady can cause us to rush shots and see what we want to see. Both can be detrimental to a successful recovery.
If you shoot at a deer, note its immediate reaction and remember it. Did it hunch up, "mule" kick or not react at all to the shot? Which way did it run? Or did it walk away?
Those initial impressions are a starting point, but remember: They aren't concrete. We tend to fill in the blanks when it comes to memory, and quite often that means we'll convince ourselves a buck zigged when he really zagged, or a tuft of hair flew up behind his shoulder when the bullet zipped through his guts. These inaccuracies cause us to make trailing mistakes.
A good rule to remember is, "You don't know what you don't know." In other words, if you can't clearly remember exact body angle or reaction, don't suddenly decide it had to be one way or the other. That's simply guesswork, and it won't do you any favors as you search for the animal.
Bowhunters often have an edge over firearms hunters when it comes to initial sign after the shot, as well as the opportunity to observe how the deer reacted to it. Arrows are good at collecting evidence as they pass through an animal. So if you can find the arrow in short order, consider yourself lucky.
Various colors of blood, as well as the presence of fat on the arrow and/or certain lengths or colors of hair all can give you clues to the effect of the shot. But they also can promote trailing mistakes.
A few years ago a good buddy arrowed a buck in North Dakota. He was confident the shot was mid-ship, right behind the ribs: essentially a dead-center gut shot. The arrow, though, was nearly clean, and aside from a slight striping of reddish blood on the vanes and no smell, didn't offer much help.
We gave the buck eight hours and followed a short blood trail to nowhere. Grid searching produced nothing, either. Finally, a full 12 hours after the buck had been hit, my buddy spotted him floundering in the river and put a finishing arrow into him.
Our necropsy showed the first arrow had hit exactly where my friend had thought. My only conclusion was that the deer had fed on hay all night, packing his digestive tract with roughage. On the pass-through, that partially digested hay had cleaned his arrow off pretty well. It was a lucky recovery, and it provided a valuable lesson.
Aside from spoor on an arrow, shots from all weapons will leave other sign of a hit, either in the form of blood, hair and/or tracks. Take note of all of them, and use that evidence to back up your initial reactions or question them.
For instance, if you feel the hit was a bit far back, and you then find purplish blood near the impact site, consider yourself tracking a liver-hit deer unless something else proves otherwise. There's an old adage in the medical community that goes, "If you hear hooves outside, expect horses, not zebras." In other words, start with the most likely explanation.
During game recovery, live by that adage and use the physical sign to tell you what happened and how to proceed.
I know many hunters who love blood trailing, and I'm one of them. However, there's a fine line separating love and hate. I suddenly come to hate it when the trail disappears and I'm left with fewer options.
If you or your buddies fit into the "love it" category, make sure to rein in enthusiasm at the beginning of the trail. Rushing the search is much like rushing the shot: It rarely has anything but a deleterious effect on the outcome.
Even in the case of coyote anxiety or warm weather, it's best to approach a blood trail methodically. Take your time, use the right lights and sort out the clues. While you're at it, mark the spoor with flagging tape or tissue paper. This gives you a visual line of sight to where the deer headed and can highlight a direction that might otherwise evade you — especially if you're trailing in the dark.
While you're at it, be as quiet as possible. Jumping a deer on a blood trail is a sure indicator you've gone in too early; however, if it's mortally wounded, you should be able to back out and give it time to expire. The only exception to this is in the very rare case I highlighted earlier. Of all of the blood trails I've been on, which number in the hundreds, I've seen the "keep pushing them" mentality pay off just once.
Firearms hunters in fairly open country who can expect a reasonable follow-up shot can occasionally utilize this strategy. But even then, be honest about whether or not the deer would die on its own, given enough time. Forcing it to run should be a last resort on nearly all blood trails.
At the other end of the spectrum from being uber-patient is giving up too early. I've been on blood trails with hunters who had poor attitudes and were prone to giving up. That's as bad as pushing a trail, and it needs to be avoided. We hunters claim to be conservationists with a love for deer, so it doesn't look very good to anyone when we search for an animal for an hour or two and then decide it probably isn't mortally wounded. Take an honest look at the spoor and look hard for as long as you have to.
Occasionally, a blood trail that seems hopeless turns into a man-hugging celebration. This should always be the goal, but it requires the right mindset and the ability to follow through with a plan and adapt to what the sign tells you to do.
Of course, there are times when the arrow or bullet is placed so poorly that the deer will survive the shot. And that's the third-best outcome of a shot — right after making a perfect vitals hit or missing cleanly.
These cases are tricky because they often involve a lot of initial blood (often a muscle hit) but quickly turn into a needle-in-a-haystack trail. Even knowing that, it's best to treat the situation as one that will end with a warm gut pile. If after a day or two of searching you're fully convinced the deer isn't dead, you'll at least know you tried your best.
At this point, reverse-engineer the encounter to figure out what went wrong with the shot. A lot of lost deer are blamed on poor broadhead function, bullets deflecting off unseen twigs or some other excuse. The reality is that most of the time we didn't shoot as well as we could have, or we didn't wait for a good shot.
An introspective look into what went wrong can lead to a better situation the next time a deer walks by your stand. And no matter how many whitetails we've shot, we always should try to become better at what we do.
Blood-trailing deer is punctuated with the highest highs and the lowest of lows. To ensure far more of the former than the latter, take the process seriously and understand that the only truths you'll definitely have to work from will come in the form of spoor. Use it wisely to conduct your search and you'll reap the rewards. Use it poorly and . . . .