Sooner or later, it happens to even the best deer hunter; you practice firing your gun and bow during the off season until you are confident that you know exactly where it will hit. Then finally you have a trophy in your sights, pull the trigger or release the string… and it runs away, apparently uninjured.
So many things can happen: In the excitement you hurry the shot, get buck fever, or the deer moves or hunkers down at the last instant. The limb of your bow brushes against a branch, or an unseen twig affects the path of your bullet or arrow, your scope or sights got bumped, even bullet failure, anything can happen when at that moment the metal meets the meat. In any event, your quarry runs away at the sound of the shot or release of the arrow.
You just know the shot wasn’t good, so you make your way over to where the deer was standing, hoping for a clean miss. Those hopes vanish as you spot white hair on the ground, or even worse, find your arrow, coated in foul-smelling greenish blood.
Recovering a wounded animal is skill that every hunter should possess. It is an unwritten law of all sportsmen that we owe it to the animals we hunt to make every effort to recover them. Always check and track any deer you shoot at; never assume you missed completely. You have a moral obligation to follow up on every animal.
First, carefully replay the shot in your mind: Where was the deer standing? What happened upon the shot? How did it act, and which way did it run? These are all clues which can help you. For instance, a deer shot through the legs will often fall to the ground immediately, then get back up and run away.
Next, try to find the spot where the deer was when you shot. You can tell a lot about your shot from the evidence left behind: mostly white hair may indicate a low shot, mostly brown hair a high shot; lots of hair a grazing hit, little hair a straight hit; pieces of bone may indicate a leg shot.
Look behind where the deer was, and try to find the path that your bullet or arrow took. If bowhunting, try to find your arrow; the blood you find on the arrow can tell you much about your shot.
The recovery starts at the spot the deer was standing. This is a good time to fetch a nearby friend or to get flashlights, but be exceedingly careful not to trample or damage any sign, especially if you are considering bringing in help. If you are bow hunting, you might want to wait a few hours before tracking, during gun season you won’t have as much time.
You should have a pretty good idea of which way the deer ran; making sure you mark the starting point, carefully go along the deer’s path, looking for signs, primarily spots of blood. Look on the ground and on leaves and the sides of trees. When you find a spot, mark it, and then look for the next spot, and so on. Eventually you may get an idea of where the animal is heading, while you and your tracking partner play “leapfrog,” taking turns moving ahead of each other locating clues.
As you start to notice blood sign, a good lung or heart hit will show bright red blood, and occasionally pink pieces of lung, often on both sides of a trail, on the ground and on leaves and trees. The blood may even be frothy or include pieces of lung tissue; this deer isn’t going very far and the blood trail will be heavy right up to the point you find the deer lying dead on the ground. A high lung shot will initially show plenty of bright red, aerated blood, but the blood trail may disappear completely. Keep looking though, that deer probably didn’t go more than a hundred yards.
A deer shot through the liver may also show a solid, two-sided blood trail, but this blood will be darker and there won’t be as much of it. This deer isn’t going very far either, but the blood trail may decrease or vanish before you find it dead.
Deer shot through the entrails are the worst; this blood will be dark or have a greenish cast. It may smell, or even have bits of undigested feed in it. This blood trail may start heavy, but quickly disappear, and sometimes you will even find pieces of entrails along the trail or snagged in briars. The best bet here is to wait several hours, or until morning even, before continuing the search.
Shots passing through a leg or meaty tissue will have medium red blood. The trail may be easy to track at first, but the blood flow may decrease or even disappear. These are often the hardest deer to recover, because they may live on for days, or even weeks afterwards, continuing to feed and behave normally.
Common lore says wounded deer head to water, or run downhill, but in real life there are no set rules, and a wounded deer can go anywhere. Also contrary to popular belief, tracking a deer in snow, especially when the snow is still falling, or in areas with lots of other deer, is not easy.
Remember you must have landowner permission to track a wounded deer onto someone else’s property. Every year wildlife officers get called into disputes between hunters and landowners involving the recovery of a deer; even if you can see the deer lying across the property line, you have to have landowner permission to recover the deer.
In Ohio you may use a leashed dog to track a wounded deer; hunters in West Virginia do not have that tool available to them. An internet search may help you find people with dogs who specialize in deer tracking – for a fee. Ask yourself, what is a hundred dollars if the trophy of a lifetime lies at the other end of a disappearing blood trail?
Finally, accept that losses are inevitable. As much as you hate it, it does happen.
A couple of years ago a young man hunting near my house killed a nice buck during gun season that had an arrow sticking out of its back; in all fairness to the bow hunter, he made a decent shot at a buck that was practically underneath his stand, but the arrow just happened to go straight down between a foreleg and the chest cavity, narrowly missing vital organs and hitting nothing but meat.
That buck lived until the second day of gun season until he passed in front of my young friend, and there is no telling how long he would have lived otherwise.
Even if you fail to recover your deer, and have made the best attempt possible, you can rest assured knowing that in nature nothing ever goes to waste, other animals throughout the food chain will get to eat and live.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.