Tips And Tricks For Following A Blood Trail

Making a good shot is the first key to recovering arrow-hit animals, but things don't always go as planned.

Making a good shot is the first key to recovering arrow-hit animals. You should get as close as you can, and try to shoot at a slightly quartering-away critter for full access to the vital chest without bones in the way. Even relaxed animals sometimes jump the bowstring or move unexpectedly as the arrow flies. But if their ears are back and their eyeballs hidden when you shoot, you have the best chance of a quickly killing hit.

Related Video: The One That Almost Got Away.

If you are cold, tired, excited or shooting from a twisted position, you might muff your shot. But be assured that any solid hit can be lethal. Animals hit in the paunch always die—usually within a half-mile and usually within 8-10 hours. Hindquarter shots are high-odds killers, but only if you connect with large arteries in the center of a ham. In this age of tiny broadheads for accurate flight with fast arrows, a big-cutting broadhead is still the best bet for quick death and good blood trails with poor hits in the stomach or hindquarter. Hits along the spine, neck or shoulder seldom turn out well.

If the animal doesn’t drop immediately, you probably won’t find it and it will probably survive. Wait times are debatable among bow hunters, but as a general rule, you should wait 30 minutes after a sure chest hit unless you see the animal drop. Double the wait for a hindquarter hit, and wait 4-6 hours if your arrow passes through the paunch. After you wait, you should cautiously approach the hit site and look for blood and other sign. I’ve heard bow hunters advocate pushing a poorly hit animal to “tire it out.” In my experience, this is baloney. You want to let the critter calm down, lie down and expire without knowing that danger is nearby.

The most common mistake archers make is not focusing on where their arrow has hit. You should pay close attention, and use your binocular immediately to watch the animal run away. I’ve lost track of the times that bow hunting acquaintances claimed they scored a lung shot, only to find out later that the arrow impacted high, low or too far back. You cannot positively know how to follow up if you don’t know where your arrow hit in the first place—and wishful thinking is a waste of time. Clues on the arrow itself can help. Fortunately, most arrows from modern high-energy bows pass completely through an animal.

A gut shot speaks for itself, with off-color slime smeared along the arrow shaft and fletching. Bright blood indicates a heart or artery hit, and darker blood a hit in the liver or along the edge. Unfortunately, most bowhunters don’t have the experience to distinguish subtle shades of blood. But if you find pinkish blood with bubbles, you have almost certainly hit one or both lungs.

Lethal hits don’t always leave great blood trails. A big-cutting head, such as the Rage, increases blood loss to the ground, but high lung hits or hits that exit the paunch sometimes leave no blood at all. If the ground is hard or overgrown with grass, you won’t have tracks to follow, either. You’ll have to snoop on hunches first, then grid-search the entire area for the animal. A GPS device greatly helps to systematically canvas terrain.

The most common mistake I make when searching for arrow-hit game is not looking far enough away. I constantly remind myself that a mortally hit deer, elk or bear can cover 250 yards with incredible speed. A poorly hit animal might go a lot farther. Nobody can predict the travel route of arrow-hit animals. I’ve seen them run in a straight line, follow an established trail, make repeated 90-degree turns without rhyme or reason, or double-back in the opposite direction.

They don’t always run downhill or take the course of least resistance. I’ve found more than one lethally hit deer and elk hundreds of feet uphill from the hit site in cover heavy enough to choke a rabbit. Following too soon can spook the target animal and flood its system with energizing adrenaline. The only exception to waiting should be if rain or snow threatens to quickly wipe out blood sign. If you draw this poor hand of cards, the best you can do is follow slowly with hopes of seeing the animal before it detects you. One evening on a Texas whitetail hunt, I shot a mature 8-point buck. The deer jumped the string and took my arrow through the liver. I could see the entry wound as the critter walked away. I returned to camp and told the landowner what happened.

Without my knowledge or consent, the guy went out that night and tramped the entire area with his flashlight. He told me later that he jumped the buck from its bloody bed about 200 yards from my treestand. I found that bed the next morning and searched 2 full days for the deer. I finally found it, nearly a half-mile away, thanks to the cloud of magpies and ravens feasting on the carcass. Without my host’s “help,” I’m sure I would have found the buck within an hour or 2 the following day.

I recovered the antlers; coyotes and birds got the meat. Lucky for them, and not so lucky for me. Occasionally, a hunting outfitter will be too rambunctious and too impatient for correct archery follow-up. At times like this, an experienced bow hunting client must put his or her foot down and insist on searching the right way. One friend of mine shot a big black bear in Canada. His wife was in the blind and videotaped the arrow passing high through both lungs.

Their guide showed up 10 minutes later and wanted to follow at once. My pal voiced his concern. The guide said he didn’t want to be late for supper, and plunged into the undergrowth. The bear was still alive 50 yards away. It jumped up and ran into deadfall trees and high grass. There was no blood to be found. Hunter and guide stumbled on the bruin the next day, dead as a wedge more than 400 yards from where it was shot. Fortunately, the hide was still good.

Finding arrow-hit critters might not be rocket science, but it’s painfully easy to screw up the process. Take only high percentage kill shots, pay attention to where your arrow has hit, wait before following, and patiently search even when blood is impossible to find.

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