It’s every whitetail hunter’s nightmare— shooting a deer and then not finding it. The odds say at some point in your hunting career you’ll be faced with finding a wounded deer.
Despite your best efforts, unforeseeable events can wreak havoc on a perfect shot. Buck fever, jumpy deer, split-second opportunities and other unexpected shockers throw the proverbial monkey’s wrench into deer hunts every season. It’s hunting, not calculable math, and Mother Earth isn’t a perfect world.
How you execute your search in the first few seconds after the marginal shot might pave the way for success or failure in finding a wounded deer. Now isn’t the time to question what happened and beat yourself up; you’ll have time to remedy solutions after you find your deer.
Whitetails, like most animals, have an instinctive nature to duck, dive and hide when wounded, leaving you with a trail of bread crumbs that even a seasoned African guide couldn’t follow. Before dashing into the woods, gather your wits and make a plan.
REWIND, MAP AND WAIT
The first step is an easy one: sit still, watch and listen. Let the hit deer move off and hopefully expire without further incentive to seek secretive refuge. Replay the hunt in your mind and review the shot. Did you make a good hit? Was the shot too far back or forward? How did the animal react?
Different shots require varying waiting times. Deer die from double-lung and heart shots almost immediately, but what if you misinterpret the shot? As a rule, you should wait 30 minutes to 1 hour for guaranteed insurance. Onelung or liver shots can take several hours for the animal to die, and shots to the paunch require a minimum of a 6-hour wait. Again, none of this is set in stone.
Although whitetails react differently to shots, note whether the deer kicked up its feet, humped or tucked its tail. These all indicate hit animals, and stumbling indicates incoherency and trauma.
As you rewind the shot, map out the course the animal took while fleeing. Mentally mark the location of the deer’s placement at the time of the shot, the escape route and last visual location. This is important later when you begin tracking and marking all clues to keep you on the fast-track to your deer.
CALL IN REINFORCEMENTS
If all signs point to a long tracking job, now is the time to phone a friend. Two sets of eyes are better than one, and a fresh perspective can lead to logical judgment. Buck fever and anxiety often cloud decisions and result in a rush to find answers. In my case, I phone a friend for all of the reasons above, plus another one you might not have thought about: Approximately one in 10 men is colorblind, with women experiencing a much lower rate. I’m colorblind and my red and green rate of affliction is the highest.
You and your blood-trailing buddy should be fully equipped before taking up the search. A GPS (stand alone or on your smartphone), blazeorange surveyor’s tape and bright flashlights and/or lanterns are minimum requirements. Add a blue filter to your flashlight to boost the reflective properties of blood under darkness. Companies also manufacture tracking aids such as the Primos Bloodhunter HD with specially filtered light to maximize the appearance of blood at night. Be sure these items and spare batteries are with you at all times.
If nearly an hour has passed, you can move to the scene of the hit while waiting for help to arrive. Look for your arrow, deer hair, blood and try to determine the deer’s exit route. Mark the finds and when helpful eyes arrive on scene you can both take up the trail.
MARK AND GO SLOW
If/when you find blood, study it carefully. Bright, frothy blood inspires hope and the likelihood of a solid heart/lung hit, especially if it’s sprayed on vegetation along the departure route. Stay on the trail.
Dark, red blood means a muscle hit. Reconsider moving forward because it’s probably wise to wait several more hours. Brown- or green-colored blood means a gut shot. While death is certain from such a hit, it’ll take at least 6 hours. Be patient and let nature take its course.
Every speck of blood, tissue and disturbed dirt should be marked on your GPS and with the surveyor’s tape. In most cases, backtracking after losing the trail is the norm.
As you meticulously move forward, have the point person scan ahead for the deer. You might unknowingly walk up on it, and it could require another shot to anchor it permanently, thus the reason for a quiet approach. Handle your gun or bow safely, and keep it at the ready. (Note: It’s probably illegal to pursue a wounded deer after dark with gun or bow in hand; check your game department regulations for more information.)
You should also forget textbook “rules.” Wounded deer don’t always head downhill or for water after the shot. I’ve helped buddies track wounded deer up hills and across vast prairies that healthy deer generally avoid.
Hunting isn’t a perfect sport, and following up on wounded game happens. How you execute the recovery determines whether you’ll sleep easily and enjoy a future venison dinner, or be haunted by nightmares.