Despite our best efforts, big-game animals don't always drop where we want them to. Here's how to find them
As big-game hunters, we strive for quick, one-shot kills. Unfortunately, though, things sometimes just don’t work out that way—factors beyond our control can result in an animal running off after the shot. This is especially the case for bowhunters.
Unlike high-powered bullets or slugs that generally kill game quickly due to shock, broadheads cause animals to hemorrhage to death. That’s because of the relatively low energy an arrow delivers at impact, compared with today’s hunting cartridges. Consequently, bowhunters are more likely to find themselves tracking wounded quarry.
Not that rifle hunters aren’t sometimes forced to search for lost animals. In fact, this becomes more likely the longer the shot. At extreme ranges, the bullet loses too much energy to produce a quick kill. Instead, the animal eventually succumbs to the trauma of the wound, although it may travel some distance first.
So, while the following 10 pointers are primarily geared toward bowhunters, rifle hunters would also do well to brush up on their tracking skills. And although these principles refer to deer as the main quarry, the same rules can also apply to other big game, such as moose.
1. Make the first shot count
Some of the most important things you can do to minimize the amount of tracking should actually be done before you take the shot. For starters, it’s essential to maintain a razor-sharp edge on all broadheads-this because of the relatively low energy an arrow delivers at impact. (Similarly, rifle hunters should make sure they’ve chosen an appropriate cartridge-bullet combination to do the job.)
But more importantly, you need to carefully pick your shot. This means waiting for that perfect broadside or quartering-away shot, and passing on others. It also means not shooting when the target is beyond the maximum range you are comfortable with, or if there are obstructions that may deflect the arrow from the heart and lung region.
This level of discipline is hard to achieve, especially when the target is a trophy buck and you have few such opportunities. But strive for a quick, humane kill; nothing can ruin a season like a lost trophy or an animal that needlessly suffers.
To help ensure clear shots, carefully choose the location for your treestand or ground blind. This requires pre-season scouting, if possible, and factoring in the prevailing wind direction, morning and evening sun locations, surrounding terrain, available cover and so on. If after setting up your stand you’re seeing plenty of deer but they’re out of range or coming in head-on, move. This may seem obvious, but it’s amazing how many hunters will stubbornly stick with their original location, day after day, hoping the deer will eventually appear as they’d predicted
2. Refine your shooting
Getting a good shooting opportunity is one thing, but you must also hit the mark. Using the same equipment you plan to hunt with, practise until you’re familiar with all of your gear and you’re comfortable shooting at all ranges, from a variety of positions. And don’t forget to practise from your treestand, where trajectories and ranges will be different than on the ground.
3. Learn to judge distances
Accurately estimating the distance to your target is crucial, especially in bowhunting. A good way to practise this skill is to guess the range to various landmarks, such as trees, while out for a walk, and then pace off the actual distance. This simple exercise can result in surprisingly accurate estimates after a short time.
From your stand, meanwhile, you should have a fairly good view of where game are likely to appear, so there’s no excuse for not knowing the exact range to these spots. Pace off the distance (preferably wearing scent-free rubber boots) to natural markers such as rocks, stumps or trees that coincide with the entry points. Or put out your own markers, making sure they’ll be visible under low-light conditions without spooking the animal. I know of one very disciplined bowhunter who will not shoot beyond 20 yards. He ties one end of a 20-yard piece of string to his treestand, and then walks around the tree with the other end in his hand, marking his maximum distance to various points all around his stand.
The best method is to use a range finder, as they are highly accurate (and factor in treestand height). And by using one, you avoid the risk of contaminating your stand location with human scent while pacing off distances. Just make sure you get the yardages before game appear, and remember to mark spots all around your stand-not just where you expect the animals to enter. You just never know.
4. Stay focused
Let’s say you’ve taken the shot, but the buck has run off. At this point, it’s important to make a careful mental note of where the animal was standing when you fired, and where you last saw it before it vanished. The latter is where you will start tracking, while the shot site should offer clues as to whether you actually hit the animal.
5. Don’t rush things
So you’ve taken the shot and made a mental note of where you last saw the deer. Now what? In a word, wait-for at least 30 minutes. This is the time to sit back, relax and smoke ’em if you got ’em. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to charge off after your trophy—as you imagine it getting farther and farther away with each passing minute—but resist you must. Don’t even climb down from your treestand, as the animal may see, hear or smell you.
The reason for the long wait is simple: if you immediately stomp around after the deer, you’ll push it even further away. With adrenaline pumping through its system, a mortally wounded animal can travel much farther than one that’s left alone, making tracking and recovery that much harder. Also, many veteran hunters swear that venison from a deer that was chased a long distance before recovery does not taste as good due to the high levels of adrenaline.
If not pursued, the animal is instead likely to lie down to rest after a short distance, and then succumb to its wound. With a solid hit in the vitals, a deer will usually not travel more than 100 yards, unless otherwise harassed.
A good way to occupy your mind during the 30-minute wait is to reflect on the shot. Did you see or hear the arrow or bullet strike home? How did the animal react to the shot? A deer that runs off with its head and neck stretched out low to the ground, crashing through the brush, is a good indicator of a hit, as is a deer that kicks out its hind legs as it runs off (not that the absence of such signs automatically means a miss).
While the 30-minute wait is critical, there are times when it’s simply not possible or practical. If there’s a heavy rain or snowfall that will quickly obliterate all signs, immediate tracking is usually advisable. A rapidly approaching nightfall can be another exception. In areas with high predator populations-namely coyotes-anything left out overnight may be ruined or eaten by morning. Otherwise, it’s usually a good idea to postpone the search until morning, especially when the temperature is cool enough to prevent spoilage.
6. Search for clues
Thirty minutes after making your shot climb down from your stand and search the shot site for evidence of a hit: bits of hair, tissue or blood. Not that a lack of such clues necessarily means you missed. In fact, always assume you made a hit, until you’re convinced otherwise.
If you do find evidence of a hit, it can tell you something about the nature of the wound. Foamy bright red or pink blood, for example, is a good sign of a lung shot. White belly hair or bits of intestines, meanwhile, means a gut-shot animal—and likely a long tracking job.
When you find such clues, mark the locations with big, bright objects, such as blaze orange vests and hats. Orange trail marker tape, or biodegradable facial or toilet tissue, can also be used for marking spots—just make sure that you remove them after recovering your trophy. Also mark the shot site and the spot where the animal was last seen, as you may need to come back to them.
7. Follow the evidence
Naturally, ground cover such as snow, mud or sand makes tracking a lot easier, but what if you don’t have such a luxury? Start looking for sign just beyond where you last saw the animal (while someone else looks ahead for a follow-up shot, if need be). Get down low and go slowly. Look for hoof marks in the grass or leaves, broken twigs or branches, bits of hair and, of course, drops of blood.
Depending on whether the projectile exited, the majority of the bleeding, especially from a good hit, could be internal. Don’t expect to see pools of blood—just small spots on the ground or cover. Also remember that autumn leaves, particularly when wet, can often take on colours that are easily mistaken for blood. Don’t be afraid to get down on your hands and knees to find out for sure-it will all be worth it.
And when you do find spoor, make sure that you clearly mark each spot. This way, if you lose the trail, you can go back to the last marker and circle it, gradually moving further out until you find the next sign. If you have to backtrack, be on the lookout for your trophy lying next to some obstacle that may have blocked your view earlier from the other direction.
8. Follow your instincts
Let’s assume that you lose the trail, and all further sign seems to have vanished. Go back to the shot site and look at your markers. You should be able to see a path emerging, and if you know the area (or have a topo map), you may be able to predict where the animal has headed.
First, though, carry on in the direction the markers appear to be pointing, and concentrate your search there for more sign. Only when no more sign can be found is it wise to head off in the direction in which you think the animal has travelled. (If you haven’t already done so, this is also the time to get as many buddies as possible to help you search.)
Wounded game will often head for the thickest, nastiest, most impenetrable cover around to find a place where they feel safe. Swamps, bogs, river bottoms and dense brush are all good bets. Along the way to these hideouts, deer will often take the path of least resistance, usually in the form of game trails, fencelines, logging trails and the like.
Such paths aren’t always evident, however, unless you get down and look under branches, at the deer’s eye level. This tendency for deer, especially wounded ones, to choose well-used escape trails is important to remember when trying to predict the path and destination of your quarry.
Also think about where the animal was wounded, as this can also determine the direction it takes. If hit in the hindquarters by mistake, for example, it would have a tough time travelling uphill. Conversely, downhill travel would be next to impossible if the animal is hit in the front legs. Watch for drag marks to reveal this type of wound.
When you think you’ve found where the deer has bedded down, don’t plod right in. Instead, search the perimeter of the cover for possible exit points, and position yourself and your hunting partners accordingly.
9. Don’t get discouraged
Take frequent breaks. Sit down, clear your head and think about the situation. It may not be as hopeless as it seems. Above all, don’t give up. Think of the waste of a lost animal, and redouble your efforts. Even if you end up giving away most of the meat to those helping you, it’s worth it.
There’s virtually no place a deer can go that a human can’t. If you know where the animal went, follow it. If you can’t find any more sign, keep looking until you do. And before you give up, do grid searches for the deer itself rather than sign. Don’t be afraid to search again the next day-and even the day after that-as the animal may be lying just under your nose, in the smallest bit of cover.
10. Know when to say “uncle” (or not)
We must always assume a hit, but if the shot didn’t look right in the first place, and you have no evidence to indicate a hit and the animal appears to be travelling normally, it’s probably safe to declare a miss after about a half-mile of tracking. Keep in mind, though, that countless hunters have found the tiniest drop of blood just as they were about to call off a long search.
If you do find evidence of a confirmed hit, you must do everything possible to try to recover the animal, as it is your ethical—not to mention legal—responsibility. Sure, the job of tracking and recovery may sound like a lot of hard work, but that’s because it can be.
And that’s something to keep in mind whenever you’re about to squeeze the trigger.
For hunters into gadgets, handheld thermal heat sensors can help find wounded game. These devices work by detecting changes in temperature relative to the surrounding environment, such as the body heat from a downed animal. About the size of a large flashlight, these battery-powered devices can gauge the intensity of changes in temperature, as well as the direction of the source. There are various models sporting different features, but the main difference is usually the effective range (with 100 yards at the low end, and 1,000 yards at the high end).
On the low-tech end of things is a chemical spray made by Tink’s, a company well known for its game scents. If you find a spot that looks like blood but you’re not sure, simply give it a quick spray of Tink’s Starlight Bloodhound. If the spot turns bright blue, it’s blood.