Solve The Blood Trial Mystery

Tips and tactics for finding your deer after the shot.

John Stanley | September 19, 2006

Preparation before the shot and perserverance on the blood trail after the shot can result in the successful recovery of most deer. The author shot this Rockdale County Pope & Young buck during the 2004 season.

I’ve been at this bowhunting thing for a pretty good while, about 37 years actually. As I look back, one of my fondest memories is of my first deer, a big doe I killed with a recurve in 1971 when I was 11 years old.

I remember all the details of the hunt that beautiful October day in Jasper County, including the time spent following the blood trail, which really stands out in my mind. Perhaps it was the anticipation of finding the deer or that it was my first blood-trailing experience. I suspect it also had a lot to do with the fact that my dad was there, carefully teaching me what to do and look for every exciting step of the way.

Those feelings haven’t diminished over the years, and I still enjoy solving the mystery of a blood trail and claiming the prize at the end.

To be a successful bowhunter there are a number of things you’ve got to be good at, and blood trailing is near the top of that list. It’s simply the nature of the game.

Before getting into the meat and potatoes of the art of blood trailing, let’s look at how you can help prepare yourself before you even leave home. I won’t call them “essentials” because you can certainly trail a deer without them, but here are two lists of blood-trailing items that have come in handy for me over the years.

Things to Carry When You’re Hunting:

• Toilet paper: This is great for marking sign on a blood trail. I carry a half of a roll or so in a Ziploc bag (to keep it dry) in my day pack. Simply tear off pieces and mark spots of blood as needed by hanging it on overhead limbs. It shows up well, and after the next rain, it’s gone.

• Flashlight: It’s amazing to me, but I hear stories every year of hunters going into the woods without a flashlight. I carry two, a high-quality miniature light and a good headlamp. I also carry spare batteries and bulbs for each. You’ll appreciate the second light when the first one goes out and you’re trying to change batteries in the dark. The headlamp is great for keeping your hands free while trailing and especially when gutting a deer at night.

• Light sticks: Something that is great to carry and has helped me out in numerous ways over the years are chemical light sticks or glow sticks. They’re about six inches long, activated by bending the plastic housing which breaks a glass vile and produces a chemical reaction. This causes the stick to glow; many of them last up to 12 hours. I carry three or four with me. You can find them at hardware stores or at some sporting-goods places. Should you lose a blood trail or find a deer in the dark and have to leave to go get help, activate a light stick and hang it up in a nearby tree to aid in finding the spot again later. It’s amazing how far you can see these at night.

A couple of years ago in Rockdale County I shot a good buck right before dark. The Muzzy broadhead did its job, and friend Doug Attaway and I found the buck a little over 100 yards away. The problem was that the deer fell in the middle of a big, briar- choked, young pine thicket where everything looked the same. I activated a light stick, hung it head high in a pine tree, and we were able to find the buck easily in spite of having to come in from the opposite direction later to pick him up with a four-wheeler.

• Peroxide in a spray bottle: Tough tracking jobs often mean time spent on your hands and knees looking for drops or specks of blood. Determining the difference between a speck of blood and a red spot on a leaf can sometimes be difficult. Spraying the suspected spot with peroxide will cause it to react and fizz if it’s blood. If it doesn’t react, keep looking.

• Compass and map: Getting turned around when trailing a deer can happen easily, especially at night or on unfamiliar property. You’re intent on looking ahead and searching for the next drop of blood, and the next thing you know you’re unsure of where in the heck you are. Always carry a map and compass or GPS and know how to use them before you hit the woods.

Things to Keep in Your Truck

Heavy-duty lights: If you shoot a deer late in the afternoon and can’t find it easily it’s often best to stop, regroup and get some help. Small lights are great to carry with you when hunting, but for the difficult tracking jobs I keep a couple of large 6V lights in my truck. Battery-operated, fluorescent lights work nicely as well, especially if you use a reflector to direct the light. A simple reflector can be made by using a couple of layers of heavy-duty aluminum foil and attaching it with duct tape to the back half of the globe.

When I was younger my dad always used a Coleman gas lantern for tracking, and many people still swear by their ability to highlight blood in the dark. They’re fine if you have them available. I, however, quit using them after a singed bow string and broken globe or two in the middle of tracking jobs.

• Leather gloves and a machete: There are few things less appealing, hunting wise, than tracking a wounded deer into a nasty Georgia clearcut, especially in early season. A wounded deer will often head for the thickest cover it can find. And of course these clearcuts are all full of briars and various things that do a wonderful job of sticking, cutting and slapping you in the face. Do yourself and your hands a favor and have some leather gloves available. They’re very helpful for pushing briars out of the way when following blood, dragging out a deer or transporting it on a four-wheeler.

A machete is another item that can be a big help in these situations. I used one once to hack out an area large enough to allow me to kneel while gutting a deer that had fallen in the middle of a briar patch.

• GON’s Dial-A-Trailing Dog List: Unless you’re certain your shot resulted in a superficial or non-lethal wound and you can’t find your deer, call a trail-dog owner for help. After arriving back at your truck following a lost blood trail is not the time to be calling your wife to get her to look the number up, either. Remember, time is of the essence as a fresh trail is easier to follow. I make a copy of the trailing dog list from the September GON each year and keep it in my truck’s glove compartment. I also program the name and number of my local tracker into my cell phone.

• Soap and water: The last item in my truck tracking kit is nothing more than a nice to have, but you’ll appreciate it before getting behind the wheel. A gallon jug of water, a bar of soap and a towel will help you clean up after a gutting job.

OK, now that the preliminaries are out of the way, let’s fast-forward to opening day of bow season. You’re in a stand with a deer feeding broadside at 20 yards. You draw your bow, take aim and release the arrow. Your actions, patience and attention to detail from this point forward could possibly mean the difference between a lost deer and a successfully recovered deer.

Pay close attention to the EXACT location of the deer at the shot, where the arrow hits and the deer’s reaction. Watch the deer as it runs, and mentally mark the last spot before it disappears from view. Be very quiet and LISTEN. You can often hear the deer running after you lose sight and continue to track its line of flight or hopefully hear it fall.

Now’s the time to do your best to fight off the adrenaline rush and urge to immediately take up the trail. Sit down, enjoy the moment, look at your watch and note the time. It’s at this point where many inexperienced bowhunters break one of the cardinal rules of trailing deer — following the blood trail too soon.

Sage advice given to me many years ago by my dad will always be true. “Son, if a deer you shoot is dead within a couple of minutes, it’ll be just as dead in an hour. If it’s not dead and you rush things and jump it up, your chances of finding it just went way down.”

Unless I actually see the deer go down I sit quietly in my stand for at least 30 to 45 minutes. A sharp broadhead kills by causing hemorrhaging, not shock, and bows are relatively quiet. As a result, after being shot the deer likely doesn’t know what has just happened and may bed down within earshot. Remaining quiet will increase the odds of the deer staying right there and succumbing to its wound. Carefully study the area (use binoculars if you have them) where the deer was standing at the shot as well as the last place seen. Burn into your memory the location of any trees, stumps, brightly colored leaves or any other detail that will help you pinpoint the exact area where you’ll be searching for sign.

Re-play the shot sequence, shot angle and the deer’s reaction over in your mind. Did the deer hunch up and slowly trot off? If so, it was possibly a gut shot. Did the deer kick up its hind legs and take off with its tail down, running low to the ground? Could be a good shot in the vitals. Is any of this written in stone? Unfortunately, no. Just like the belief of many that a deer that bounds off with its flag up has been missed is not always true. Your goal at this point is to decipher all the clues you have and put them together with the information you’re hopefully about to find on the ground and then determine your next step.

Your 45-minute wait, which seemed closer to a couple of hours, is up. You’ve quietly descended and are now standing where the deer was when you took the shot. Take a piece of toilet paper and mark the spot, even if there is no blood or other sign, as you may have to come back to it. Examine your arrow if you find it here. Get on your hands and knees if you have to and study the area, and be very careful not to destroy any evidence.

Bright red or pinkish blood with tiny bubbles likely indicates a lung hit. I’ll take up the trail after about an hour on a suspected lung or heart shot. Dark blood can be the result of a liver shot. This is indeed a fatal shot, but the animal likely won’t go down as quickly as a lung-shot deer. I’ll give this deer two to three hours. Light red blood mixed with stomach contents indicate a gut shot (you can tell by the smell of the arrow as well). This deer will most assuredly die; you just have to give it plenty of time. I suggest eight to 12 hours. Unless there are unique circumstances, I’ll wait until the following morning to take up the trail of a deer gut shot in the afternoon. I’ve heard many stories of gut-shot deer being lost. This is where the cardinal rule really comes into play — DO NOT trail a gut-shot deer too soon. Give it ample time and the odds of finding it within a couple of hundred yards are good.

You won’t always find blood right off the bat, even on a perfect shot through the body cavity. There will be a short period of time between when the arrow hits and when the blood finds its way outside the body cavity and onto the ground. It may only take three seconds, but a startled deer could have covered 40 yards or more by then. As a result, don’t become alarmed if no blood is found within the first 30 yards.

Unless the blood trail is heavy and easy to follow at a walk, I mark all blood with a piece of toilet paper. This makes it easier to look back and get an idea of the line the deer was traveling should you lose the blood. Only as a last resort will I go walking ahead in search of blood. If I can’t track from one spot to another over a short distance, I’ll spend a lot of time on my hands and knees searching.

Don’t get tunnel vision searching for clues only on the ground. Look on trees and their leaves, logs and rocks. And don’t forget other indicators such as hair and tracks. Also keep your eyes open for ants and yellow jackets that may be attracted to small spots of blood and pieces of meat.

If you hunt long enough there will be a time where a blood trail ends and you completely lose track, at least temporarily. You’ve returned to the last marked spot several times, crawled around and simply can’t find anything else. Be sure the last blood is marked well and start slowly easing along the suspected line of travel. If you have a hunting buddy with you, leave him where the blood ended to continue the searching. One buddy, two at the most is OK for help when trailing. Just make sure they understand their roles, don’t destroy the evidence by walking all over it and know what they are looking for. If you don’t have any luck searching the direction you think the deer continued, go back to the end of the trail and slowly begin searching in ever widening circles.

Trailing a difficult-to-find deer is a game of highs and lows. Just when you begin feeling disappointed, you’ll sometimes find a spot of blood or where the deer turned off a trail and your hopes soar. I had plenty of that one night on a trail back in the 80s.

It was opening day of bow season, and I was hunting a new club in Harris County. Shortly before dark a good buck trotted out of a clearcut and by my stand. I stopped him with a low bleat and rushed my release, pulling the shot a little too far forward. I sat in my stand until after dark, climbed down and found my arrow covered in blood and the beginning of a pretty good blood trail. An hour or so after the shot I started trailing by flashlight and finally gave up hours later after my second flashlight went out (I had broken my own rule about carrying spare batteries) about 1 a.m. in the morning. I didn’t have a clue where I was, but knew which way I had to go to get back to the road. I ended up following my compass using a light stick for illumination.

When I made it back to camp I was greeted by several hunters looking at a map while waiting on the sheriff to arrive so they could begin their search party and look for me! I hadn’t met any of the other club members prior to then, hadn’t seen anyone else down there that day, and it had never occurred to me that anyone was looking for me. All I knew was that I had a wounded deer on my hands and had to do my best to find him. I looked again the next day to no avail. Fortunately the buck survived as I saw him a month later chasing does not far from where I had my encounter with him.

Today we have a great option that wasn’t readily available when I shot that Harris County buck. If you can’t find a wounded deer on your own, four-legged help is as close as a phone call away with the GON Dial-a-Trailing Dog list. Make sure you have the list available. Dogs such as these have found many deer in the past that would have gone unrecovered. The dogs are a thrill to watch as they work and if they can’t find your deer, you’ll at least know you’ve done everything possible to recover it.

As a bowhunter there are few things more exciting than watching your fletchings disappear after you pull off the perfect shot and center-punch a big buck behind the shoulder. But as we all know, things don’t always happen that way. Unseen limbs deflect shots, deer jump the string, and from time to time we simply make poor shots. Even the best of shots can sometimes lead to significantly long blood trails. Keep all that in mind when you hit the woods this month, be prepared, and don’t give up until after you’ve found your deer or exhausted all means possible. Your perseverance could lead to a memory of your own that will be with you forever… and some fine-eating venison to boot.

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