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The Art of Deer Recovery

What's this look like? Is this a good hit? How long should I wait? These questions, along with pictures of blood, will flood the hunting pages, groups, chat rooms, and forums across social media and the web in the coming fall.

More people bow hunt in recent years due to YouTube, social media, and crossbow legalization in many states. The amount of new hunters hitting the woods has exploded. Our ranks have never been higher, but with the swelling of our ranks, a little education can go a long way.

I’m not knocking new hunters. Most of us learned by trial and error too. It's just facts, and if this article can save a few lads from hardships, I’ll take it!

Let’s talk wounded game. Many archery hunters miss the boat, understanding what happened during their shot. It’s been more prevalent in the last five years, almost coinciding with legalized tracking dogs in PA.

There's only one problem with relying on tracking dogs, and that is availability. Yes, dogs help recover lost deer that would otherwise become coyote bait. The fact is, there's a limited amount of legitimate trackers available, and these guys get booked fast!

Trackers don't do it for money. They track for the love of the art and their dogs. They usually have full-time jobs, so they often only take opportunities with the highest chance of finding the animal. So it's imperative that we take blood trailing skills seriously and not use tracking dogs as a crutch rather than a last resort.

It’s essential to give attention to the actual shot placement. Was it high? Was it low? Was it center? Forward or back? Taking note of that info is vital! Next, consider the angle of your shot; quartering to or away? How high was the shot? Was the deer on a slope? Pairing the angle with a visual i.d. of your shot can tell you when to begin tracking.

For example, you’re 20ft up in a tree, and the deer is 12 yards at your 11 o'clock position. It may seem like the deer is broadside. However, because you're moving from your 12 o'clock position to 11, you're turning to a frontal angle. Now you've gone to a high entry with a low and back exit. You may get lungs and liver, but your shot will exit the guts. That shot risks plugging the exit wound, making blood hard to find. You'll be looking for blood but more likely to follow brown and green slime from guts. A pass through is your best chance of finding blood, as two holes are better than one.

Keep track of where the animal was when you made the shot, the direction of travel, and the last sighting. The adrenaline rush makes focusing tough, but it is a must. Make a mental note of a tree, branch, boulder, or shrub where you last saw the deer standing. Always give yourself a reference point to reevaluate if the track becomes difficult.

The deer’s reaction to the shot is important as well. The moment of impact, as well as the post-shot response, can tell you the severity of the wound. A deer kicking its back legs upon the impact of a shot has a good chance of leading to a dead animal. It may not always be the case, but it is a good indicator of a hard hit.

The bull rush, death run, is when a deer takes off at a mad dash with its head down. It will follow a hard line, not avoiding trees, brushes, or terrain changes. Usually, the deer’s tail tucks, and the hind quarter will also drop. This animal won’t last long! It's the hallmark of a mortally wounded deer.

Sometimes you'll see the deer make a quick sprint, tail tucked or sometimes up, then stop and look back. If the deer hunches its back and its head slumps down, the hit is probably a gut shot. A deer bounding away, tail up, isn't usually a good sign. But that can be due to the state of the animal at the moment of the shot. I've shot a buck that was completely relaxed and eating. He took several bounds with his tail up, paused, wobbled, and fell dead. Now, if the deer bounds away, tail up and keeps going, or stops and walks off, head up and alert, that deer probably does not have a mortal wound. If the deer is bounding away and traveling uphill, that worries me at times as well.

A hard-hit, mortally wounded deer will generally avoid uphill travel. I've seen deer run up hills, but never a vital hit. The tail is something I key in on as well. If the deer runs and stops, I look for the tail. If the tail is tucked or shaking/quivering, that deer is likely sporting a mortal wound.

Wait time is very critical. If you're up to snuff with your deer anatomy, this should make it simple. Heart and lungs wait 30 minutes to play it safe. I like to say a pie plate behind the front shoulder is a fair assessment of the goodie box for that wait time.

The liver shot, mid-body center punch. To me, if I see that, I've noted where that animal was standing when I shot and the last place I saw him on his exit out of sight. I'll wait 3-4 hours on a liver shot before I pick up the trail.

The gut punch is past the mid-body in front of the hind quarter; I will immediately attempt to call a tracker because I know this will be difficult. If you can locate a tracker to help, DO NOT go near where the deer was or look for your arrow. You want to keep the area unmolested and give the dog its best shot at picking up the trail. If you can't find a tracker, wait 12 hours before picking up the trail. Take it slow because there's a very good chance the animal is still alive.

Blood analysis. If you find your arrow, the first thing I do is smell it. Whether I saw the location impact or not, I want mental confidence that it doesn't smell like guts. If it does, it can and will dictate how I proceed from there. Running a 4-inch white wrap on the arrows can help show what kind of blood you see. That determines what kind of a hit there is.

Rich, bright red, and sprayed around.

Very likely, a heart shot and a 30-minute wait should suffice. Begin the track slowly.

Bright red to pink, frothy blood is probably a lung shot. While the animal is likely already dead, the angle of the shot may have only caused a one-lung hit. Waiting an additional 15 minutes on top of the 30 won't kill you. If the blood trail becomes long, but you're still getting a good amount of bubbly blood, you can bet it's a single lung. At this time, your best bet is to keep pushing forward. Even if you bump the animal, keep moving! Your goal is to cause the other lung to collapse.

Deer have been known to survive single-lung hits. So stay on them. Side note, keep tabs on property lines. You may run out of room and need to call for permission to continue your pursuit!

Dark red or maroon colored indicates a liver-hit deer is a 3-4 hour wait. Deer may bed several times.

Brown, green, yellow watery, and rotten smelling is no bueno. It is a paunch shot, also known as guts—12 hr wait before going in. Cross your fingers. This deer will expire; when and where is the question? Take up the track slowly. Ready yourself for a 2nd shot. They can run long distances on gut shots!

Red, watery blood at the site of impact might be a muscle shot, be weary of it having a few tiny bubbles in it down the line as well. Trackers have told me that friction of the muscles and hide can create a false sense of a lung shot. These blood trails look good and end up being "how can it just disappear" jobs. It’s best to follow quickly to keep the animal bleeding. If the animal is left to sit, the wound will clot, and you're out of luck. Keep him bleeding and cross your fingers that he loses enough to become weak and tired, where you may get another shot.

While on the track, do your best to stay focused and calm. Fight off the adrenaline rush and zero in on your senses. If you lose blood, don't panic. It's essentially a crime scene; treat it as such. Any little piece helps! Look for tracks that show struggling or sliding. Often you'll find specks of blood in them. Look for broken branches and twigs. They usually will have faint smears of blood there.

Always mark your last point of blood so you can look back and try and get a direction of travel as you're going. Marking it on a GPS app on your phone can also help to the same effect. Just remember, though, batteries die. Surveyors' tape and toilet paper can do the job effectively and don't require charging.

It is truly a daunting task to keep your composure for the shot, and even more so after the shot, but it is a must to ensure the recovery of your trophy. I hope this article finds you well and wish you all the best of luck this fall.

Stay safe and shoot straight!

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