Read on to learn all about how to follow a blood trail from a wounded deer.
All that work you put in to get a shot opportunity on a nice deer finally came together: you built your food plot, set up your stands, cleared shooting lanes, and practiced at the range all came down to one moment. Don’t despair because the deer did not drop at the shot. Most deer will run a short distance, even after receiving a lethal hit in the vitals. Though it sounds simple enough, following a blood trail from a wounded deer is not always easy.
As an ethical hunter, you have a responsibility to do everything possible to recover any deer you wound, not just the ones that are easy to find. So, be prepared to spend some serious time and energy during the recovery process.
Don’t despair though. By following a few simple rules, you’ve got a very good chance of recovering your deer. Keep reading to learn all about how to follow a blood trail from a wounded deer.
Make a Good Shot
Though it may seem obvious, following the blood trail from a wounded deer is much easier when the trail is short. This all begins with making a good shot. Use a powerful enough gun (or bow) and good quality bullets (or arrows). Study good shot placement on deer from a number of different animals. Then practice, practice, practice until you can hit the vitals on a deer at the range you’ll be shooting at almost in your sleep.
Watch and Listen
When you take the shot, pay extremely close attention, take a mental photo of how the deer was standing, and “call your shot.” Most of the time, you’ll know immediately if you made a good shot or if you pulled it one way or another. The same applies if the deer took a step just as you squeezed the trigger or “jumped the string” when you released the arrow. These are all important things to take note of and can potentially have a major impact on how your tracking job goes.
Next, pay attention to how the deer reacts to the shot. Not all deer give an indication that they were hit and there are numerous instances of deer running off apparently unscathed, but lie down and die less than 50 yards away. However, many deer do give some sort of reaction to being hit.
If the deer kicks out its hind legs and takes off running away wildly and crashing through bushes and small trees after the shot, that’s usually a good sign. I distinctly remember shooting a doe several years ago that turned and ran straight over a 5 foot tall pine tree and then crashed madly through the brush for a few seconds. When I inspected the tree a few minutes later, it was absolutely covered in blood. Though it took me a little while to find her due to the extremely thick vegetation, I had made a good shot through both lungs and she ran less than 50 yards before expiring.
On the other hand, a deer shot in the stomach or intestines may “hunch up” a bit before running off. If you see a deer do this, take a follow-up shot if at all possible and be extremely cautious in tracking the deer as it will often bed down close by.
Some whitetail deer will run off with their tails down or only half up after receiving a lethal hit. However, don’t rely on the position of a deer’s tail to judge your shot as it is not a completely reliable indicator.
Watch the wounded deer as it runs off and make a visual mark of the last place you saw it, which will give you a good place to start looking for the blood trail. Don’t forget to listen to the sounds it makes after it is out of sight. This will also help give you a good idea what direction it was going and you may even hear it hit the ground.
Take a Photo
As soon as the deer goes out of sight and you can no longer hear it, pull out your phone and take a photo of the spot you shot the deer and the spot you last saw it. Things often look different on the ground than they do from a tree stand and this will also create a sharp image you can refer to later if necessary to help find the blood trail.
The exact amount of time you should wait after the shot really varies. If at all possible, I normally wait at least 10 minutes if I’m reasonably certain that I made a good hit with a rifle. Bow hunters should wait longer, usually at least 30 minutes to an hour. However, you may want to wait longer, potentially several hours or even overnight, especially if you’re afraid you did not make a good shot. Wounded deer often bed down within a short distance and will stay there and expire unless spooked. The last thing you want to do is start tracking the deer too early and push the deer. If this happens, you could be in for a long day.
Take a few minutes to calm down and replay shot in your head. What shoulder did you shoot the deer in? Did you pull the shot? If you took a video of the hunt, watch video (with the sound off) and pay particular attention to the reaction of the deer and where it went after the shot.
Obviously bad weather, hot temperatures (meat spoilage), or the simple fact that your hunt is nearly over and you’ve got a plane home to catch, all pay a role in how long you should wait. For this reason, you should also take these things into consideration before you even pull the trigger or release your arrow. If you’ve got a slam dunk shot on a really nice deer, then it might be okay to take the shot if you’ve got a bad storm rolling in. Otherwise, you should really think hard about passing on the shot until you’ve got some better tracking conditions.
The absolute last thing you want to do is wound a deer and then not be able to find it because it started raining and you lost the trail. It’s happened to me and it’s a terrible feeling.
Analyze the Shot Location
After waiting the right amount of time after the shot, walk straight to the spot the deer was standing when you shot it and start looking for blood. Red, frothy blood means you hit the deer in the lungs, which is a great sign. Bright red blood red might indicate a heart shot (good news) or a leg shot (bad news). Dark red blood usually means a hit to the liver, which is virtually always lethal, given enough time. Dark blood mixed with water and foul smelling green or brown material means a stomach and or intestines.
Bow hunters can also learn a lot from analyzing their arrow (if they find it). The type of blood on the arrow tells a similar story to blood on the ground. By examining how much blood was on the arrow, whether or not it was broken, and any hair on the arrow, it can also provide other clues about the shot placement or if the arrow passed completely through the animal.
Based on the information gleaned from examining the start of the blood trail, make a decision on whether or not to start following up the deer. If evidence indicates a liver or gut shot, you should probably wait another couple of hours before picking up the trail. In the case of a gut shot, you might also want to consider getting some help in the form of a tracking dog (if it’s legal) or a friend.
Follow the Blood Trail
Mark the start of the blood trail and every drop of blood with something highly visible. A scrap of toilet paper works great for this. So does orange or pink surveyor’s tape. If you have a GPS, mark the trail the deer took with several waypoints. This will help you visualize the trail the wounded deer was taking and may also provide some clues as to where the deer was heading.
Once you’re on the trail, move very slowly and carefully. If you’ve got someone with you, keep talking to a minimum. The deer may be bedded close by and you don’t want to spook it if at all possible.
Sometimes it may also be necessary to get down on your hands and knees to find blood. Additionally, be very careful where you step. For this reason, I recommend walking off to the side of the trail so you’re not accidentally stepping on and removing unseen drops of blood.
At the same time, don’t just look on the ground for blood. You’ll often find blood on bushes, tall grass, and trees that the wounded deer brushes up against as it moves by. Every so often, take a detailed look ahead and around you. You just might catch a glimpse of an antler or a patch of white on the ground indicating the location of the dead deer.
As a general rule, wounded deer often (but not always) run downhill. They also often often run to water and/or heavy cover. I found the first doe I ever shot literally in the middle of a creek at the bottom of a hill after tracking her for about 100 yards. Getting her out of there was not fun!
So what do you do if the blood trail ends, but you still can’t find the deer? First, mark the end of the trail. Then, take a step back and reevaluate the situation. If it’s getting dark, head back to camp and resume the search in the morning. You’d be amazed at how different things look in the light of day.
Whatever you do, don’t lose hope and don’t hit the panic button. Sometimes it can help to take a break and clear your head. This is where those markers you were leaving along the blood trail come in handy.
I once shot a feral hog in Texas just before dark. I thought I made a good hit, but the hog was leaving a very sparse blood trail (which hogs are known to do) that petered out about the same time my flashlight battery started to die. I clearly marked the spot with surveyor tape and headed back to camp. The next morning I followed the trail I had marked to where it ended. I looked up and saw the dead hog about 15 feet away bedded in some bushes. However, it was camouflaged well enough that there was no way I was going to spot it at night before I was practically stepping on it.
Sometimes it’s not that easy though. If the blood trail runs out, you can then conduct a zig-zag search starting at the end of the blood trail along the wounded deer’s final direction of travel. If that doesn’t work, search near water sources and in any nearby pieces of cover that it might have bedded down in.
If you still can’t find the wounded deer, another strategy is to start conducting a detailed grid search using a GPS. This can help you thoroughly cover all the ground in the area without missing a spot. The same rules apply though: don’t get in a hurry, look in and around thick cover and water, and be on the lookout for both the resumption of the blood trail (unlikely, but possible) or finding the actual deer.
Unfortunately, despite our best efforts at following the blood trail, we sometimes lose a wounded deer. We owe it to the deer to do everything you can to find it, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Especially if the blood trail indicated a hit to one of the limbs, this might mean the deer will survive the wound. Unfortunately, this is not often the case, especially with gut shot animals, and it is always with a heavy heart that we have to give up the search on a seriously injured deer.
If you have to give up without finding your wounded deer, I recommend notching your tag. From a conservation standpoint, you should treat that deer as deceased and at least mentally count it against your bag limit for that hunting area and season.
On a long enough timeline, losing a wounded deer happens to the best of us. If it does happen, reevaluate everything that could have gone wrong and resolve to do better next time.
Like what you see here? You can read more great hunting articles by John McAdams on his hunting blog. Follow him on Facebook The Big Game Hunting Blog, Twitter @TheBigGameHunt and on Instagram The_Big_Game_Hunter