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Home / Luke Fabian / “Tracking Deer Made Easy”

“Tracking Deer Made Easy”

January 4, 2016
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Alright, so a few people have asked me about this topic, and I’ve been wanting to write about it for quite some time now I just haven’t got around to it with Ohio’s rut going on. It’s the age-old question of what to look for when blood trailing, and how long should you wait before tracking your quarry. A majority of you bow hunt whitetails so that’s what I’m going to mainly focus on in this article. However; even though a whitetail’s anatomy can be much different than other big game animals’, a lot of this information can translate to other species that you may be chasing after with your stick and string. 

First off before you even enter the woods it’s an absolute must to do one thing, and that’s research the animal’s anatomy that you will be pursuing. I’ve heard countless stories of bowhunters who said they made perfect shots, but never found the animal. Then when they tell me where they hit them I realize they have no clue about the anatomy of that animal. Bowhunting is all about learning, and it can do nothing but good to do your research before you start hunting a specific big game animal.

Second, if you can film your hunts, fantastic. You’re going to have a tremendous advantage over everyone else solely because you can replay that shot over and over again to determine precisely where you hit that deer. It’s always nice to have that luxury. It gives you much more confidence when you start at the head of that blood trail. However, if you do not film your hunts, you need to make sure you get a good look at where that arrow enters the deer’s body. I know sometimes this can be very difficult, even near impossible because I’ve experienced it firsthand. Especially if you do not have a lighted nock (which I highly recommend using because they can be a life saver on identifying marginal shots). So if you don’t shoot lighted nocks just do your best to get a good look at that entry hole.

The next step I believe is one of the most overlooked things in bowhunting, and that’s watching how that deer acts after you send a broadhead through it’s chest cavity. Does it run away? Does it sprint away? Does it just kind of hunker over, and walk away? You need to pay close attention to how that buck or doe acts once you’ve made contact with your arrow. I believe the main reason it gets overlooked is because you have all that adrenaline rushing through your body after you just arrowed a deer. You’re blood’s pumping, you’re heart’s going 100 miles per hour, and I understand that. I do it too. The day I don’t react like that is the day I’ll quit bowhunting. However; you need to do your best to watch that animal to see what it does. Pay attention to landmarks it goes by so even if it goes out of sight, and you have no blood trail at first (for instance on a single lung hit), you can follow it’s route until hopefully you can pick up on blood.

Illustrated here is a diagram of the anatomy of a white-tailed deer.

Once you’ve watched that buck or that doe move out of sight, you need to wait at least a half an hour in your stand, or blind or what have you. Regardless of the hit, it’s always important to give the animal at least this much time to expire. Plus, it gives you time to calm down from the excitement of releasing an arrow. The next part is going to depend on your shot placement, and the appearance of your arrow. In the second half of this article I’ve broken down each scenario on what to do based on your shot placement. Just be warned: not every deer is going to react the same. So waiting times, and how the deer acts once it’s been shot can vary even with the same shot placement.

Here is a prime example of a double lung shot. The red line represents the path of the arrow.

Double Lung

A double lung hit can be indicated by bright-red and/or pink-colored blood. Air bubbles in the blood or on your arrow might indicate a lung wound. These blood trails are usually very easy to follow, with massive amounts of spattered blood reaching the ground, and sometimes sprayed on the sides of trees, bushes, etc. Be warned that the blood trail may not start for up to 50 yards of where the deer was shot, as most of the bleeding will be internal. Any external blood will come from fine spray exiting out deer’s nostrils and mouth, with very little coming out of the entry and/or exit wounds. I always recommend waiting a minimum of 30 minutes before beginning any blood-trailing efforts despite knowing this shot can result in the deer expiring in less than 10 seconds after impact.

When we take the lungs away we can see here, a shot that probably passed through one if not both lungs, but also the heart.

Heart or Arteries

This shot includes the heart, or any major arteries leading to the heart such as the ones right next to it, the aorta that runs along the top of a deer’s back, the carotid artery and jugular vein that are in a deer’s neck, the pyloric artery that runs along their belly, and the femoral arteries that run down their back legs. For a heart or artery shot, blood will appear as a dark, crimson red. The blood trail will usually be steady and easy to follow. Be warned that even a heart-shot deer can travel a long distance, sometimes 100 yards or more. I would only wait a half an hour before beginning to look for blood.

Here is just one example of a single lung hit. Many times a quartering to shot or a low body shot can result in only hitting one lung.

Single Lung

What makes a single lung hit tricky, is just as a double lung hit this shot can be identified by bright-red and/or pink-colored blood. Again, there may be air bubbles in the blood or on your arrow shaft. The deer’s blood trail intensity usually increases after 50 yards, but then slowly peters to a drop here, a drop there, etc. Single lung hits can be very difficult to decide what to do mainly because they can look just like a double lung shot. If you know for a fact you only hit one lung, wait at least 2 hours before picking up the trail. If it’s hard to tell at first, then you begin to lose blood. Back out, and come back in 1-2 hours. Be prepared to make a follow up shot.

Here we see a liver hit. The arrow is almost dead center between the deer’s back and front legs, and centered between the top of the back and the bottom of it’s stomach.

Liver

For a liver hit, blood will appear as a dark red, almost an opaque-maroon. Note: this is NOT the same dark-red (blackish) as from a pure intestinal wound. The deer typically will lunge, then slowly lope away or even walk. A liver blood trail can be very spotty. Most blood will hit the ground when the deer runs. However; the wound can sometimes be clogged by intestinal pressure. This deer will be relatively easy to track if, and only if, you allow enough time for the animal to expire before you take up the trail. A liver hit deer will typically travel less than 300 yards if it is not pushed. Wait a minimum of 6-8 hours before you begin tracking.

Illustrated is a perfect representation of an intestinal hit. The shot is far back on the body, just in front of the back leg.

Intestines/Paunch

This shot includes both the intestines and the paunch/stomach. It can be indicated by puddles and/or droplets of brownish-green liquid and/or amounts of partially digested food matter on the ground and on your arrow. A gut shot (as it’s commonly called) can be easily identified by a rank odor on the arrow. The deer may react just the same as a liver hit by hunching over and walking slowly away. In other instances I’ve seen deer walk just a few yards, and bed down after a gut hit. Do your best to get out of the woods as quietly as possible. The waiting time for this shot has been very misconstrued. A lot of hunters believe on a gut shot, if you return the following morning (after an evening shot) or if you return that night (after a morning shot) you will find the deer expired. It depends on the shot. If the deer was quartering away, and your arrow hit other organs maybe even vitals, the deer may expire more quickly. But on a pure intestinal shot, you should wait a full 24 hours before returning to search for your deer. I understand the concern of coyotes, and other predators getting to the animal first waiting that long. However; the meat is going to be spoiled with a gut shot anyways. In my personal opinion, I believe it’s worth the wait (especially on a buck) to recover at least the rack, rather than push that deer too soon to hopefully save the cape and meat. Taking up the blood trail too soon will only put more anxiety on that deer and push them further, and may end up costing you finding that deer at all.

In this picture we see an example of a spine hit. The arrow misses all organs and vitals, but severs the spinal cord therefore dropping the animal on the spot.

Spine

I’m sure most of you know what a spine shot deer does, and how to resolve it based off personal experience or seeing it happen on television, but I still would like to touch on the subject. With a spine shot deer, it is going to collapse on the spot. The spinal cord has been severed or a vertebrae has been broken so the deer will lose the ability to move it’s back legs and/or it’s front legs. This will only immobilize the deer, not expire it. It’s an unfortunate thing, but it happens in bowhunting. We can’t all make perfect shots every time. So to expire the deer humanely you need to attempt a follow-up shot into vitals, even if this means getting down from your stand.

This is a prime example of a lower leg shot. This is usually a miss by the hunter who was aiming for the heart. It is non-lethal unless you happen to clip a major artery.

Lower Leg

A lower leg hit can be indicated by bright, red blood. Pieces of meat or bone might also be found near hit site or on your arrow. This usually happens when a bowhunter aims for the heart, but misses only by a few inches hitting only bone, muscle, and tendon. A lower leg shot is non-lethal unless you are lucky enough to clip a major artery with the broadhead. Begin tracking after 30 minutes if you’re unsure, but if it’s a pure leg hit than you’ll likely lose blood quickly and the deer will likely live.

This is just one example of a muscle hit. There are many ways in which you could miss the vitals and hit just muscle, but this seems to be the most frequent. The shot is too high to puncture any vitals, while at the same time too low to sever the spine ultimately leading to a non-lethal shot.

Muscle

A muscle hit can be indicated by large amounts of bright, red blood. Pieces of meat, hide and fat might also be found near impact site or on your arrow. Sometimes this blood trail can look a lot like a vital hit. Unfortunately, it’s not. Begin blood trailing efforts after a half an hour, but more than likely if it’s a pure muscle hit, the deer is still alive for it is a non-lethal shot. You may get lucky, and get trail camera pictures later in the season if the deer wanders back into the area which I’ve witnessed on several occasions on both muscle, and lower leg hits.

So whether you’re chasing whitetails in the midwest, or elk in the rockies, or any other big game across North America, knowing the anatomy of that specific game you’ll be bowhunting is crucial. Do your research beforehand so you’ll be educated when it comes crunch time. Once that moment of truth arrives, make sure you get a good look at where that arrow enters the animal’s body. Whether that’s through a camera, having a hunting partner spot you, using a lighted nock, or just watching that arrow with your eagle eyes. Then you need to ask yourself these questions. Is it quartering away, to, broadside? Is it back, forward, high, or low? Or is it right in the boiler room? Pay close attention to how that animal reacts. Does it limp away? Does it bed down just a few yards from where you shot? Or does it bust out of there like it just seen a ghost? Then if you find the arrow close by, check it to try and determine what organs that arrow may or may not have hit. Is it bright red blood, a dark/crimson, or does it have food matter and a rank odor? Questions like these are going to help you choose to wait the appropriate amount of time before you begin tracking that animal. These are the things that are going to help you make better decisions when it comes time to take up the blood trail.

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About Luke

Luke Fabian

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My Bio

I am a 25 year old from Cambridge, Ohio, a Muskingum University graduate, and the Education Coordinator for the Deerassic Park Education Center. I've been a bowhunting filmmaker and writer for the past 9 years. I've trekked across North America pursuing all sorts of big game with my bow. I host "Stick & String TV" on The Hunting Channel & I have my own series of hunting films on YouTube. You can also watch my whitetail hunts on Mathews Dominant Bucks TV. I'm chasing down my dream to one day be able to educate and entertain my fellow bowhunters at a national level. As a filmmaker and writer of the outdoors, my job is to bring my fans the best quality footage and top notch information of the outdoors. Not only I am trying to pursue big game with my bow which is a hard enough task in itself, but I'm also trying to lay down top quality footage at the same time. I want to bring you a story of the hunt. My videos and articles are not only for you, but for me as well. So we can both learn, but hopefully also be entertained at the same time. It's never been about being some big name in hunting. I just do it because it's what I love to do. It's my passion. I love to relive that adrenaline rush I get from bowhunting, and sharing that feeling with others. Filming and writing gives me that opportunity. Any way I can help my fellow bow hunters I'm going to try and incorporate that in my work.  So I hope y'all enjoy.