I learned the importance of tracking at an early age. Many weekends of my early childhood were spent with my father helping his friends look for deer that had recently fallen victim to another poorly placed shot. We would spend countless hours searching the hills and valleys, looking under every tree and bush in what usually turned out to be nothing more than an unorganized search party. Our biggest accomplishment was normally running the rest of the deer in the area out of the county. These were the days of overdraws, huge string silencers and aluminum arrows. Bows were slow and recovery rates on deer were even slower. Archery equipment has certainly come a long way since those days but the first and most important aspect of recovering your animal remains the same, shot placement.
Let’s face it, as bowhunters we’re going to make bad shots from time to time. I know I’ve had my fair share but we owe it to ourselves and to the animals we pursue to be as efficient as possible. For starters, picking the right angle to unleash an arrow can have a huge impact. There are a few key points I take into consideration before sending my arrow toward its ultimate destination.
First, I try to stay away from ‘Quartering to’ shots. These angles leave less room for error because the shoulder tends to block most of the vitals. These shots are not impossible but should only be taken as a last resort. A few inches too far to the right or left could result in a long tracking job or even worse, a wounded animal.
Second, the perfect broadside animal gives us the best chance for a double lung shot but do yourself a favor. If time allows, let the animal take one last step moving the shoulder forward and opening up even more of the vitals.
Lastly, quartering away animals also allow for a high quality shot. As a rule of thumb, use the front leg on the opposite side as a reference point. Try to line your sight pin up with this leg so that your arrow comes out right behind the opposite shoulder. As long as the angle is not too extreme this shot will generally lead to a short recovery of your animal.
Knowing exactly where your shot enters and exits the animal is an imperative part of the recovery process. There are two things I do that help me with this. Possibly the easiest is to use a video camera and replay the shot. Although this can be done fairly easily with two people, it is possible for one person to accomplish this with practice. You don’t have to be a professional videographer or have a high dollar camera. Any camcorder will work but I prefer one with a flip out screen so that I can see the animal is in the frame before the shot. Don’t forget to push the record button!
Next, try shooting with both eyes open. I taught myself to do this a few years ago and it has greatly increased my range and decreased the size of my groups. What this will also do is help you maintain a visual of your arrow as it flies toward the target. This takes much more practice, but will greatly improve your shooting ability if you can master it. Brightly colored vanes will also greatly enhance the visual affect of your shot. Yellow allows for an amazing contrast, especially at dawn and dusk. A Swhacker tipped Victory VAP with three yellow AAE vanes is my ammo of choice.
Once you are confident you know where the animal is hit then you can determine how much time to wait before taking up the blood trail. Knowing the anatomy of the animal you are pursuing is a vital part of this decision. Find a picture in a book or on the internet and print out a copy that you can use for a quick reference if needed. If you’re unsure, always err on the side of caution. Remember, if he’s dead he’s not going anywhere but if you push an animal that hasn’t expired yet there’s a good chance you may never see it again.
Several years ago I made the mistake of being overconfident one December evening as light was running out. I took up the blood trail too soon and jumped the buck that had bedded down only 100 yards from my stand. I immediately backed out and returned to find the deer the next morning. To my surprise the buck had traveled over 600 yards, even though the broadhead had cut through the liver and one lung!
Our ultimate goal for animal recovery is one that requires no tracking but when an animal vanishes from sight, patience can be our best virtue. Although in these situations it can be the hardest to obtain. In most instances, time is on our side so take a few minutes to let nature return to normal before getting too carried away. I get just as anxious to start looking for my deer as anybody so if you’re like me and need to pass some time, sneak out and head back to camp for a while. I’ve even had to drive into town a few times to keep myself from going after a buck that I had made a questionable shot on. As a rule of thumb, I usually give a double lung shot around 30 minutes. If I think I’ve hit the liver then I wait a minimum of 2 hours and anything further back than that I’ll give at least 6 hours, if not overnight. If it’s in the heart you should watch ‘em fall.
When I pick up a blood trail I will always look for my arrow first. Blood on an arrow or lack thereof can be a good indicator of what’s in store. Lung blood will be bright red or pinkish with small bubbles mixed in it. Dark red is usually an indicator of a liver shot, but if it’s watery can also be low in the brisket. An arrow with some small ‘coffee ground’ looking substance on it went through the gut. Better give this one some time. There also may be some sign around where the animal was standing, but don’t be discouraged if that’s all you can find. A lot of animals won’t start bleeding heavily until 40-50 yards from the spot of impact. I usually don’t get too concerned with finding blood until I reach the exact point where I last saw the animal. Be sure to mark this as a point of reference in case you get off course.
Once I’m on the trail there are a couple things I’m looking for. If the blood streaks as it hits the ground, then the animal is still running. As it slows to a walk the drops will become more rounded and hopefully your animal is starting to look for a place to bed for the last time. I try not to put much confidence in the amount of blood I’m seeing. If the hit is high, the longer it takes the blood to roll down. Not only that, but it also has to fill up inside the cavity before spilling out of the hole. A deer hit low in the brisket will bleed like no other but may live to see another day.
If you come to a spot where the blood has pooled, try to determine if the animal was standing or had bedded down. If he was bedded you may be able to feel the ground around the pool for warmth depending on the outside temperature and how long ago the animal got up. If this is the case you probably pushed the animal without knowing it and I would suggest backing out and giving it more time. If you determine the animal was standing, slow your pace and continuously scan the area in front of you. You may just catch a glimpse of your prey trying to give you the slip.
On just about every occasion where I’ve taken my time, I have come away with positive results. It’s only when I lost my patience that all I find at the end of the trail is a nice slice of humble pie. And although it may be hard to swallow, it’s the lessons we learn the hard way that seem to make us better. We’re all going to make mistakes from time to time. That’s just hunting. It’s those of us who learn from them that become more efficient at our craft. So don’t get too discouraged the next time you come up empty handed. Replay the entire scenario in your head; learn from it and put it all together the next time you get behind the string.