Tips for Tracking Wounded Deer
Every deer hunter I know continually strives to be a better one. In general, hunters are very ethical and care deeply about the game animals they hunt. So when a shot doesn’t go as expected and you’re suddenly looking at a deer blood trail with no known end, it’s a devastating feeling. Disappointment, guilt, and uncertainty are there, no doubt. But then a feeling of resolve also kicks in. You know you will do everything possible to find that animal. Tracking deer – and tracking wounded deer especially – is an important skill you need as a hunter.
No matter how careful you are (with a bow or firearm), you will likely make a bad shot one day. Unpredictable things happen. An unseen branch may deflect an arrow slightly, the deer may turn quickly as you shoot, etc. When you find yourself in that situation, feel those emotions momentarily. They’re good and remind you that you DO have a sense of ethics and respect for the animal. But then use these tips for tracking wounded deer to exhaust every avenue you have. You owe that much to the animal.
Step 1: Deer Reaction
The first step in tracking wounded deer is paying attention to how the deer reacts when you shoot and which direction it runs. While not a guarantee, you can potentially pick up some clues that will help you later. And take a follow-up shot if you get a chance!
- While bow hunting, if the deer jumps up in the air and kicks its hind legs (often called a “mule kick”), that can mean you made a good shot in the heart or lungs. Deer that react this way usually die within 100 yards. With firearms, it seems to knock the power out of them, and I’ve never had a deer hit in the heart or lungs jump this way; rather, they sprint off low to the ground.
- When the deer lowers its head and hunches its body up as it runs off after an arrow makes contact, that can be an indication you hit it further back in the liver or guts.
- And if the deer simply stands still or bounds away with its tail held high, you probably missed.
Make a mental note of where the animal was standing when you shot. Additionally, the last spot you saw the deer before it went out of sight. Most wounded deer will generally run off and bed down within a couple hundred yards. As long as you don’t push it, most will die in that first bed. Which brings us to step 2…
Step 2: Have a Snack
Seriously. Unless you literally watched the deer fall down in sight, you need to give it time. Getting down from a tree stand too soon and blood trailing deer can push it from its first bed. That surge of adrenaline is often what lets a deer escape to die somewhere else. Often, a clot will plug up the exit hole, leaving you with no blood trail to follow. And that’s a horrible situation to be in. So sit down, replay the shot in your mind, reflect on the experience, quietly pack up your hunting gear, and calmly have a little snack.
Even for a suspected heart/lung shot (the best of all shot scenarios), wait at least 15 to 20 minutes before you get down (check your phone or watch right away so you know when you shot). If you’re pretty sure the shot was further back from the vitals, you might have to wait a few hours or overnight before tracking wounded deer. Either stay in your tree stand or quietly slip out of the woods to come back later. It makes no sense to chase a deer further away and make your blood trailing job tougher. They will typically die within a couple hundred yards, as long as you just give them time to do so.
Step 3: Investigate the Scene
After waiting 20 minutes or so, quietly check out the ground where you shot it for any deer sign. You will likely find broken branches, overturned leaves, and deeper deer tracks when the deer suddenly ran off. Mark this spot with some flagging tape or toilet paper, so you know where to return to if needed. Hopefully, you will also find deer hair or deer blood nearby. If you do, take a look at the hairs and blood consistency.
- Many long white guard hairs likely indicate you hit low and shot a deer in the brisket or low on the stomach. The odds aren’t great when you find that, but keep looking until the trail runs cold.
- Finding only a few brown hairs, on the other hand, indicates a body shot of some kind. That could be a good sign.
- The blood consistency is a great way to tell where you hit the deer too. I cover that in more detail here.
See Blood Trailing Deer for more information on this process.
That being said, I shot a buck a few years ago during the rifle season that still blows my mind. In several inches of fresh snow, I could not find a single drop of blood anywhere near the shot site. I simply followed its tracks or signs of broken branches where it crossed other deer tracks (indicating one deer was in a hurry). After continuing this for 75-100 yards, I found the buck lying dead. I had shot him high behind one shoulder, which was a double lung shot. But since he was quartering away from me, the bullet lodged in his opposite shoulder and never came out, leaving no blood sign on the ground until where he fell.
If you find no blood, keep following the tracks as long as you can. But hopefully you will also find little blood droplets, hair, or chunks of fat/tallow, which let you know you’re on the right deer trail.
Step 4: Proceed Slowly
When you start tracking wounded deer, it’s easy to get hyper-focused on the sign. Your eyes start scanning everything for more clues. And in this sense, it’s also easy to get distracted. In the case of marginal shots, a wounded deer might be bedded up ahead of you. If you keep following the sign, you might bump the deer out of its bed before you can get another shot. This can seriously risk your chances of finding it again. So take your time as you proceed, and stop frequently to scan ahead with binoculars or your rifle scope.
Also, try to stay off to the side of the trail while you track a wounded deer. Ideally, you don’t want to destroy the evidence with your feet in case you need to come back and reference it. While deer can be unpredictable, you can use their last known direction of travel in a pinch. When you completely lose the deer trail, continue forward a few steps and scan for more sign, such as overturned leaves (image below). Often, you will find a new track or drop of blood on a piece of grass – something to keep you moving forward.
When you can’t find any more sign, there’s one more trick you can try. First, hang a hat or tie some flagging tape/toilet paper on a branch above your last known blood or sign. Slowly circle that area and increase the distance away each time, and you can usually find another clue along one of those concentric circles.
Step 5: Dumb Luck
If all else fails and you lose the blood trail/tracks completely, sometimes it comes down to sheer effort and dumb luck. Call up some friends or family members and see if anyone can help you do a grid search of the area. Go to the last known sign of blood or track and spread out every 10 yards or so. Proceed forward slowly scanning everything in between you and your partner.
Where legal, hunting dogs are a great asset for finding wounded deer too. Paying attention to lots of crows, ravens, or coyotes calling in the distance can also be an indicator they found the deer before you did. Even if the shot wasn’t great, you will usually find the deer if you spend enough time grid searching for it. The sense of relief you feel when finally finding a deer at the end of the trail is almost overwhelming. But don’t rush up to it. Ready your weapon for another shot in case it gets up again, and slowly move forward. If you can gently touch the deer’s eye with your rifle muzzle or an arrow, congratulations on finding your deer.
If you don’t find it, on the other hand, you will eventually have to call the search off. It’s a gut-wrenching decision I’ve thankfully only had to make twice in my life. Try not to be too hard on yourself. You will inevitably replay the scenario countless times in your mind. So use that to try to figure out what went wrong or what you could do differently the next time. Learn from it and apply it the next time you’re tracking wounded deer. Remember that hunting skills aren’t instantaneous – they take time and practice to build.