A Guide to Wounded Deer
By Mark Kayser
It occurs repeatedly every year across the wide whitetail range in North America. It doesn’t matter if you hunt with a bow or firearm. If you hunt long enough you’ll likely have to track a wounded whitetail. Wounding may occur from a hasty decision you make in the fog of buck fever, but it’s just as likely to occur from a spooky whitetail unsuspectingly moving as you decide to shoot. Unseen brush, gusty winds and other factors in nature may also lead to a wounding.
Regardless of how it happens, once it does you need to implement a plan to avoid losing your deer. Whitetails definitely have a knack for disappearing and when wounded that propensity multiplies exponentially. A wounded whitetail can be harder to find than an American citizen willing to give Congress a “thumbs-up” approval rating. Follow these steps and your hunt for a wounded buck may end with higher success.
BOW OR FIREARM
In reality, the only difference between losing a bow-shot or rifle-shot whitetail is the evidence left at the scene. To begin with you won’t have the arrow to review for animal matter while hunting with a firearm. But even archery-shot deer run off with that top clue. With a rifle-shot animal you’ll likely have more blood, hair and even bone matter to give you an indication of where your shot may have landed. After that it doesn’t matter what weapon was in your hands. You ultimately need to use that big weapon in your head to lead to a happy ending.
First, relax or at least try to calm your nerves. Stay put. Now, put your mental DVD player into play and rewind what happened step by step. Where was the deer standing when you took the shot? What angle was the deer standing? How did it react after the shot? To keep even better notes turn your smartphone on and video yourself reliving what just happened. You may even have filmed your hunt. That’s better yet. As you give the deer at least 30 minutes review all of these factors to decide if the deer should be left longer to ensure you don’t bump it into a permanent disappearing act.
If the shot appeared solid a 30-minute wait should be fine. If the shot looked good, but slightly questionable, then wait at least an hour. If you suspect a paunch or other questionable hit wait at least six to seven hours before taking up the trail in slow-motion fashion. As you wait use your time to phone a friend. Having a second set of eyes and a person with a calmer attitude can mean everything. This is particularly true if you’re colorblind. Now is not the time to attempt a rematch in your brawl against this affliction.
You also should consider a tracking dog if legal in your state. If trained correctly these dogs can increase the odds of finding your deer and only a handful of states now outlaw their use. Studies vary, but most biologists agree that a dog’s ability to smell is at least 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than yours and these tracking specialists have been used for centuries in Europe.
After your predetermined wait move from your shooting location and pull out your roll of blaze photo-degradable surveyor’s tape. Mark the location with it and make a waypoint on your GPS, or smartphone. Now walk slowly over to where the shot occurred. Mark this location as well. After this chore begin looking for clues like the arrow, hair, bone, gut matter and blood. If it’s dusk or dawn a blue filter on your flashlight maximizes the reflective properties of blood.
If you don’t find blood your search could start out with a high degree of difficulty, but if you do gain a blood advantage brush up on what it tells you. The kind and amount of blood you find will helps you determine whether to take up the trail now or after a wait.
Small specks and drips may lead you to a dead deer, but if a deer is bleeding minimally at the scene it may dry up further down the trail. Hope for large quantities which indicate a good hit and trauma. Now study the nature of the blood. Frothy blood equals a lung shot and a double lung shot means the deer’s eyes are already glazed. Of course there is the possibility of a one-lung hit so move slowly as it could survive for hours, possibly even a day with ample energy to escape.
Bright red blood indicates an artery wound and a good chance you’ll enjoy a venison steak from the deer if you damaged a major vessel. Wait an hour and then begin trailing. Dark, red blood generally means a muscle wound, again with lots of questions. Wait a minimum of one hour before taking up the trail and for peace of mind, wait two to three hours to allow more bleeding, and for the deer to stiffen up.
And if you discover brown- or green-colored blood you’ve likely hit the gut. It takes at least six to seven hours for death to occur. It is certain so don’t push the deer at all. Leave the scene, grab a bite to eat and return after the allotted time. Your deer should be at the end of the blood trail.
REWIND AND START OVER
You really didn’t think that tracking a wounded whitetail was going to be easy did you? Once in a while you get thrown a freebie with a tracking job that even a blindfolded anti-hunter could follow. Unfortunately most tracking jobs will be challenging at best. Patience is a must along with the marking of every clue with surveyor’s tape and on your GPS. Backtracking is normal and a must. This is why a second pair of eyes can be helpful and utilized for a team strategy.
One person should be focused on sign like tracks, blood and hair. The second person, likely the hunter, should be armed and ready. Scan ahead and look for the animal, bedded or standing. Be alert for the sight of a patch of hide, the flicker of an ear or even a beady eye staring back at you. Have your bow or firearm ready for a safe, finishing shot.
You may have a textbook tracking job, but don’t bet on deer going downhill or heading to water. Whitetails didn’t polish their savviness by being that predictable. While helping a buddy with a bow-shot deer one fall we started scouring a thick, brushy bottom for the wounded buck after waiting six hours. The blood trail ended shortly after the shot, but according to my friend’s recount the shot should have been a killing one … eventually. Things were not adding up so after an hour of looking in the likely location I split off and started looking along a field edge. I couldn’t believe my luck. There, curled up dead in the last pocket of brush along the open field was the buck. He had slipped through the heaviest cover, but must have decided against a burst across the open field and expired while waiting along its edge.
If you hunt Western whitetails long enough your odds of having to track a wounded deer is a high probability, whether it’s your fault or bad luck. Be prepared and the probability to finding that deer will also be high.
Mark Kayser’s outdoor writing and photography career has spanned over two decades. Mark is the whitetail columnist for North American Hunter, the backyard whitetail bowhunting columnist for Bowhunt America magazine and is a regular contributor for many other outdoor publications. Each year Mark spends nearly six months in the field hunting big game, predators and small game. During the off-season Mark retreats to his small ranch nestled at the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming to spend time with his family. For more information about his outdoor adventures, visit www.markkayser.com.