Ok, so you took a marginal shot and didn’t pull it off, maybe the arrow hit a limb and was deflected, perhaps it was a perfect opportunity and ol antler panic is to blame, either way you have a wounded deer to find. As a hunter you have a responsibility to the sport, your fellow sportsmen, and most importantly to the animal to give your best effort at a recovery. Where do you begin? First things first and you should take a considerable amount of time immediately following the shot, good or bad, to interpret the shot quality. If you feel it was a great hit, follow the red carpet to your trophy. If not, then here are a few steps that I take to increase my chances of finding the animal.
After taking the shot, watch the animal for as long as possible as it runs away and mark the last place at which you see it. Pay close attention to its movements. A well hit animal will run seemingly out of control, maybe choosing to barrel through brush rather than jumping it, and be visibly in distress, especially for the first few secs after the hit. The animal then typically stops and looks around before going down. For a perfect example of this, check out my 2011 Maryland Whitetail hunt on the Deer Hunting Video page. A heart or double lung shot deer will only run for around 10 secs after the hit. It all depends on the terrain as to how much ground it will cover in that time. Even a well hit animal can easily run several hundred yards.
But wounded deer are a different matter. Deer have been known to survive for many hours or even a few days before succumbing to their injury and some manage to make a full recovery. I have made a few marginal hits over the years and I have been fortunate enough to recover nearly all of them, but it wasn’t easy. I consider any animal hit in any other location other than the heart or lungs to be a wounded animal. After I have taken the shot, waited the necessary amount of time, and found my arrow or the spot at which the deer was standing when I took the shot, everything should slow down. I know your mind is racing and your heart is pounding with the idea of being successful, especially on a huge buck or maybe your first deer, but it is exactly for those reasons that you should stop and take a breath. Being over-anxious and impatient can be the biggest reasons you don’t find the animal.
I like to start by gathering a mental image of what type of terrain lies in the direction the deer traveled. Is it steep or flat,? densely vegetated or open? Is there water available? I was always told growing up that a wounded deer will run downhill towards water and into the thickest cover it can find. My experience has proven that this is right 75% of the time. I have tracked deer that ran uphill, and some were recovered in creek bottoms, but one thing that has almost always been the case is that they either were on their way to, ran through, or were recovered in the thickest entanglements of briars, twisted honeysuckle, and beds of poison ivy in the area. This is why it can be very difficult to track.
Even if you watched the deer run out of sight 300 yards away, always start at the point of impact and work your way out. If you start 300 yards away, you could miss vital clues left behind. Wounded deer may not be hit in an area that will produce a lot of blood so to follow the faint trail you may find yourself on your hands and knees following drop by drop. Remember, the shape of the splatter points to the direction the deer was traveling. This is why allowing for plenty of “lay-up” time after the shot is your best course of action. The deer may run 50 yards or 500 yards and lay down when not being pressured. Often, this is where you will find it, having passed from internal bleeding and trauma. Too often though, those drops run out completely. Without an adequate blood trail to follow, you are left with the more subtle signs. Bent branches, tufts of hair, exaggerated tracks from possible stumbling, even dew knocked off of grass and brush can all be telltale signs of the deer’s direction. So move slow and spend more time looking than walking. tracking a wounded deer is very similar to stalking a live one.
Eventually after all of this tracking you may still be stumped. At which time, I resort to the systematic grid search of the most likely area the deer entered. Again, this is usually thick brush, tall grass, etc. and can easily hide a down deer. I break the area up into manageable blocks 50 -100 yards at a time and walk out a grid with passes every 10 yards. Be sure to stop and look behind you as the coat of a deer blends in incredibly well with ground covers and unless you get lucky with a white belly facing you, its easy to walk past the deer. While searching in this way, do not only look for the deer itself but any sign that could get you back on the trail. Search for as far as it takes or as far as you can legally continue.
Despite our best efforts, deer are sly, intelligent animals and can sneak away from even the best trackers. It makes me focus that much more and practice even harder so that the next opportunity that I have to take an animal, I can make a better shot and result in a quicker, cleaner kill and easier recovery.
Good luck, good hunting, and I hope these suggestions help shorten your next tracking job.