Tracking a Wounded Whitetail Deer
Photo by Ryan Stemkowski via CC

How to Track a Wounded Deer [8 Steps to Success]

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Wouldn’t it be nice if, once you’ve shot your deer, it would helpfully drop dead in its tracks every time? Or trot over and jump into the back of your truck or four-wheeler. You will learn with experience that recovering a wounded deer is not always easy. A deer can run a surprisingly long distance even with a mortal wound.

It is a terrible feeling to know your deer was well shot but is lost to the woods forever because you were unable to track it to its final resting place. Therefore, knowing how to effectively track your deer after the shot is an essential skill for all hunters to learn.

1. Watch and Observe

The first step after the shot is to try to determine where on their anatomy you’ve hit the deer. Often you’ll know because you see it directly.

Sometimes though, if it was a long or running shot, you might not be certain if you’ve even hit it, much less where. Keep an eye on it until it disappears from sight.

If it’s limping or falling down you might have only clipped a leg, or if it’s hunching while it runs it probably means a gutshot.

If you believe you’ve hit it too high above or too far behind the kill zone, or in the leg, then you should wait a few hours before you start tracking to allow it to stiffen up or die, else it might just keep getting up and running farther ahead as it hears you pursue it.

Note which direction the deer heads, so you have a starting point to look for a blood trail. Many times a deer will simply run a short distance and bed down, so stay in your tree stand quietly for a while after the shot and listen for the deer thrashing in the leaves.

2. Be Patient

Don’t immediately go running off through the woods after your deer. If it’s been seriously wounded it will lie down in cover fairly quickly, usually within a couple of hundred yards, and if it hasn’t, you probably won’t find it anyway.

Wait for a buddy to join you to help in your search if you can, but always take it slow and methodically search for signs.

Remember, when a deer has been wounded their survival instinct is on high alert. If you spook them now they’ll likely go into full-flight, and then they will most likely run a long way if they can, which greatly lessens your chances of recovering them.

Again, allow some time, at least 15 or 20 minutes, for them to stiffen up and bleed out.

3. Examine the Blood

Best Blood Tracking Lights

You can tell a lot about where a deer has been hit just by examining the color and consistency of the blood left behind. It provides vital clues about how to approach tracking it, and how far they might go until dropping. Here’s a look at the types of blood you’ll see from different parts of the body.

  • Lung Shot – Light-colored pinkish blood with air bubbles in it is a sure sign of a lung shot. The blood from this type of wound may not begin to flow immediately so the first drops may be a distance from where the deer was shot. They won’t run far in this case, and you can begin tracking pretty soon, within an hour, or right away if you can still see them.
  • Heart Shot – Deep red blood, with possibly some pinkish blood mixed in as you’ll often hit at least one lung. It’s pretty amazing they can run at all shot through the heart. Their run will be short, and you’ll probably hear them thrashing around not far away. You can go after them pretty quickly.
  • Spine Shot – No real need to track a deer in this case, because if their spinal cord is severed they’ll drop on the spot. However, depending on where the spine was hit, they might be dragging themselves along in a frantic attempt to escape. You’ll need to finish them with a humane follow-up shot.
  • Stomach Shot – Dark brownish-red blood is indicative of a gut shot in the stomach or intestines, with blobs of greenish or brown matter mixed in or around it, and a rank smell too. There won’t be a lot of blood in this case. It probably won’t go far before it beds down, but it will be capable of getting up and moving for a long time, so you’ll want to wait several hours before you begin to track, maybe the next day.
  • Liver/Kidney Shot – Very dark red blood will be found, and the blood trail will get less frequent the farther you go. You might have to track a quarter mile or more. It’s best to wait at least three hours before going after a deer hit in these areas.
  • Flank Shot – If you hit a deer in the rear it might not be fatal unless you get lucky and hit an artery, in which case there will be a lot of bright red blood on your arrow. Wait a few hours before you set out.

4. Hair Clues

Another way to tell where a deer has been hit is to examine the hair left behind. This will usually be present right at the place you shot the deer, especially if it’s been shot with a sharp broadhead.

Long white hair is an indication the deer was shot somewhere underneath, from the chest to between the hind legs.

Darker hair with black ends could mean a hit anywhere from the spine to the brisket area, with it tending to be longer in the latter.

The hair along the side is the shorter and more course, and the legs have the shortest hair. It pays to spend a few minutes to analyze this important sign.

5. Find the Blood Trail

Finding and following the blood trail is the surest, and often the only, way to track your deer. If there is no blood at the spot where the deer was shot, make a careful examination of the ground in the direction it ran. If you’re bowhunting, examine the areas closest to the point of impact first. If it was a hit, the broadhead should do enough damage to pick up the blood trail, the same rule applies to crossbow broadheads.

It helps to have two people doing this, one to keep directly to the escape path and the other to flank to the sides. Insects will quickly congregate and feed on drops of blood and can help you find them. Keep in mind the splatters of the blood drops will point in the direction the deer was running.

6. Start Tracking, or Wait It Out?

As touched on above, going after a deer too soon is one of the best ways to lose him. It can be tempting to start out immediately, especially if there’s a storm coming or if you’re in a hurry to head home. Resist this if at all possible.

Determining where the deer was hit will tell you if you should wait or go, but you’ll notice that in most cases at least a couple of hours ought to be allowed. But if you really can’t, it’s always better to make an attempt than none at all.

7. Use Trail Marking Ribbon

These can be bought commercially, or you can make your own tell-tales. Use these to mark the spots where you’ve found blood so you’ll have an easily seen marker to guide you back to the last point and try a different direction if you lose the trail.

Also, if you have to track after dark, you’ll find regular flashlights to be of limited value. Consider buying a special blood tracking light that will make the blood drops stand out among the leaves and brush. They’re cheap too and can be invaluable if you lose the trail.

8. Be Smart, Be Patient

Although every hunter will have to track a deer occasionally, the best way to avoid it is to not take poor shots. Shooting when a deer is too far away, running and jumping at high speed, or half-hidden by cover or low-light is a sure way to wound and possibly lose a deer.

When tracking, remember that deer will usually run downhill and towards water if it’s near, and will sometimes double back. Always check the spot and look for blood after you’ve taken a shot, even if you think you missed it. And above all, take your time and be patient.

Learn and remember these basic deer tracking skills and you’ll have a very good chance of putting the venison on your table rather than in the stomach of some coyote.

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