This past weekend, on the final day of CO Archery Deer Season, I lost my first big game animal. I was sitting over a water hole in heavy cover when a nice 4 point buck came in for a drink at about 11:40 am. Luckily, the wind was in my favor and I had enough cover to get situated. As the buck climbed the hill out of the water hole, he paused part-way past a tree, leaving me, with what I believe to be a slightly quartering away shot at his vitals at 14 yards. I pull my bow back, acquire my target, and let an arrow go. The buck immediately runs away.
This was the first time that I had even pulled my bow back on a big game animal, so I was incredibly excited for a split second before I see the vanes of my arrow too close to the buck's hind quarters. I only got a brief glimpse, so I do not know if the arrow was in at a deeper angle than I thought and still got vitals, or if I really shot him that far back. Rather positive that I made a poor shot, probably through a combination of poor judgement, too much excitement, and poor execution, I force myself to stay put as long as possible.
At 2:15 pm, I finally get up to see what I can find. This was the first time that I have ever had to follow a blood trail since all of my deer and antelope before this were in open country with a rifle, basically dropping the animals on the spot. I am excited to find several drops of bright red blood. Several steps later, I find the business-end of my arrow covered in blood. Since I knew I did not have a pass-through shot, I was a little disappointed to find my broadhead, hoping that it was still lodged in the animal, doing additional damage in order to help me successfully complete the retrieval. However, the fact that it was covered in blood in such a short distance did lift my spirits.
Over the next couple hours, I manage to follow the blood trail for about a quarter of a mile, using my GPS to waypoint nearly every drop of blood I find. Most of the blood is only little drops, less than a half inch in diameter. However, at a few points where the deer must have stopped, I do find some larger pools of blood in the 2-3 inch diameter range. Also, blood must have been flowing down the deer's hind legs because in deep pine needle terrain, I find several bloody footprints.
About 5:30 pm, the terrain changes to a combination of gravel and plants that make finding either blood or tracks difficult. Red plants and red rocks get the label "fools blood" for falsely getting my hopes up thousands of times. I keep searching for about half an hour after dark. Nearly every part of me ached, but more than the physical exhaustion, the emotional toll from the day left me defeated. I completed the hike out by headlamp, knowing that I would not be able to return the next day to see if I could luck out and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. As I hike, I run through every detail of the hunt that I can remember. Some of it happened so quickly that I am not entirely sure how it happened.
I end up with thousands of questions, but no answers. I think about if I actually saw as much of the buck as I thought when I decided to take the shot. I wonder if there was a little branch that deflected my shot? I also wonder if I pushed the shot off target? If I had waited, would I have had a better shot opportunity? Even though it wasn't perfect, was it still a fatal shot? Was that actually a decent blood trail or not?
So, what is your experience following blood trails? How far apart did you see blood? How big where the drops? Did you ever end up finding an animal that you did not think you would find because the blood trail was so thin? Did you ever not find an animal that you were positive that you drilled perfectly? Any other thoughts on tracking and/or losing an animal?