You slipped in, quiet as the mist, before first light. Across the meadow and upwind from your stand, there's an active scrape line that you're counting on. You're confident, cleverly concealed, and comfortable. It's the perfect set up.
As the sun clears the trees, you notice movement deep within the hardwoods. At first, it's a shadow, tentatively advancing towards the edge. Seconds later, you catch a flash of polished antlers as they pass under a shaft of light.
Your heart is pounding like a kettledrum; your breathing becomes shallow. A noticeable jitter takes hold of your hands as you watch the nicest buck you've ever seen step out to tend a scrape.
Suddenly, all that mental rehearsal comes into play. You wait until he's broadside, then, as the big 12-pointer lowers his head; you raise your rifle and centre the crosshairs behind his shoulder. You breathe, control your nerves, and squeeze the trigger...
In a perfect world, he'd drop right then and there. But, as any experienced deer hunter knows, that's not always the case.
Whether he runs 5 yards or one mile depends on a variety of factors, not the least of which is shot placement. But unless he drops dead within sight, the recovery of that animal depends entirely on what you do next.
Follow up shot
Before we talk about deer recovery, here's a piece of advice that's not dispensed often enough.
After the initial shot, if you still see the animal within effective range - no matter how wounded it looks, no matter how certain you are that it was a perfect shot - shoot that deer again! Anchor it!
It seems like a common sense thing to do but I've known several hunters who lost nice deer because they thought they hit the animal perfectly and they didn't "want to waste anymore meat." So instead of placing one more shot through the rib cage (which wastes very little meat, by the way) they watched the deer amble off, certain that it would drop just out of sight. Unfortunately, the deer was either never seen again or claimed by another hunter who happened to be in the line of its escape route.
One well-placed bullet (or arrow) could have prevented both scenarios.
Now let's deal with what you do if that deer runs off.
First, we must recognize that after the shot, it's difficult to remain calm. This, however, is key, because if you can maintain your composure, you'll make better decisions.
I find it helpful to go through a mental checklist. I recall the exact position where the deer was when I shot at it. This is the all-important starting point where the clues that indicate a hit or a miss are found.
Next, I try to remember the animal's body language as it ran off. Typically, a heart or lung shot animal will jump straight up and often kick its hind legs. Conversely, a paunch-shot animal will hunch over and rise and run off with its tail held low. The deer might also drag a leg, stumble, or walk off slowly. Yet even if there's no reaction, don't assume you missed. Not until you've proven that.
After that, I mentally mark the exact location where I last saw the animal. This provides hints at where it's going and what escape route it might be using. And sometimes it saves a bit of tracking.
Good things come to those who wait
Every hunter knows that you need to wait after the shot. This allows the animal time to walk off, lie down, and die. Or, if it's not hit mortally, to bed down and stiffen up.
Wait times vary depending on who you listen to, but it's generally considered prudent to wait fifteen to thirty minutes before following up on a well-hit deer and at least eight hours for one that's not so well hit. Many experts recommend even long waits.
And though this is rock-solid, proven advice, a lot of hunters still can't seem to muster up the patience to follow it. Too many take to the trail almost immediately after the shot. Somewhere in the excitement of it all, they seem to forget what constitutes an appropriate waiting time. Sometimes, you can get away with this; but it can also cost you a deer that you should have easily recovered.
That's because deer are incredibly vital. And nothing gets their adrenalin surging more than having an excited hunter hot on their trail. Unless that deer died immediately, you're likely to push it further than it was planning to go. And, if you've forced the animal to bound off or move quickly, you are now dealing with a blood trail that's even harder to follow.
Instead of rushing forward, gather your gear, collect a buddy if he's nearby, and recount all those tiny details we spoke of earlier.
Of course, there are instances when you need to follow up quickly - if a heavy rain or snow, the kind that might obliterate a blood trail, suddenly begins, I wouldn't wait too long. But for the most part, a few minutes of patience goes a long way towards placing tenderloin on the skillet.
What you need
I carry my deer trailing kit on each hunt. This consists of a compass, topographical map, blaze orange flagging tape, field-dressing knife and cord, rubber gloves, pocket-sized sharpener, deer tag, and drag rope. I also bring a freezer bag for the heart as well as a good flashlight in case I'm out for longer than I had planned.
A GPS is also great aid, especially if you're following up by yourself. With one, you can determine the quickest way out, once you find your deer. Or you can mark your deer's location and get help.
Also consider a camera, and if you're by yourself, a small tripod, so you can use its self-timer feature to get those hero shots that we all enjoy. It's a little extra weight but I've never regretted it.
On the trail
Okay, you've waited, and now it's time to take to the trail. And even though the suspense is probably killing you, here is where being methodical, observant, and patient pays off.
Start by using flagging tape to mark where you were when you took the shot. Then, go to where the deer was, mark that spot, and look for blood, hair, bone, stomach contents, bile or any other sign of a hit.
If more than one hunter is on the trail, the most skilled tracker should be up front looking for the next sign. The second hunter should remain at the last sign until the next one is found. Only then should he move forward.
Even if you can't find signs of a hit, try to follow the trail for at least 200 yards before giving up. Sometimes, it takes a while before blood hits the ground, especially if the deer was running or hit high.
Walk beside, not on, the trail - everyone knows this but it's often forgotten in the excitement. Likewise, flag the trail every so often. After you've marked a few points, you'll get a good indication of where the deer is headed.
The characteristics of the blood will provide clues about where the deer was hit. Bright pinkish-red, frothy blood indicates a lung shot, meaning the deer has probably already died somewhere nearby, provided you didn't rush the tracking job and chase it off. Dark blood indicates a liver shot - which will also put a deer down reasonably quick.
Very dark blood with bile and stomach contents points to a paunch shot. If that's the case, it's probably best to back off as previously suggested. And bright red blood can come from a muscle hit, which does not bode well. No matter where the blood came from, however, don't give up on a trail as long as you can follow it. If nothing else, it might lead you to another shot opportunity.
A lethal blood trail often starts with a few drops and quickly turns into a trail anyone could follow. Furthermore, when a weakened deer stops, puddles of blood accumulate. Similarly, if you find leaves cleared away from a slip or fall, or if there are bloodstains from a deer bumping against tree trunks, consider it a good sign - the faltering animal shouldn't be much further ahead.
On the other hand, if you find where a wounded deer bedded down, you probably jumped it before it was ready. Wait for a while so it can lie down and stiffen up again.
Don't just look for blood on the ground, by the way. Once, I lost a blood tail until I noticed that it was smeared on the underside of the ferns that the deer had passed through. Look on tree trunks, overhanging branches, grass shrubs, and the like too.
If you lose the trail, move forward in a quartering pattern, looking for fresh tracks, more blood, overturned duff, bent vegetation or broken twigs. If you can't find any of these things, walk the path of least resistance just as a weakened deer might. Hopefully, you'll pick up the trial again.
The hunter on point should have a firearm loaded and ready. The trailing hunter should constantly be scanning ahead and to the sides in case the deer circles back. Sometimes you can hear a wounded deer shuffling through the leaves up ahead so pay attention too. You might even be able to smell a nearby wounded animal. I've experienced that more than once.
In any case, continue methodically until the animal is found, and then approach it with weapon at the ready until you're certain it's dead.
If all else fails
Sometimes terrain, weather, or a closed wound causes us to lose the blood trail. Though this is disconcerting, it is no reason to give up. Options still remain.
First, if local game laws allow, employ a dog. A proper trailing dog would be preferable, but even a house pet can and will follow a blood trail. Keep it on a lead and let it sort out the scent.
If that's not feasible, gather as much help as you can and search the area in an organized manner; a grid search or sweep through an area is often effective. Before you begin, remind everyone to pay particular attention to thick cover, blown down trees, or anything that looks out of place - a wounded deer will often tuck into incredibly tight spaces. My brother once found a buck he was trailing wedged, and still standing, between two cedars - it was stone dead.
Most times, they'll head to thick cover. A hard hit deer will generally take the path of least resistance too, so if there's a choice between searching a level valley or exploring a steep rugged slope, try the valley first. A gut shot deer will often go to water, so it's also a good idea to search the thickets edging nearby lakes and ponds too. If a creek or crossable river transects your hunting area, walk the banks of it too, paying particular attention to regular crossing points - sometimes you'll see where the animal crossed or even find it there.
Repaying a debt
As soon as you pull the trigger or release an arrow at a game animal, you owe something to that animal and to yourself as a hunter. And that debt is only paid when you can honestly say that you've made every effort to follow that blood trail to its successful conclusion. Wasting a game animal is simply not an option.
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.