Deciding how long to wait before tracking an arrow-shot deer can be the toughest part of bowhunting.
A buck approaches the opening near an acorn-laden white oak 30 yards from your stand. Your muscles tense as the bow comes to full draw. Thoughts of practice—aiming and releasing—rush through your mind as you pick a spot behind the deer’s shoulder. In an instant the arrow takes its silent flight. Your incredulous gaze follows the deer until it bolts out of view.
The time of truth is upon you and the questions begin. Where did I hit him? Where is my arrow? Which direction did he run? How long should I wait? These and a flurry of other questions can affect the tracking job of a novice bowhunter.
How long to wait can be one of the toughest parts of bowhunting deer. Archers need to take a few minutes and collect their thoughts and compose themselves before attempting to blood-trail a wounded deer. Gathering a few facts before tracking can help in the recovery of a downed animal.
When to Wait, When to Go
The conventional thought in bowhunting circles is to wait around 30 minutes before picking up the blood trail. An exception would be if you saw the deer go down and it’s still in sight. The main factor in deciding how long to wait depends on where the deer was hit.
“I will usually wait 15- to 20- minutes after the shot,” comments Andy Barker of Munford, Ala. “Before I get down from my stand, I visually mark the spot where the deer was standing when I shot it.”
Barker says knowing exactly where the deer was at the time of the shot will help the hunter locate any sign of a wounded deer. If the arrow passed completely through the deer, it should be nearby. Hunters should try to locate the arrow and determine where the deer was hit before beginning to trail.
“Watch which direction the deer ran off,” Barker advises. “Mark the spot at the last place you could see the deer, such as a big rock or a large tree.”
If the arrow is covered with bright-pink frothy blood, then it was a lung hit. Red blood can signal a heart, muscle or arterial wound. Blood from a liver-hit deer will be dark red. Hunters should also search for blood splatter on trees, bushes and leaves in the area of the shot.
A paunch or gut-shot deer will leave brown and green matter on the arrow or on the ground at the impact site. There is usually little blood associated with a gut wound. If you find this type of sign, it’s best to wait at least a couple of hours before attempting to trail. Wounded deer will generally only travel 60- to 100-yards before lying down.
“If there is good blood and I made a good hit, I will begin trailing right away,” Barker says. “A deer hit pretty good won’t go too far.”
Reading the Sign
Hunters should pay close attention as they begin the tracking process of following the blood trail. They should be careful and not disturb any of the blood splatter. Mark the blood spots when you locate them. Two searchers following the trail should be enough. More than three people on the trail could do more harm than good.
“I use small pieces of toilet paper hung on a limb or on the ground to mark the blood trail,” Barker advises. “Once you have five or six pieces of paper out, you can line up the trail the deer ran.”
Too, Barker says you can always go back to the last piece of paper if you lose the trail or can’t locate any blood spots. He says expect drops to get small as you get further from the shot site. In some cases you may have to get down on hands and knees and crawl along to see the blood droplets.
Don’t restrict yourself to looking for blood on the ground. Check trees, bushes and vines where the deer may have rubbed against leaving blood smeared. Dried blood will appear darker than fresh blood. Besides blood, deer trailers should look for tracks the deer may have made.
“Look for the splatter direction of the blood drops,” Barker explains. “The blood splatter will point in the direction the deer is moving.”
Running deer will leave blood drops farther apart than a walking deer. If the deer was hit high, it will take a little longer for the blood to hit the ground. A deer’s thick hair will absorb some of the blood, but after several yards blood drops should be hitting the ground.
Don’t Give Up
Trackers should not be discouraged if they don’t locate the deer right away or the blood trail plays out. Wounded deer will usually move into thick cover or to water. Hunters should take their time and cover the trail thoroughly. If you lose the trail, go back to the last blood spot and rethink your plan.
“I will check along a creek or other water site,” says Barker. “Deer like to get to water to help stop the bleeding.”
If the trail goes cold, trackers can return to the last blood sighting and begin a zigzag search pattern. Two searchers can fan out in separate arcs form the last blood spot. Each one should look for more blood, broken sticks, ruffled leaves or some sign that the deer went in that direction. Remember to move along quietly and cover the area completely. Don’t give up.
New School of Thought
In 2010, John Jeanneney of New York released a book titled Dead On about tracking wounded deer. He’s a bowhunter who has tracked hundreds of deer. In the book, he suggests not waiting the sacred 30 minutes before taking up the trail. Instead, Jeanneney says to determine the arrow hit and if there is sufficient sign begin trailing immediately.
Also, the author mentions deer often bleed more when moving than when at rest. He asks the question; Why would we want a wounded deer to lie down? His thought is a moving deer will accelerate blood loss. He also mentions the blood flow will break loose any clotting that could end the blood trail.
Jeanneney agrees that a deer shot in the stomach or intestines deserves a little more time before pushing on the blood trail. In most cases, deer hit in these areas are the toughest to find.
Some bowhunters say that in areas of high coyote populations, the song dogs may get to the deer first. This can be especially true if hunters wait too long to begin tracking. The most difficult decision in bowhunting is deciding when it’s time to track.