In Part 1 of this article, we walked you through a scenario where you shot a deer with your bow, and instead of fall to the ground dead, it took off running. We covered waiting for 30 minutes before climbing down from your stand, examining and marking the location of the hit, and inspecting the initial scene. Now, we’re going to talk about what you should do next.
By now you are on the ground and should have an educated guess about where the deer was hit. Your analysis of the situation is going to determine the next steps. If you conclude that the deer was hit in the heart or both lungs and there is a strong blood trail, you can proceed to follow it to the deer. If however, the deer was hit anywhere else (including just 1 lung) you need to stop and let some time pass before you begin tracking. A strong buck can run a long way even after being shot with an arrow. A pass-through hit in the liver or stomach is likely a wound which will be fatal, but the deer could take hours to bleed out. During that time DO NOT BUMP THE DEER. Under no circumstances should you chase after the deer busting through the trees and tall grass. The deer will know you are coming long before you ever see it.
A deer’s instinct when injured is going to be to find somewhere to lie down and rest. If it can travel safely back to its bedding area it may go there. If not, the deer will find somewhere in cover to bed down. Left undisturbed, the deer will likely be dead in 6-12 hours depending on the location of the hit. If the deer gets spooked and summons its energy reserves, it could run up to a mile and a half away. I don’t care how good your relationship is with your neighbors, odds are you’ve never even met the people who own the property a mile away. You do not want to push the deer anywhere you don’t have access. Too many bad outcomes can follow. The deer could die hidden in a swamp somewhere and never be found. Another hunter could see a giant bedded down buck, shoot it and take it home. A pack of coyotes could finish off the deer and make quick work of the venison before you find it. The possibilities are endless and they are all bad news for you.
Your best bet is to do the exact opposite of what your instincts are telling you—nothing. Making sure the shot site and any blood is marked, pack up your stuff, and head home. Grab a bite to eat, take a nap, whatever you want to do to pass some time. After 3-6 hours you will head back. If its nighttime you may want to consider coming back the next morning. Tracking a deer at night can be very difficult and potentially dangerous if you are traveling uneven terrain that you are unfamiliar with. You could easily fall and injure yourself or stumble into the deer and bump it without ever seeing it.
Generally coming back the next morning is the smart play for a deer that is wounded right around sundown, however, there are several important exceptions:
- If the forecast calls for rain overnight. Rain can destroy the deer’s blood trail and your chances of following it. Further, it will make it impossible for a tracking dog to follow the scent. You’ll have to play this one by ear, but if it is going to rain overnight consider tracking before it does.
- Prevalence of Predators. If the property you are hunting is known to have wolves, coyotes, bears, or other carnivorous predators you may need to track overnight. If you wait too long you may come back to a deer that has been consumed. Sure may still find the skull and antlers, but you will lose out on all of that delicious venison.
- High temperatures. If it is early fall and the overnight temps are expected to stay above 70 degrees, there is a real chance that the animal will spoil if left afield. You will need to find it quickly to open up the carcass and get the meat cooling down to avoid ruining the meat.
- Unscrupulous neighbors. Everyone knows a couple of these hunters, unfortunately. If other hunters share the property (or neighboring property) and they are of low moral character you may need to find the deer before they claim it for themselves.
Back to our scenario, you suspect the deer was hit in the liver. Being cautious, you return 5 hours later to begin tracking. Returning to the location that the deer was shot in, you pick up the blood trail and begin tracking. This is where it gets interesting. If you’re lucky, the blood will be strong and easily visible on the ground. As you follow it, be quiet in case the animal is still alive. You should have your bow with you in case you find the deer and need to put another arrow in it. Spotting blood in the leaves can be tricky. If the trail seems to go cold, mark the location of the last blood and then grid search out from that point. Hopefully, you will either pick the blood trail back up or find the deer. If you have a friend that can help you I have found that two sets of eyes are better than one.
If your blood trail goes cold and you are not successful in finding another trace you may want to enlist the help of a certified dog tracker. It will cost you, but can be well worth it to find the animal. Dogs can do amazing things when tracking a wounded deer, but do keep in mind that once it rains the dogs become useless for tracking.
The process of tracking can be demoralizing at times and the important thing is that you don’t give up without exhausting all possibilities. You owe it to the animal to find it and use any salvageable parts or to put it out of its misery if it has not yet succumbed to the wounds. Every bowhunter will likely wound an animal at some point in their career. Sometimes you won’t recover the deer. Occasionally, the deer may survive and then next season you can take another crack at it.
The important thing after going through this experience is to learn from what happened. If you rush the track learn to be more patient. If you rushed the shot, shot outside your range, or took a questionable shot then learn to wait for the right shot next time. Most hunters, after going through the experience of losing a wounded deer, decide that it’s not worth it to take a shot unless you are sure you can hit the animal where you intend.
Overall, don’t be too hard on yourself. Track carefully and exhaust all leads. Learn from the experience whether or not you find the deer. Finally, don’t let it keep you from future enjoyment of hunting.