Every deer you decide to harvest deserves your complete attention with regard to shot placement and follow-up to ensure a quick kill and fast recovery of your venison. There are volumes written on shot placement. However, there are far fewer materials available on what to do after the shot. How long should you wait before pursuing the deer? How likely is it to go toward water or downhill? The answers to these and other questions vary depending on where you hit the deer, how soon rain is forecasted, and a few other variables.
As part of our Deer Hunting 101 online course, NDA produced a video covering this topic and many others. Watch it here, or read on for our best advice on how to find deer quickly after the shot.
Before and During the Shot
First, sometimes our eyes can deceive us. Using a lighted nock and filming your hunt are two great ways to increase confidence in the assessment of where you hit your deer. If you film it, have a friend hold the camera or mount it in a tree rather than on your weapon so that the footage doesn’t shake at the most critical moment.
Watch and listen to the sound of the impact. Did it crack like bone? Thud like the body cavity? Watch the deer’s body language. If it stops, hunches over, wags its tail a lot, and walks away, it has most likely been hit in the liver or guts. If it bolts, it is probably a good vital hit or bone.
Stay quiet, watch, and listen to the deer’s direction of travel and use landmarks to note the last points seen or heard. You might hear the sound of the deer coughing or crashing into a thicket.
Clues at the Site of the Hit
Check your video if you have one and check your arrow. Take pictures of it. If the arrow passed through the deer, there’s a good chance of recovery. Use the blood or stomach material present on the shaft and fletching to estimate where you hit the deer and how long you should wait before retrieving it.
Look at the blood on the arrow. If it is bright red, it is either from the vitals or muscle. Lung blood can be pink and frothy, but not always. Dark blood is usually liver or guts, and green or brown matter is from the digestive tract. Smell the arrow. As you can imagine, stomach contents have a different odor than blood.
Check for hair that fell off at the impact site. What part of the body did it come from? White fur comes from the underside and could indicate a single lung shot if you hit forward of the diaphragm.
Check the beginning of the blood trail. Take pictures of it. How much blood is there? Artery and heart shots leave a lot of blood. If you’ve hit a deer there, it won’t be far.
Are there bone fragments? That is usually an indicator of a non-lethal leg shot. You should start tracking these deer immediately and look for a follow-up shot.
How Long Should You Wait to Blood-Trail?
Now, add up all the clues. Where do you think you hit the deer? This will determine how long you should wait before picking up the trail. It is important to wait the appropriate amount of time to avoid pushing the deer further away and also to prevent injury to yourself from walking up on a wounded animal, especially a buck.
If you hit a deer forward of the diaphragm, meaning in the lungs or heart region, then there is nothing to be gained by waiting a long time before you begin tracking. If you hit a deer in the heart or lungs with a firearm, simply wait a few minutes and then take up the trail. If you’re archery hunting, then waiting 15 to 30 minutes is advised.
Now contrary to this, if you hit a deer behind the diaphragm, meaning in the stomach region, then you should wait at least eight hours before pursuing. This is because stomach shot deer need additional time to expire. Wait 8 to 10 hours for liver and 10-12 hours for guts. They will often bed rather quickly, so give them plenty of time and you’re tracking job will be much easier.
If you think you hit a single lung, and you have room to do so, pushing the deer may result in a recovery. Deer are amazingly tough critters and can sometimes survive on a single lung but running with a fresh wound and only half the oxygen may help them expire or offer an opportunity for a follow-up shot.
Now that you’ve waited the appropriate amount of time, it’s time to hit the trail. First, make sure you have a good flashlight and some flagging tape or clips to mark your trail. If you want to use something biodegradable, so you don’t have to go back and collect it, try using bits of toilet paper. When following a blood trail, go slowly, making sure not to disturb the evidence.
If you have the onX Hunt app on your smartphone, activate tracking mode to begin recording your path on the map, and drop a waypoint when you find good blood. This will help you visualize the deer’s direction of travel and the areas you’ve checked already.
Scan the area ahead of you and listen closely for clues to help locate your deer. Shine your flashlight ahead. If you see the reflection of the deer’s eyes looking back at you, back out quietly. The deer will likely expire in that spot.
On hard-to-follow blood trails, it’s best if one person marks the last spot of blood while others search on hands and knees if necessary ahead for the next drop. Once found the person marking the last spot can move forward and you can continue the search for the next drop. Can you see the deer’s tracks? Are they running or walking? If they are walking, they may be getting ready to bed down.
Wounded Deer Behavior
Wounded deer do climb hills. The old adage that wounded deer won’t go uphill is completely false. Deer follow their typical patterns, and they want to get to where they know they’re secure. So, if secure cover is uphill from where they are when they get shot, don’t be surprised to see them go uphill.
Wounded deer behavior changes during the season. Deer want to get to where they know they’re secure, so if it’s early in the archery season and deer are still on their summer routine, this can be very close to familiar cover and they may not go far when hit. Conversely if they are shot during the rut or when they’re on an excursion, they may attempt to travel literally hundreds or thousands of yards to get to their preferred cover, so keep time of year in mind when you start on a blood trail.
Double-lung-hit deer can travel quite a distance. We love to see a rifle-shot deer drop in its tracks or arrow-shot deer drop in sight. Understanding shot placement and appropriate shooting practice can greatly aid in these short trails, however, not all great shots end with a short blood trail. Occasionally a deer that was shot through both lungs can travel up to 200 yards.
Stomach shot deer may go to water. All wounded deer do not gravitate to water, but stomach shot deer may do so, however, it’s not always a direct line to creeks or springs or ponds. They often take a circuitous route through heavy cover traveling up or down hill to get there.
High back shots are often unsuccessful. The vitals region of a deer does not extend up to the top of their backs, and many high back shots are not fatal, even high back shots from a firearm that may knock the deer to the ground. If the deer is hit in front of the diaphragm and it lives for more than a half hour and goes for more than half a mile, then you’re unlikely to recover it.
If you bump the deer into moving again, then you probably hit it somewhere other than where you initially thought. Immediately back out and wait the appropriate time. Assume that you’ve hit the deer somewhere like the guts that will require a 10- to 12-hour wait, and simply subtract the time that has already passed from when you took your shot.
If you lose the trail of a gut-shot deer, go in the direction you last saw them. The deer will often be found not too far ahead. If you went in the direction of the deer but still can’t find it, you can try to get a blood-tracker to bring their dog. If you can’t get a tracker, do a grid search. Many deer that couldn’t be blood-trailed have been found while searching the area around where you last saw them or last found blood.
Don’t Give Up Easily
As hunters we should do everything possible to make a clean shot to ensure a quick kill and short recovery. In the real world though, things can go wrong, and when they do, we owe it to the animal to do everything in our power to obtain the follow-up shot and/or recover the animal as quickly as possible.
Okay. You found your deer, now what? Well first, congratulations! Be happy, smile, thank those with you. Hug them if you want to. This is a really emotional time, so soak it all in and enjoy the moment. You have just had a great experience and acquired some high-quality protein. Next, you want to get the deer field-dressed and the meat processed as quickly as possible. Be safe in the woods and good luck on your next blood trail.