|If you plan to be out in the dark, don't forget to use a flashlight to help you look for evidence of the animal being hit. Photo credit: Luigi De Rose|
In my last blog I offered five tips to help you recover a deer that has run off after the shot. These tips focused on ways to reduce how much tracking may be required. Now let's get to the actual tracking.
- Search for clues. Once you've waited at least 30 minutes, you can then climb down and search the shot site for evidence of a hit, such as bits of hair, tissue or blood. The absence of such clues doesn't necessarily mean you missed. Always assume a hit, until you are sure or convinced otherwise. Evidence at the site can tell you about the nature of the hit. Blood that is bright red or pink, and foamy or frothy, is a sign of a heart/lung shot. White belly hair or bits of intestines means a gut-shot animal, and likely a long tracking job. Mark such clues with big, bright objects, such as blaze orange vests and hats. Orange trail marker tape, or biodegradable facial or toilet tissue, can all be used for marking spots - just make sure that you remove them after recovering your trophy. Mark both the shot site and the spot where the animal was last seen, as you may need to come back to them.
- Follow the evidence. Snow, mud or sand make tracking a lot easier, but what if you don't have such luxuries? Start looking for any sign just beyond where the animal was last seen, while having someone else look ahead for a possible follow-up shot. Get down low and go very slowly. Look for things like hoof marks in the grass or leaves, broken twigs or branches, bits of hair and, of course, drops of blood, but remember that the majority of the bleeding could be internal. Don't expect to see pools of blood, just small spots on the ground or cover. Autumn leaves, especially when wet, can often take on colors that are easily mistaken for blood. Feel these areas with your hands to see if the color comes off or is actually part of the leaf. Don't be afraid to get down on your hands and knees and get dirty. Make sure that you clearly mark each spot where you find some sign. If you lose the trail, go back to the last marker and start circling it, gradually moving further out until you find the next sign. Don't step on the trail and be careful to preserve all sign. If you have to backtrack, be on the lookout for your trophy lying next to some obstacle that may have blocked your view on the way by, but is now wide open when approached from the opposite direction.
- Follow your instincts. So you've lost the trail, and all further sign has vanished. It's time to get as many buddies as possible to help you search. This is also when the trail of markers you have left behind becomes very important. Go back to the shot site and look at the line of markers laid out ahead of you. You should be able to see a path or direction emerging, and if you know the area or have a map, you may be able to predict where the animal has headed. But first follow the directional line past the last place where you found sign, and concentrate your search there for more sign. Only when no more is found is it wise to head off in the direction you think the animal has travelled. Wounded game will often head for the thickest, nastiest, most impenetrable cover around to find a place to bed down where they feel safe. Swamps, bogs, river bottoms and dense brush are all good bets. Along the way deer will often take the path of least resistance, such as game trails, fence lines, logging trails, etc. Such paths aren't always evident unless you get down low and look under the branches, at the deer's level. The tendency for deer to choose well-used escape trails is important to remember when trying to predict the path and destination. Think about where the animal has been hit, as this can also determine which direction it may travel. If an animal is hit in the hindquarters, it would be difficult for it to travel uphill; conversely, downhill travel would be hard if hit in the front legs. Watch for signs of such hits, such as drag marks, and use these clues to predict where the animal may go. Before plodding right into the cover where you believe the deer has hopefully bedded down, search the perimeter for a possible entrance or exit point.
- Don't get discouraged. Take frequent breaks, analyze, sit down, clear your head, and think about the situation. But don't give up. Think of the waste of a lost animal, and double your efforts. Even if you end up giving away most of the meat to those that helped you search, it's worth it.
- When to say "Uncle". This is perhaps the most difficult aspect as it really all depends on a number of variables. Always assume a hit, but if the shot didn't look right, and you have absolutely no evidence to indicate a hit, and the animal appears to be travelling normally, it is probably safe to declare a miss after about a half-mile of tracking. Keep in mind, though, that countless hunters, including me, have finally found the tiniest drop of blood just as they were about to call off a long search. However, if a hit is confirmed, our obligation is almost never-ending. There is virtually no place that a deer can go that a human can't. If you know where the animal went, follow it. If you can't find any more sign, keep looking until you do. Do grid searches for the deer itself, not for sign, before you give up. Don't be afraid to search again the next day, and even the day after, as that trophy may be lying just under your nose, in the smallest bit of cover.
If I've made the job of tracking and recovery sound like a lot of hard work, that's because it is. Keep this in mind when considering a low-percentage shot.