Maine’s firearm season for whitetail deer opens for residents today and for all hunters on Monday, and as usual it is the most anticipated quest of the year for many big-game gunners. Each and every sportsman hopes to locate a buck; make a clean, sure shot that yields a quick, humane kill, and have fresh liver on the table that evening. Sometimes, however, for any number of reasons, instead of dropping on the spot, a deer quickly bounds out of sight into thick timber and a dream hunt becomes a nightmare.
More than any other aspect of hunting, how an outdoorsman handles trailing and locating dead game or dispatches a wounded animal is what defines him as a true sportsman and woodsman. First and foremost, just because a deer drops at the shot, never assume it’s down for good, and never take your eyes off the quarry until you are standing beside it and verify its demise. If your path to reach the whitetail involves obstacles or terrain that will obscure your view, and you have no hunting partner along to assist, wait and watch the downed deer for 5 to 10 minutes, rifle ready to fire again should it move or try to regain its footing. More than one buck has gone down due to a graze near the spine or an antler shot, never to be found when the shooter arrives after a trek through the brush during which he lost sight of his “dead” deer.
Always be ready for a second shot, and keep shooting as long as you have a clear sight picture of the deer and it continues in motion. Take note of how the whitetail reacts to the shot; after a solid hit, deer that don’t drop to the ground often break into a full-out sprint and you will hear them fall or thrash a short distance away. Jumping straight up or kicking out the hind legs is often indicative of a heart shot, and in each case it should be a short trail to locate the downed animal. When a deer humps up, it usually means a paunch hit, and if the deer runs off with an unsteady gait or on three legs, the bullet probably has broken a shoulder or leg. Both instances usually mean the hunter has trailing work to do before the coup de grace.
Also, before you leave your shooting location, picture in your mind how the deer was standing when you shot, exactly where you aimed, and if there was any sudden movement in the form of a change of position by the deer that may have altered point of bullet impact. Finally, use a red or orange bandana or a long strip of colorful flagging tape to mark the exact spot you shot from. Place the marker high on a branch so it can be referred to from a distance as you try to locate blood trail and tracks. Snow cover or a partner always makes trailing easier, but for the purposes of this venue, let’s assume you are on your own.
Now it’s time to identify the exact spot where the animal was standing when you took the shot, and remember that this is where sign and hopefully a blood trail will begin, so it is crucial to recovery efforts. Pinpointing this location will require the shooter to select a couple of obvious landmarks to identify the precise location once he walks there from the shooting site. It may only be 50 yards or it may be 300, and it could be a field edge, dense hardwood, or a cedar swamp, so select a marker that will be easy to recognize once you get to the area.
After arriving at the landmark, look back to the shooting location, and the bright bandana used to mark it, to verify your position and tie a flagging ribbon to the nearest branch. Slowly turn in a circle and try to identify any sign; it’s always tougher on bare ground than snow. If nothing is obvious, make a small circle around the marking ribbon, get on your hands and knees, if necessary, and observe closely for even a drop of blood or a few strands of hair. If no sign is located during the first loop, move out three feet and make another circle, and keep expanding your search grid until blood, hair, or tracks are found.
Once the initial spoor of a wounded deer is located, mark that spot and retrieve the first ribbon to avoid confusion and retie it to an adjacent bush, then look back at the spot you shot from to verify location. Picture in your head where the deer ran after the shot, and scrutinize the trail and other landmarks to verify the image in your mind. When it’s time to begin trailing, be sure to always walk beside any signs, never step directly on tracks or blood in case there’s a need to backtrack or start over. And before you even take that first step, investigate the size, color, and consistency of the blood and any hair. It can tell you a lot about where the animal is hit if you’re familiar with lengths and colors of a whitetail’s coat. It can also help you determine if you should wait awhile before pushing a deer that may not be hard hit or if you can begin tracking immediately.
Blood, hair, tissue, and bone fragments are commonly found at the spot where a deer was hit, and also along the escape route, so observe closely and use the evidence to determine where your shot struck the animal. Clipped short brown hair and bubbly blood on the ground and spray on the bushes indicates a lung hit. A muscle hit with no vital organs struck, such as a haunch shot, will show medium-length brown hair and a lot of blood initially which peters out as the trail continues. Muscle wounds drip to the ground rather than spray out to one or both sides as major organ or artery hits are likely to do. Often the animal is not recovered by the hunter and survives.
A heart shot will leave short body hair, possible bubbles in the blood, but just as often scant or no blood sign at all. The animal will usually be down within 150 yards. Spoor that shows clipped white hair, food particles among the blood and a rank, unpleasant smell indicate a paunch hit. Long, darker hair and a light blood trail are signs of a neck or throat shot, and if the bullet missed major arteries and the windpipe, it could be a long search, possibly fruitless.
Hard-hit deer generally bed down within a quarter-mile of the shot, and once lying down blood flow leaves the muscles and returns to the injured organs, often leading to exsanguination. Following a wounded whitetail too quickly may jump it from its bed before it weakens and lead to a long run before it beds again. For heart, lung, and throat shots, wait 20 to 30 minutes before following up, and for paunch, muscle, or leg hits, or spine grazes, give the deer an hour and a half to two hours to lie down and stiffen up or bleed out. If it’s near dark or raining or snowing, you may have to begin tracking sooner than you would like or take a chance of the spoor being washing away, covered with snow or meat spoilage because a deer was left overnight.
Study the injured whitetail’s tracks for clues that a leg or shoulder is broken causing a hoof to drag, a stumbling gait, or using only three legs. Scuffmarks, broken plants or branches, disturbed leaves, and tracks on frosty ground all provide clues when a deer isn’t leaving a decisive blood trail. If you inadvertently push a wounded deer from a bed, study the blood pattern where the animal lay down to get a better idea of where the blood is coming from; if it’s one side or both, and how much blood is being lost. Where the blood falls along the trail will also help determine if it’s flowing from an entrance or exit wound, and don’t forget to look at trees, bushes, and vegetation above ground level for blood sign and particularly blowdowns the deer goes over.
On the trail
Use vividly colored surveyor’s tape, Game Tracker line, or white tissue to mark each blood splatter, tissue, or bone fragment located. I often mark trails with lengths of toilet paper, the white stands out, especially at dusk, and it’s biodegradable unlike the other marking materials that will need to be retrieved after the pursuit is over. After a half-dozen or so locations are highlighted, it’s often possible to identify a trail direction and extrapolate where the animal is heading. With this information it’s possible to use your rifle scope to scan the woods ahead for the standing or bedded deer which will be closely watching its back trail.
If the blood trail is lost, start making ever-expanding circles around the last marked spoor until new sign is spotted. When tracks and blood spatter become sparse, it may require the hunter to get down on hands and knees and crawl along to search. The lower perspective is often very beneficial. Watch the sky for ravens or crows or listen for their calls; these scavengers will locate a dead deer very quickly from the air. If there’s time, and the deer isn’t found in the first couple of hundred yards, enlist the help of friends back at camp whenever possible. The more eyes the better when following sign, and one sport can stand in plain view or within voice contact in thick woods beside the last track or spoor while you search out the next clue.
Hunt whitetail deer long enough and sooner or later it will be necessary to engage in an intense tracking session for a wounded animal. This is where every outdoorsman’s mettle will be tested, and persistence, determination, and proper trailing knowledge and skill all come into play. A true sportsman never quits a search until he finds his animal, is as certain as he can be the deer will survive, or all possible avenues of recovery have been exhausted due to lack of sign. Good luck this season; know your target, hunt safe, shoot straight, and if you have to find a wounded deer, try every trailing trick I’ve mentioned – then try one more.
Outdoor feature writer Bill Graves can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com