First, there's only a thin line of alders separating the cedar thicket from chest-high marsh grass, small openings indicating deer paths crossing before your blind. Then suddenly there's the flick of an ear, then the shake of a tail. A leg seems to materialize as it takes a tentative step forward.
And a whitetail buck appears like the evening fog.
Your rifle arrives unbeckoned to your shoulder. With confidence built on hours and ammo spent at the range, you settle the crosshairs. The silence is shattered, the scene blurs, and you know it was a good shot even as the gun recoils. But when it comes back down, you can only gawk at the buck dashing across the swamp and into the far trees. What happened? How could you have missed?
First of all, calm down. An excited hunter is a hunter who makes mistakes. Chances are the buck is yours if know what to do and have the discipline to do it right. The shot, with either gun or bow, may be the end of a deer hunt. The hunter walks up to his or her prize, admires it, tags and dresses it, and drags it out. The hunt is over.
But in many cases, there's another step after the shot that can be the most important element of the hunt: trailing and recovering the wounded game.
Did You Miss?
The first step in recovering wounded deer is establishing whether the shot hit the deer. This step should be approached subjectively; you should "always assume the deer was hit unless an exhaustive investigation proves otherwise."
When bowhunting, you can often see if the arrow strikes the deer, but don't be fooled. An arrow may appear to miss when it really didn't. If the arrow strikes the deer, you should be able to hear it. Another good sign, but another tricky one, is the behavior of the deer immediately after the shot. Deer usually flinch, kick their hind legs, and jump into the air when hit, and almost always break into a dead run with their tail down. If the deer stands there looking around and pivoting its ears, you missed and the deer is trying to figure out where you are before it runs.
If it runs off deliberately, tail up, you probably missed and the deer knows who you are, where you are, and what you want. A deer shot in the neck or lungs may run as if it has an injured front leg. A heart-shot deer dashes off hard and straight, but you may hear it fall. A deer hit in the paunch usually humps up, arching its back. A deer shot in a rear leg or hip may so indicate it by the way it runs. The deer's mental condition plays a part in the amount of trailing required. If the deer is calm, a solid hit may drop it in its tracks. But if it is nervous with adrenalin flowing, such as on a drive-hunt, the same shot may send it on a long run before it runs out of gas.
Always stay alert when taking a shot at a whitetail on the chance you may have to follow it. You want to confirm that you did indeed hit the deer and the location of the hit, if possible. Be prepared to take a second shot, even if the deer goes straight down. Hunters have lost "dead" deer that caught them off guard and got back up to dash off. If you can, take as many more shots as are safe and reasonable. They could make the difference in whether you recover the deer.
Assess the Situation
Don't go running off through the woods like a hound dog chasing the deer; stop a moment to think things over. Piece together the evidence and try to determine what exactly happened and what you should do. Before leaving your stand, note the spot where the deer was shot, the spot where you last saw the deer, and its direction of travel at that moment. Listen carefully until it runs out of hearing distance, and mentally mark that approximate spot.
The reason for noting all these things is that a deer may not leave a blood trail immediately; then it may leave only occasional drops of blood. Your best chance of recovering the deer may be going to the last spot you saw or heard it, then following a faint blood trail to the animal.
Pick a marker such as a tree or bush near the place where you last saw the deer. Leave your stand and go there first, to make sure you don't lose track of that last spot where the deer was sighted. Look for blood, and whether or not you find some, mark the spot with a cap or other large, visible object. With a good blood trail, the way you should proceed depends on whether the deer was shot with a firearm or an arrow.
One exception to following a gun-shot whitetail immediately is if it has been wounded in the paunch. Wait at least six hours to 12 hours, if that's feasible. If you must do it sooner, stalk the trail quietly in case you encounter the deer alive in its bed. Bowhunters should give their broadheads time to work. If you saw the arrow hit just behind the front leg, and have a waist-high blood trail on both sides of the path, there's no reason to wait. In such cases, deer often bleed to death within seconds. But with a faint or moderate blood trail, it's best to wait.
Trailing Rule Exceptions
Arrowed whitetails may feel little pain or fright. They often travel only a short distance before lying down and bleeding to death. But if they sense a trailing hunter, they may panic and run fast and far, leaving a long, sparse blood trail that is easy to lose. Waiting to follow a whitetail you've hit with an arrow can be hard to do, but that is the best policy unless you know from the blood trail or from hearing the deer go down that it is dead.
Other exceptions are if rain or snow starts to obliterate the blood trail. If the arrow hit the rump or angled into the front shoulder, it may be best to follow right away to keep the wound from closing. Approaching darkness is not an excuse; blood is easy to follow at night with a lantern or flashlight. On a late evening hit, however, it often is best to wait until morning if there is little danger the meat will spoil or be ruined by scavengers.
The appropriate amount of time to wait after an arrow hit depends on the situation. General rules are at least 30 minutes on a chest hit; one or two hours on a liver or large-muscle hit; and six to 12 hours on a paunch hit.
Most fatally wounded whitetails are recovered within 200 yards of where they were shot. There are exceptions: Deer that have been driven or are otherwise excited can keep going longer through the effects of adrenalin. And paunch and liver wounds may allow whitetails to travel farther. If the wounded deer is jumped and you don't get a finishing shot, it will travel farther the second time. If that happens, back off and wait several hours.
Please read more deer trailing tips in Part 2.
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