After 50 years of hunting and over sixty deer successfully harvested I have had my share of lost deer and other small mammals. You will loose an animal if you hunt long enough. Life as well as hunting is a learning experience. For myself I went to the Dale Williams school of Tracking. That school was my father. His school was experience and many old-timers teaching him in the field. In a situation where you are depending on meat from a kill it is imperative to get the tracking ability down.
Small Mammals and Birds
With bird hunting quail, pheasants, and waterfowl without a dog it is imperative to mark where the bird falls. This takes practice as anything else. Upland game as well as waterfowl that are wounded will often bury themselves under weeds. I have walked up on quail and pheasants literally crawling under weeds as I stood quietly watching their behavior. Waterfowl when wounded in water will often dive. Many hunters will say only diver ducks ie: bluebills, ring-necks and others will dive not puddle ducks like mallards, pintails and teal. WRONG! I have seen mallards dive completely underwater and come up some ten to fifteen yards away. Myth, ducks will dive and hold onto a weed to commit suicide by drowning. NOPE! They have been noted to grab a weed or stick under water however there is no premeditation here for death. This has been tracked with cameras. This myth mostly likely originated from a hunters hubris and inability to admit he could not find the bird. Many divers when coming up will only show a tip of their bill which is almost impossible to see.
Mammals, squirrels, rabbits and raccoons. In hunting squirrels and when unfortunately wound a squirrel it is not uncommon for them to run into the tallest portion of the tree and curl up into a tiny ball. Grey squirrels are very difficult to see when they implement this behavior. In a den tree ( a tree where squirrels call home) they will often run into a hole or a nest. If they run into hole your chances of recovery or minimal as they may die there and you will not retrieve this squirrel.
Ground mammals when wounded will seek out old groundhog holes, fox holes, fallen timber or any place they can crawl under. I usually will sit down at the base of a tree silently wait if I am sure of a brush pile or fallen log an animal used for cover. Close to sunset it will most likely come back out.
Large game can be the most disappointing game to loose. This is due to the amount of preparation you put in, expense, and the amount of meat you hope to recover. For my father, hunting was more of a food resource than a sport. He was a frugal man and did not loose deer that were wounded. At least for the most part. He honed his skills over time and I was happy to be a recipient of those teachings. I have had many peers ask me to help them track back in my hunting days.
- Preseason practice. Target in your gun. Whether its a rifle or shotgun. For a slug barrel and shotgun I advise five shots at 25 yards and five shots at fifty yards. You do not stop until you have sighted in your barrel where you put 90% of your shots in a four to six inch circle. “Aim small miss small” The Patriot. I say 90% not one hundred because you also have to factor in hunting experience, nervousness, gun shake and environmental conditions.
- Observe after the shot. Remember in bird shooting and looking for a weed, bush or tree or even a corn stalk to mark where your bird fell, the observation in this scenario is more important. What does the deer do after the shot. Did it collapse? How did it collapse? Front legs first or haunches first? Whole body first. Your mind MUST start recording this incident. It is ALL important. Did it run and flag or did it run and did not flag? Deer that have been hit even with a lethal heart or lung shot will often run full speed but will not flag. They are injured. Very important. Majority of my dead deer ran immediately and did not flag. How they collapse is important for assessing your shot placement and where they were hit. How did they run? Wobble, on three legs, or were they dragging a leg? Did they run into the wind or against the wind. Some evidence suggests those deer not severely wounded will run with the wind as they are cautious with scent flow. I have never seen this behavior however that does mean it does not occur.
- Blood trail. One of the most important aspects of recovery and obtaining information is blood trail. Questions you need to ask yourself. When did the blood start start from? Point of initial impact? Color and amount of blood and frequency of blood. Know your anatomy and what kind of blood looks like from different organs. Arterial blood is often bright red but can also be mixed with venous, a gut shot deer you will notice odor and often food particles in the blood and or a green color, pink blood is often lung and you may or may not see bubbles in the blood. Do not count on the bubbles as they will only last for a bit until they rupture. Think about where your shot may of been located, then apply some common sense. A lung shot will often be pink however the slug also went through muscle on either side as well as ribs. You will see a mixture of color of blood and sometimes bone fragments and hair. Bow hunting you will experience the the same issue. Spinal shots the deer will collapse immediately and WILL NOT get up. Depending on where on the spine. If it’s a rear spinal the deer will attempt to crawl using its front hooves. Front spinal shots it is not going anywhere. Neck spinal shots it is not going anywhere and is often dead immediately. Spinal shock is often spoken about when the deer is hit close to the spine, it collapses and then gets up running.. Let me toss the truth out here. If the deer is hit in the spine, truly in the spine, that deer is not getting up. Spinal shock refers to the sudden impact of the shot usually just below the spine and then the deer gets up and runs. Minimal blood flow on this shot.
- The Tracking method. Stand at he spot of the initial shot and have your markers in hand. Markers? Toilet paper, orange flags, I don’t care what. Small amount of toilet paper was what I used and proved to be invaluable.
- Observe the direction of travel
- Imagine you are at a crime scene. Take it from a guy that has worked with officers over the years and the importance of assessing everything is imperative.
- Did it run down hill or up hill? It is a myth that deer when shot will not run up hill. I have seen deer severely injured run up hill and I have seen them go down hill. Go slow, and I mean go slow. If you think you are going slow go slower. Sometimes it would take me fitteen minutes to go ten yards. Observe for leaf disruption. This takes practice to see. You can practice this before deer season by having someone drag a small log through the leaves and you track it looking for leaf disruption. Get on your hands and knees if you have to. The farthest I have ever tracked a deer was about a mile. It was a one lung shot with a bow. Optimism on that tracking episode waxed and waned many times.
- Look up in bushes about two to three feet high also. May times I have seen zero blood on the ground only to see a tree trunk or bush it brushed by. Use that toilet paper and begin your trail markers. You will get a feel for what the deer is doing and that combined with the amount blood, how often the deer stopped will give you a ton of information.
- Do not have too many chiefs in the field and DO NOT have others walk ahead of you that will screw up the trail and findings.
- To wait or not to wait. There is no hard fast rule on this. If the deer is hit in the lungs or heart the blood will not clot and in these situations it is okay to go after that deer. The question remains do you know for sure. Over time once you know how your gun shoots, your confidence level, and the type of blood you will know when to make that decision. Other areas where the deer is hit you should realize, it may clot fairly soon and it may be good to wait an hour before pursuing as it will bed down and bleed out or at least hopefully become weaker.
- ALWAYS bring your bow or gun with your loaded as that second shot is imperative in many situations.
- Lost blood trail. You will at times loose the blood trail. Mark the spot where you lost the trail go back and reassess and take a break. Go back to the last blood and begin small circles around that spot slowly widening your circle. This helps in trying to find if the deer took off in another direction. Get on your hand and knees if necessary. Sometimes the blood you will find will be the size of pin head on an oak leaf. I can’t tell you how many times I picked up an oak leaf with a crushed Russian olive berry on it thinking it was blood.
- Don’t give up yet. All of the above has failed and the blood trail ended. Begin looking slowly and get ready for a shot when you scan heavy brushed areas or woodpiles. Wounded deer will look for cover and heavy cover to bed down in.
- Last resort. This depends on the property structure and how many individuals you can gather. A deer drive can be very helpful especially if you set one person up at he of a wood line or plot of ground and have three to five people begin slowly walking towards the hunter with the gun. Obviously those driving should not be carrying a weapon. Often this will work and the wounded deer will jump up way ahead and go directly to the hunter in waiting.
- Peroxide in a spray bottle is superb at lighting up blood that is damn near microscopic. Remember to keep it in a dark bottle as in a clear bottle light will break it down. The blood will turn a foamy white. This takes patience and a very slow cadence but it will work.
Remember every year of experience is another chapter in your mental note book and you will become smart and mer adept at tracking a wounded deer.