Track That Rack!

You shot the buck of a lifetime, but someone forgot to tell him to fall. Now you must track him through waist-deep snow if you want that trophy.

Time allows a wound to weaken and kill the animal.
Photo by Mitch Kezar/ Windigo Images.

Many deer hunters think tracking and recovering a big buck that's wounded when there's snow on the ground is a piece of cake. It depends on where the whitetail was hit. If the animal is solidly hit through the lungs or heart with a bullet or broadhead, recovery can be a cakewalk, even without snow.

It's the less than perfect hits that test the skill and persistence of the most dedicated deer hunters, even when snow is on the ground. As an example, consider a big 8-pointer my brother, Bruce, shot with a round ball from an iron-sighted muzzleloader during December one year when there was about a foot of snow on the ground. When he fired, the buck dropped. Since he was aiming for the shoulder to take out the lungs, he assumed that's where the ball hit, so he didn't bother reloading.

Imagine his shock a minute or two later when the whitetail got back on his feet and took off as though there was nothing wrong with him. Bruce was reloading the frontloader when I reached him. I had been hunting nearby and knew it was him who shot, so I went to see what he got.

After examining the scene, it was apparent his shot had gone high, striking the buck high in the back. How we could make that determination is there were gobs of hair from the top of the back near where the whitetail had been when Bruce shot.

A grazing hit typically knocks clumps of hair from a deer rather than individual strands commonly associated with a solid body hit.

The hairs from the top of a whitetail's back are very distinctive. Roughly half the lengths of the hairs, starting at the tip, are black. The color, shape and length of hairs on a whitetail's body actually vary enough that it's possible to verify the location of any hit by examining the resulting hairs. You have to study the differences in hair from parts of a deer's anatomy, though, to make that possible, which is something I have done.

Another clue that Bruce had made a grazing hit on the buck was the lack of blood. Solid body hits, especially in the chest, usually, but not always, generate a steady blood trail that's easy to see on the snow.

So, through detective work, we determined the deer was stunned by the shot, but far from down for the count. A factor that complicated recovery of this particular whitetail is there were many deer in the area and there were tracks everywhere. Without a solid blood trail, how were we going to be able follow the particular buck my brother shot and distinguish his tracks from those of other deer?

I studied the tracks that we knew were made by the buck to look for any unique characteristics in prints from each hoof. Chipped or broken hooves often stand out. Big bucks usually leave big tracks, too, and their size is often enough to distinguish them from other deer.

A grazing hit typically knocks clumps of hair from a deer rather than individual strands.

Photo by Richard P. Smith.

In this particular case, the shot apparently caused some nerve damage because the buck was dragging his feet more than a healthy deer would. The buck was also favoring a front leg. Those characteristics were enough, along with the size of the prints, to stay on the buck's trail.

Because of the type of injury the buck suffered, teaming up with my brother was the best way to recover him. I concentrated on following the whitetail's tracks while Bruce paralleled me off to one side, constantly looking ahead for the buck. We knew a follow-up shot would be necessary to put the buck down for keeps.

We hadn't gone far on the injured deer's trail when I saw him ahead. Unfortunately, Bruce wasn't in position for a shot and the buck took off. We followed the deer at least another half mile when Bruce spotted a whitetail ahead of us in a thick swamp and asked me if it was the buck we were after.

Based on previous experience snow tracking wounded bucks, we knew that deer you see ahead of you isn't always the one you are following. Wounded whitetails will seek out other deer in an effort to throw trackers off or at least distract or confuse them. On a previous snow recovery effort, Bruce shot a deer that popped up ahead of us, assuming it was the right one. It proved to be a doe that had been healthy up until that point. Fortunately, we had a tag for that deer.

After Bruce brought the whitetail ahead of us in the swamp to my attention, I tried to see the deer's head, but couldn't do it from a standing position, so I crouched low for a different perspective. From a low angle, I was able to make out the buck's rack and told my brother to take him. That shot was on the money, ending what could have been a much longer recovery effort.

Bruce learned a valuable lesson that day that other hunters can benefit from. That is it is important to reload immediately when hunting with a muzzleloader, even when a deer drops in its tracks and you are confident of a good hit. By doing so, you can increase the chances of being ready for a follow-up shot if the first one does not anchor a deer. If Bruce had started reloading his muzzleloader as a precaution soon after he shot, he might have been able to put the whitetail down for keeps after it regained its feet.

Being ready for follow-up shots is also important for hunters using centerfire firearms and archery equipment. Even when a deer drops with a broken back and is unable to get up, a finishing shot with bow or gun is often required.

Bucks hit high in the back that do get back on their feet are capable of going for miles. I was involved in the recovery of a buck that was hit high in the back with a centerfire rifle one time that took two days to recover. Some relatives of mine wounded the buck in the morning and snow tracked it the remainder of the day without getting him, although they got a number of follow-up shots at the deer. When I heard their story, I offered to return to the buck's track with them the next morning.

This buck was dragging a front leg, making it easy to follow his tracks in the snow even though there was no blood. Two of us took off on the whitetail's trail while other members of the party posted in loc

ations to try to intercept the wounded whitetail if we pushed it into them. That's always a good strategy when dealing with marginal hits in a situation where a number of other hunters are available to assist. In effect, it's a one- or two-man drive, with the people following the buck doing the driving.

In this case, the two of us jumped the buck at close range after following him about a mile. We dropped the deer before he made it very far. No one knows how many miles that buck was trailed through the snow before he was recovered, but it was much farther than the hunters would have preferred to go. Dragging that buck to the nearest road once we got him was no easy job either.

Gut- or paunch-shot bucks can also be difficult to recover, especially if they are pushed too quickly. Patience is the name of the game when it comes to this type of wound. Whitetails tend to hunch up when struck in the rear half of the body with a bullet or broadhead and may remain humped up as they trot or walk off. Some deer that are wounded with this type of hit bed down within view of the hunter after traveling less than 100 yards.

If a deer beds down within view, keep an eye on him, but remain where you are to avoid spooking him. If and when he gets up and moves out of sight or it gets dark, sneak out of your stand as quietly as possible to avoid disturbing the injured buck. In situations when a whitetail goes out of sight soon after a suspected paunch shot, leave the area as quietly as possible whenever you are confident your departure won't disrupt the deer.

If unsure of a gut shot, check the area where the deer was standing for your arrow or blood sign, assuming it has left the area. Arrows that penetrate the rear portion of a buck's body will usually have coarse food particles from the stomach or slimy contents from the intestines that are mostly digested. Either way, such an arrow will have a strong odor associated with it.

Dark blood that is mixed with food particles is proof positive of a gut shot. Once you've confirmed that type of hit, it's best to wait a minimum of five hours before starting to trail the deer. If the shot was taken late in the day, waiting until the next morning to start recovery efforts is the best approach.

Time allows the wound to weaken and kill the whitetail. Many bucks that are gut shot during the evening will be dead by morning. Those that aren't dead are usually too weak to go far, if anywhere, making it easy to administer a finishing shot with either gun or bow.

If gut-shot deer are left alone and not pushed from their first bed, that's where you will often find them hours later, but don't worry if you follow the tracks of a gut-shot buck in the snow to its first bed and he's not there. As whitetails weaken, they feel uncomfortable, causing them to shift positions, sometimes a number of times. When recovering gut-shot deer, it's not unusual to find four or five beds a short distance apart. The deer eventually gets too weak to stand and that's where you will find him.

Recovering gut-shot bucks that are pushed, either right away or before they weaken from the wound, can be challenging. When the deer's system gets charged with adrenaline, he can go long distances, usually staying on his feet until he is not able to take another step. Entry and exit wounds from paunch-shot deer tend to become plugged from fat and intestines, too, resulting in poor to nonexistent blood trails, especially beyond the first bed.

That's why it's important to identify a paunch hit before starting to trail a buck, if possible. If you don't, you can still recover the whitetail. It's just going to be more work. Consider another example involving my brother hunting during the late season with an iron-sighted muzzleloader.

As usual for the north country, there was plenty of snow on the ground when Bruce shot this buck. In fact, the snow enabled the buck to get within 20 feet of him before he realized the deer was there. The buck approached from behind him and that's the main reason he didn't see him sooner.

When Bruce turned to look at the deer, he saw him move and trotted 50 yards before stopping to look back, unsure about what made the movement. Bruce aimed for the buck's right shoulder and shot. Assuming he hit where he was aiming, he started following the buck after he reloaded.

Bruce had jumped the buck from his first bed and trailed it another half mile before I caught up to him. By then it was obvious his shot had not gone through the chest. The buck's tracks were easy to follow because he was dragging his feet and his hooves were spread even when he was walking. Whitetails normally only leave splayed tracks when running. The prints were also big.

Since the buck was wounded at midmorning, there was still plenty of daylight left, so we decided to back off for several hours before continuing to track the deer. When we returned, we found a second bed that the whitetail had vacated before we backed off. As darkness neared, we crossed a logging road, so we left the track again, returning first thing the next morning.

The next morning, we found the buck dead after trailing him another quarter mile. He was dead before we left the track the previous evening. He had died on his feet, walking until he could go no more. The buck covered at least two miles after being wounded.

The deer had been angling away when Bruce shot him. His round ball entered the right ham, punctured the paunch and had nicked the liver. The presence of snow is absolutely necessary for recovery of bucks under these types of circumstances because there was no blood trail.

The recommended procedure for recovering leg-hit bucks is totally opposite from the strategy for recovering gut-shot deer. What you want to do to increase your chances of securing leg-hit whitetails is to push them. The key is to keep the wound open and bleeding. Blood loss will eventually weaken the deer enough to allow a finishing shot.

If a leg is broken, large bone fragments may be visible at or near where the deer was standing. The femoral artery extends into the lower portion of each of a whitetail's hind legs, so a shot that severs this artery can prove to be fatal. Bright red muscle blood is most often associated with these types of wounds. There's often a lot of blood at first, but blood loss usually diminishes gradually.

A whitetail wounded in a hind leg or ham is easier to recover due to the presence of plenty of blood vessels than those on which a front leg is broken. Hairs on the front legs of deer are much finer and shorter than anywhere else on their anatomy. If a leg is broken, you should be able to determine that from a buck's tracks in the snow.

The injured leg may be dragging. If a front leg is broken, whitetails often run on three legs. When trying to recover a buck with a leg hit, it's a good idea to try to enlist the help of other hunters who might be able to get a shot at the deer ahead of you. That can cut short what otherwise might be a long trailing effort.

I have snow tracked some whitetails with leg hits

for days before finally getting them. Tenacity and persistence are sometimes required to finish what was started in these cases, but the effort is worth it. There's no greater satisfaction than tagging a wounded whitetail after a long, drawn-out recovery.

Some hunters are obviously not as persistent as they should be when it comes to recovering leg-hit bucks. Bruce and I have both tagged deer with broken legs that were wounded by other hunters that they didn't pursue far enough, even though there was snow on the ground. One of them was a wide-antlered 9-pointer.

For more information on this subject, refer to the author's book, Tracking Wounded Deer. Ordering information about this title and other books by the author can be found on his Web site at www.richardpsmith.com.

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