An animal’s life is between its shoulders. Send a bullet there and the animal dies quickly. But it won’t always die where you shot it. Recovering game starts with the shot. Even if you’re sure of a kill as the rifle fires, your job is far from finished.
Call the shot where you think the bullet landed, not where you wished it. Cycle the action right away. Given the chance, fire again. Don’t move. Your best second shot is usually from where you fired the first. Advance, and you may lose sight of the beast at the wrong moment.
Read the reaction. Lung shots often bring a labored exit, a heart shot a sprint. A rear hoof kicked forward often means a mid-torso strike. A shattered shoulder makes that leg swing uselessly. Depending on the bullet’s track and upset, all these hits can bring the animal down nearby.
Immediate collapse suggests a severed spine. You’ll fire again for a humane finish. Also possible: The bullet clipped a spinal process—one of those protrusions forming the back line. A splintered process imparts knock-out shock; but, if the cord is intact, the animal may regain its feet. Then you must fire again quickly. Instant collapse is not your cue to relax. Even alethal hit may bring no reaction.
The sound of a hit may escape you up close, where the shot’s echo overlaps impact. Farther off, it must travel back to you at 1,100 fps, so it reaches you after the blast and any visible reaction. A “thwuck” indicates a hit in the forward ribs. A sharp crack comes from shallow bone, often a leg or spinal process. A sodden “thwump” signals a paunch hit.
Calling a shot and reading a hit matter more than finding trail sign. A wound may spill little or no blood. Hair and the curve of the ribs can arrest blood from a high hit. Organs plug holes. Animals dashing off give blood little time to fall.
Still, every bullet cuts hair. Look closely for other evidence. Mark where the hit occurred. Follow to the side of a track, so as not to disturb it.
Any blood you find has a message. Color, consistency, placement and frequency all tell about the hit. Bright blood is oxygenated; bubbles indicate a lung hit. Dark blood is from the liver or, especially, if with bits of forage, the paunch. Blood in hoofprints means a leg hit. Spray along the trail may come from the mouth or from holes through ribs and lungs. Great splashes of blood come from arteries. A bullet that doesn’t exit can cause heavy internal hemorrhage without leaving a trail.
African trackers have earned their place in legend. In dry sand, where prints dissolve instantly into dimples, these paragons read time of passing and distinguish species, often sex, where a broad assortment of antelopes include many with near-identical hooves. I’ve seen them stay with one track through a maze of dimples that to lesser hunters yield no information.
The slightest aberration grabs their attention—one leg driving deeper, a hoof dragging, the braiding of the track with another animal’s. Widely spaced, nail-diameter droplets pull them quickly along where most of us would stall out. Many walk with hands behind their back, so as not to impede peripheral vision. Often, they’re anticipating as much as following, taking shortcuts because they know where the animal is headed.
The best we dullards can do is move more slowly, look more carefully, to bring the game to bag. Archers are wise to wait an hour before trailing hit game, as broadheads cut to kill, imparting little disabling shock. Un-harried, well-hit beasts will bleed out nearby. In my view, rifle-shot animals are best followed right away. Rain or snow forces immediate pursuit.
“With bullets in the air, there’s hope.” But hope doesn’t kill. Sending bullets without the confidence they’ll kill is by any measure irresponsible. My self-imposed standard: 90 percent certainty. A shot makes sense if, under prevailing field conditions, I could hit a vitals-sized target nine times in 10 tries. If that seems unlikely, I pass. Declining a chance is better than losing game.
A shot is also a commitment to recovery if the animal does not die right away.