October 21, 2020
Hunt long enough and you'll find yourself in a situation where you have to try to follow a blood trail after dark. Doing so successfully is especially critical in hot weather, when leaving an animal overnight will result in meat spoilage. And while blood-trailing is as much of an art as it is a science, and each situation is unique, there are some rules of thumb that will dramatically increase your chances of successfully recovering game.
First Things First
Daylight is running out fast. You've been hunting hard for hours. The deer or elk you have been waiting for appears and gives you a shot, which you take. At this very instant many hunters lose focus, and that can make their tracking job much harder.
When you shoot an animal and it runs off out of sight, stay just as focused on the animal as you were before the shot. Note the direction it ran. Note exactly where it disappeared into the woods or brush. Sit quietly and try to hear it fall. Note the noises made. Were those antlers clacking against limbs and brush? Oak leaves being kicked aside? The sounds of hooves splashing through a creek? I like to wait at least 10 minutes before moving, both to give the animal time to get out of there and for my nerves to calm down.
Carefully note the animal's direction of travel after the shot. This can make finding the initial trail much easier, even if there isn't much blood. Note exactly where the animal was when you shot. Keep your cool and, before you move, pick out a discernible landmark and mark the spot. I take a rangefinder and compass reading off the spot so I can walk exactly to the right place.
When you get to the spot where the animal had been standing, search slowly and carefully for blood and tracks, being as quiet as you can in case the animal is still alive and close by. When bowhunting, the arrow can provide important clues. Typically, lung/heart shots will coat the arrow with bright blood; a liver shot leaves darker blood than a lung shot; an arrow with semi-digested plant matter means a stomach or intestinal shot.
The arrow is not the only source of information—hair and blood on the ground are critical, too. For example, if you are gun hunting obviously there's no arrow, but small clues can still be a big help. Suppose you shoot a deer that is broadside to you and the shot felt good, but when you get to where the deer was standing there's no blood. Don't stop looking. If you find two small tufts of deer hair about 2 to 3 feet apart, what you are likely looking at is hair cut by a pass-through bullet, one tuft from each side of the animal. The bullet may have passed between ribs, breaking no bone and leaving only small holes in the hide of the deer. Just because blood isn't pouring out of the animal doesn't mean it isn't mortally wounded, no matter how fast it ran in the first seconds after you shot.
If there is no blood right where the animal was standing, look slowly in an ever-expanding circle until you find it. Also look for tracks that show the trail the animal took when running off. Usually a deer that is hit accelerates quickly after he is hit. At the point the deer was hit, there can be deep prints and disturbed dirt and ground cover. The prints will also be clearly fresher than any other prints around. Observe the size and shape of the prints to increase the chances that you can distinguish the tracks of your deer from the tracks of other deer as you trail your buck.
Take Up The Trail
Dig out your GPS to both mark the spot where you've begun your search and to create a breadcrumb trail. Also, remember that in blood-trailing, less is usually more. More than two people on the trail tends to produce too much noise and confusion. With just two people, one can stay focused solely on the blood trail while the other can use a light to scan ahead, using the brightest light you have at your disposal. I've used everything—headlamps, small flashlights, big flashlights, rechargeable handheld LED lights, gas lanterns, propane lanterns and halogen lights. Weak light will not illuminate blood as well as a strong light will. You can't have too much light.
In the excitement and anxiety of trying to find the animal, a hunter is very likely to track so fast that he misses sign. Go slow! Unless you are tracking in fast-falling heavy snow or heavy rain, there is zero danger in going slow and being methodical. Take care not to erase any blood sign or tracks. Try not to get frustrated if things aren't going well. Get down on your hands and knees to search for blood if you've lost the trail. If you can't find sign in one direction, return to the last known sign and start again. Sometimes that’s the only way you’ll find the animal. Don’t forget to look on the sides of bushes, trees and grass for blood wiped off as the animal passed by.
Be sure to mark the trail as you go. Reflective thumbtacks used to mark trails to and from stands or bright orange surveyor's tape can be a big help. Another good product for this are APALS (All-Purpose Adhesive Light Strips) from Brite-Strike (brite-strike.com). APALS arethin LED light strips that operate in three modes (fast strobe, slow strobe and steady on), run for up to 35 hours, and are waterproof and dustproof. They make great markers for following the trail or for marking the animal once it has been found if you have to leave and come back with help to get it out.
If you jump the animal, it’s a good idea to back off for a while and give it more time to expire. If the trail becomes too hard to follow or simply goes cold, back out and start over at dawn.
The key is to follow the blood trail as if you were still-hunting a bedded buck or bull. Move slowly and quietly, mark your trail and use enough light, and the chances are good you'll eventually find the animal.
See in the Dark
Hunters need adequate light to see while blood-trailing in the dark or near dark after sunset. Traditional flashlights can do the trick in a pinch, but hands-free lighting options are far superior in the field, where typically a hunter will be carrying other gear ranging from trail markers to a firearm or bow.
One tried-and-true hands-free option for hunters is Streamlight’s Green Trident LED Headlamp. Shock-proof and water-resistant, this headlamp was built with hunters in mind. Run time on the high (80 lumens) setting, which provides a light-beam distance of 126 meters, is five hours; on the green light LED setting (which helps preserve night vision) run time is 19 hours; on the low-light setting, it’s 63 hours. Three AAA batteries power the unit.
The head of the unit can be tilted 90 degrees, so you can adjust it quickly. The setting buttons for low, high and green are designed so that you can manipulate them with gloves on. The included headstrap is elastic, so it will both fit and stay in place while you find your game.
More information on the Streamlight Green Trident LED—along with a wide range of other lighting gear that Streamlight makes for hunters and anglers—can be found at streamlight.com.
When the trailing gets really tough, a spray containing luminol can save the night. Luminol-based products cause blood to glow, making iteasier to spot even the smallest specks both at night and under low-light conditions. Luminol is used by forensic investigators to detect trace amounts of blood left at crime scenes, as it reacts with the iron found in hemoglobin.
A luminol-based liquid can be sprayed evenly across the trail, and trace amounts of an activating oxidant in the blood will cause the luminol to emit a blue glow for a short period of time. Commercially, BlueStar (bluestar-forensic.com) and Night Stalker Hunting Spray (nightstalkerspray.com) both make luminol-based products that work well. — David Johnson