You finally managed to locate that late-season buck of a lifetime, made a good setup and took your best shot. Whether hunting with gun, muzzleloader or bow, if you want to recover that buck, what you do next is critical. Mess it up, and your freezer might stay empty until next year.
The absolute most critical thing to do is to accurately mark exactly where the deer was standing when the shot was made. This is most easily done before you take the shot, because afterward the adrenaline and excitement of the situation are going to make this much more difficult.
We’ve all been there before, knowing a deer was standing “just right over there,” but not knowing exactly where. You’ve got to make sure you use some kind of landmark or object to pinpoint the exact location. For situations where the deer leaves a good blood trail, this isn’t a big deal. But when blood is scarce, this can make or break your success.
The second most critical thing—nearly as important as knowing exactly where the deer was standing—is marking the precise place you last saw the deer before it disappeared from your sight. This makes your job much easier because you can often start your trailing at the point where you last saw the animal, which could be several hundred yards from where it was standing at the shot.
A good rule of thumb is to never leave your treestand, blind or wherever you shot from for at least 30 minutes after the shot. That doesn’t sound like much time, but it can seem like an eternity if you’re waiting to get your hands on a once-in-a-lifetime rack!
The next step, once the initial waiting is over, is when things can get tricky. When you reach the place where the animal was shot, immediately start looking for blood. Lots of blood likely means a shorter tracking job, but don’t lose heart if there’s not much there. Often animals can jump or run for some time before leaving much blood on the ground.
Tracking can be a little easier in the late season than early on, as the red leaves and grasses of fall will mostly have gone brown. Regardless, take as much time as you need to pick up and follow the trail. Eagerness to find the deer can cause you to lose the trail and have to circle back to find it again—a process that means that the faster you move, the longer it can take to find your deer.
Bowhunters need to find their arrow if they can. Bright pinkish blood with frothy bubbles on the shaft usually means a lung hit, which obviously is a good thing. Darker blood without bubbles is usually an indication of a shot to the liver or heart. Greenish, bad-smelling material on the arrow indicates a paunch hit. Blood on the ground will generally display one of these characteristics, too.
With a lung-hit deer, many hunters start trailing after the initial 30 minutes. But if you have time, I think it’s always better to wait another 30. Bumping an injured, bedded deer is never good—they usually run a long way. Giving it time to bleed out and die nearly always produces better results.
For liver hits, it’s better to wait another couple of hours. For paunch shots, several hours is usually the rule of thumb. For an evening paunch shot, waiting overnight to start trailing is usually the best tactic. The only time I wouldn’t do that is if I were hunting in an area with a very high coyote population. Even then, I’d stay nearby and only pursue the trail before morning if I heard feeding coyotes yapping nearby.
Later in the season, meat spoilage isn’t as much of a concern as it is on opening day. Because of that, you can make an educated decision without having to consider the possibility of your tasty venison going bad.
While following a blood trail, you should mark your trail every several feet, since stepping back and looking at the line of markers can give you an idea of the exact direction a deer is traveling. Be sure and do it with small pieces of toilet paper or some other biodegradable material. Few things are more irritating than heading to your favorite patch of woods and coming across long marker tape trails made from materials that will still be there 30 years from now.