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Field Skills: Deer Recovery Done Right

Follow these steps to find any deer you've hit, whether struck by bullet, slug or arrow.

Field Skills: Deer Recovery Done Right

Photo by Mark Kayser

Few experiences in hunting cause the mind to race like seeing a deer you know you’ve hit bound out of sight without dropping. Where did I hit it? How far did it go? Will I ever find it?

By remaining calm and being vigilant in your search, you’ll increase the odds of finding an animal at the end of your next blood trail.


Whether you’re bowhunting or using a firearm, having to track a deer after the shot is quite common.

Broadheads kill by slicing, which causes hemorrhaging. Bullets and slugs kill by delivering massive hydrostatic shock to a deer’s body. Even with these benefits, buck fever, extreme shot angles, bone deflections, equipment failure and weird anomalies can cause a shot to be less than perfect. Your deer might not die in seconds, but rather in minutes or even hours.

That’s why it’s crucial to have a handful of items along to help any recovery situation go more smoothly. First, install a quality hunting app, like HuntStand, on your phone, or use a GPS. Either will allow you to mark blood and other clues to aid in tracking. Next, have a roll of biodegradable blaze-orange surveyor’s tape, which breaks down easily in nature and provides a visual reference of the trail.

Keep a binocular handy to scan ahead for signs of a dead or alert deer. Have a bright flashlight and extra batteries in your pack. A final consideration might be a spray bottle filled with hydrogen peroxide, which foams when sprayed on blood for quick confirmation. With a few tools at hand, your next move is to not move at all.


Unless the deer drops dead within sight, you need to stay put and recall as much as you can about the shot and the deer’s reaction. Type notes into your phone. If you filmed the hunt, review the footage.

Deer hit through the vitals often duck and run at lightning speed. Heart-shot deer are known to kick out their legs like a bucking horse. Deer hit farther back, like in the paunch, might hump and then run. A flagging tail isn’t always the sign of a miss, but a tucked tail can indicate a deer in trauma. Also look for dragging legs or limping as deer flee. Noises can reveal clues, too. Did the hit sound like something smacking bone? Did you hear the deer stumble in the brush after it disappeared?

This is also the time to phone a friend. Two sets of eyes are better than one, and a person not jacked up on adrenaline can offer clear thinking as you hatch a recovery plan. It’s advisable to wait at least 30 minutes, unless you are certain of where the deer was hit.

Deer die from double-lung or heart shots almost immediately, but they can easily dart out of sight before teetering. A deer hit through one lung, the liver or other areas of the body might take 4 hours or more to die. In all situations, allowing the deer to sneak off and bed nearby is the key to avoiding a long tracking job later.



Firearm hunters can’t recover their bullet, but an arrow can show signs of where you hit. In either scenario, read the blood clues after your tracking partner arrives and you’ve waited the appropriate amount of time. Begin at the location of the hit and look for both blood and hair.

Abundant, bright red blood indicates an arterial wound and a high probability of finding the deer. Wait an hour and then begin the trail. Vivid red and frothy blood points to a lung shot. It’s even better if it is spraying profusely as the deer moves. Scant and frothy means you should wait 4 hours; lots of froth and you can start immediately. Dark red blood hints at a muscle or liver shot with questionable success of recovery. Wait up to 4 hours for bleeding to weaken the animal enough for it to expire.

The worst color to find is brown- or greenish-colored blood, indicating a gut shot. The good news is death is almost certain. The bad news is that it takes a minimum of 6 hours for that to occur. Don’t advance at all and let the Grim Reaper arrive during the wait.

Hair also offers clues. White hair at the site of impact points to a low hit near the belly or the inside of the legs. Dark hair could signal a brisket shot. Use all the clues at your disposal for an overall hit determination.

After the appropriate wait, begin trailing slowly while marking all clues. The hunter should be on the trail while the partner parallels. The parallel helper should scan ahead for any signs of the wounded deer watching its backtrail. Use a binocular. The hunter should have his or her weapon at the ready, but carrying it in a safe method. Turn a riflescope’s magnification to low power and never walk with a nocked arrow.


Wounded deer don’t always follow the textbook, so don’t be surprised if it travels uphill. If you don’t find the deer on the first attempt, but believe it is mortally wounded, take a break and come back a few hours later. Deer have been known to circle back to near where they were hit, which is often their home.

Of course, there’s always the chance you might not find a wounded deer. In those gut-wrenching intances, take comfort in knowing it might not be mortally hit and will fully recover from its wound. If it does ultimately expire, there’s at least some solace in knowing that it’ll feed other wildlife to complete the circle of life in no time.

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