Skip to main content

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.


BE PREPARED

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.


STAY PUT

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.


GO SLOW AND READ THE SIGN

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.

NOW WHAT?

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.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Catch More Bass on a Jerkbait in the Cooler Months

Catch More Bass on a Jerkbait in the Cooler Months

This one simple trick will trigger more bass strikes on a jerkbait during the fall months.

Action and Power Ratings- How to Choose the Right Bass Rod

Action and Power Ratings- How to Choose the Right Bass Rod

Most fishing rods feature both an action and a power rating, but what do those ratings mean and how do you use them to select the right rod for different scenarios? In this video, outdoor writer and tackle specialist Shane Beilue breaks down the difference between a rod blank’s action and power and discusses what the various ratings of each mean.

Understanding Reel Retrieve Ratios and How it Affects Lure Presentations

Understanding Reel Retrieve Ratios and How it Affects Lure Presentations

Increase a lure’s effectiveness by pairing it with the ideal reel speed.

Hunting Elk with the Ruger Hawkeye Long Range Hunter in 6.5 PRC

Hunting Elk with the Ruger Hawkeye Long Range Hunter in 6.5 PRC

Michael Cassidy and Paul Pluff talk about their elk hunt in New Mexico using the Ruger Hawkeye Long Range Hunter.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

With the Hobie MirageDrive 360 pedal propulsion system, anglers have ultimate kayak control with more efficient fin designs, glide technology and the ability to move their boat in any direction desiredAmazing Kayak Power and Control: Hobie's MirageDrive 360 Propulsion System Other Fishing

Amazing Kayak Power and Control: Hobie's MirageDrive 360 Propulsion System

OSG Editorial Staff - November 01, 2020

With the Hobie MirageDrive 360 pedal propulsion system, anglers have ultimate kayak control...

Celebrate with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these outdoor recipes.10 Recipes for Your Backyard Get Together Wild Game

10 Recipes for Your Backyard Get Together

Game & Fish Online Staff

Celebrate with great food for your backyard BBQ or picnic with these outdoor recipes.

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews of smelly ingredients often used to catch catfish. How To Make Your Own Catfish Dough Bait Catfish

How To Make Your Own Catfish Dough Bait

Keith Sutton - August 04, 2015

When it comes to fishing baits, you won't find a more unusual variety than the strange brews...

Bucks visit them regularly and so should you.Understand How to Use Scrapes to Locate Whitetails Whitetail

Understand How to Use Scrapes to Locate Whitetails

Tony Hansen - October 23, 2020

Bucks visit them regularly and so should you.

See More Trending Articles

More Hunting How-To

For less than $100, you can put together a repair kit that's easy to pack into the field.A Compact Rifle Toolkit to Save the Day During Your Hunt Hunting How-To

A Compact Rifle Toolkit to Save the Day During Your Hunt

Richard Mann - January 04, 2021

For less than $100, you can put together a repair kit that's easy to pack into the field.

Bundle up and punch the clock; end-of-year monster bucks not uncommon.Whitetail Record Books Show Late Season Can Still Be Great Whitetail

Whitetail Record Books Show Late Season Can Still Be Great

Lynn Burkhead - December 23, 2020

Bundle up and punch the clock; end-of-year monster bucks not uncommon.

Plan your own successful grouse hunt with advice compiled over the years.Tips & Tricks for More Eastern Ruffed Grouse this Season Upland

Tips & Tricks for More Eastern Ruffed Grouse this Season

Scott Linden - November 06, 2020

Plan your own successful grouse hunt with advice compiled over the years.

Throughout November, blacktail hunters' chances improve as the weather gets wetter. Here's how to fill your tag in snotty conditions.Tough It Out to Tag a November Blacktail Buck Big Game

Tough It Out to Tag a November Blacktail Buck

Gary Lewis - November 12, 2020

Throughout November, blacktail hunters' chances improve as the weather gets wetter. Here's how...

See More Hunting How-To

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now