After the Shot

You think you hit where you aimed, but you aren't sure. Now what?

Outdoor Life Online Editor

If you've never dealt with a wounded buck, either you haven't hunted much or your luck is so good you should hop the next flight to Vegas. When you're an avid hunter, wounded game comes with the territory. It's what you do after you realize your shot wasn't perfect that will decide how long it takes to retrieve your deer-or whether you can find it at all.

Stay Put and Think
"Once you've taken a shot and are fairly sure you've hit a deer, you should calm yourself down, assess the situation and try to remember exactly where the deer was when you shot it," says Rob Scott, owner of Buckhorn Outfitters (912-632-8233). "I ask my hunters to mentally map out where the deer was standing for the shot and estimate the yardage from them. More than anything, I stress that they should calm down and stay where they are. Excited hunters can make costly mistakes if they pursue a wounded buck right after the shot."

Scott, an avid bowhunter, has managed Buckhorn Outfitters' hunting lands in Illinois for five years and hones his recovery skills every season. Most of his clients are bowhunters, which means the deer that are shot die from blood loss and are often retrieved at the end of long and meandering blood trails.

"Hunters who shoot game need to sit and think about what happened for at least thirty to sixty minutes before doing anything," he advises. "This is especially true of hunters who have never seen a one-hundred-fifty- or one-hundred-sixty-inch buck and suddenly are presented with the opportunity to shoot one. Sometimes it causes them to become confused after the shot."

Scott recalls picking up one hunter after dark who thought he might have hit the buck he was shooting at. Reassuringly, the hunter said he knew exactly where he'd hit the whitetail and exactly where it was standing. After returning to the location the following morning, however, the hunter couldn't show Scott the spot where the buck had been standing when he shot it, nor could he confirm if he'd even seen his buck running away. A lot had changed overnight in the mind of that hunter.

Reconstruct the Shot
Ken Krieger manages Oak Canyon Ranch (605-775-2113), a trophy whitetail operation near Burke, S. Dak. With more than 40 years of deer hunting experience under his belt, Krieger also preaches the "collect your thoughts" doctrine. He directs clients to stay put, and to aid in the recovery he provides each with a length of bright surveyor's tape to mark the hunting scene after the shot.

"I want them to be able to take me to the spot from which they shot and to show me where the animal was standing when it was hit," says Krieger. "Then I know I'm at the right location to help them piece the puzzle together. This is especially important for new hunters in the big country of the West or Midwest. Everything looks alike for the first few days, and when you toss in buck fever, many aren't quite sure where anything happened when we return to the spot."

After calming down, slowly ease to the place where the deer was standing when you shot it and look for clues. Never go any farther in case the wounded animal stopped just out of sight. Look for blood and, if you're bowhunting, try to find the arrow. Clear blood at the site or on the arrow is a good sign. Gut matter at the site indicates a paunch-shot animal. If you find lots of hair, it might indicate the deer was only grazed. Bone fragments point to a leg shot.

[pagebreak] Read Body Language
Except for the loud whack of an arrow striking a deer, it's difficult for a bowhunter in a tree stand to gauge where his broadhead struck. A subsequent search of the area will reveal more information. When a rifle or slug gun is used, however, much can be learned by observing how the deer behaved in the moment after you pulled the trigger. Think about the shot you took. What was the deer's reaction? A buck tt is hit in the vitals with a bullet or slug often humps up; when it runs away, its tail will be down, or nearly so. A buck that stumbles along might be mortally wounded, but it might simply be hit in a leg or shoulder. A buck that drops straight down might be hit in the spine, but if it's only stunned momentarily by a shot that was close to its backbone, it could recover in a few minutes and run away. The deer's reaction will provide clues to how successful recovery efforts are likely to be.

Get a Second Opinion
If you're hunting with an experienced guide, have him check the sign. If you're hunting with a buddy, show him the blood trail and ask him what he thinks. A second opinion offers an unbiased, objective view. There's no rush; you have plenty of time. Even if a questionable shot is lethal, in most hunting situations deer won't begin to spoil until at least four hours after death. In cooler temperatures, you can wait all night, assuming you're not worried about coyotes getting to the venison before you do.

Last season one of Krieger's bowhunters wounded a buck at dusk. After looking around the scene and not finding any clues, Krieger knew it was better to return at sunrise. A dry lake bed that deer often used for bedding was adjacent to the stand, and Krieger started the search there. He and the hunter crisscrossed the lake bed, keeping 10 feet between them, but found nothing. Next, they searched the weedy fence lines in the area, but still without luck. Finally, after combing through the cover close to the bowhunter's stand, Krieger started a detailed search of the oak draws leading to the stand and picked the closest draw to begin.

Krieger started at one end and placed the bowhunter on the opposite end to work toward him. Within minutes he heard a hoot of joy from the hunter, who had found the buck dead nearly 800 yards from where he had released the arrow.

[pagebreak] Proceed Slowly
Once you have considered all the clues and waited up to two hours for a marginal hit and four to eight hours for a paunch shot, it's time to begin the recovery. Go slowly and mark all major sign with pieces of toilet paper or photodegradable surveyor's tape, which sunlight will slowly disintegrate. Place the paper on the blood, or put the sign markers high enough so you can look back through the cover and see the animal's route.

A slow, meticulous recovery effort ensures that you don't miss small, subtle signs such as a spot of blood or hair. Pay particular attention to bright blood sprayed on vegetation at deer level above the ground, which might indicate a lung hit. Blood sign that increases when the animal is moving but diminishes when the animal stops suggests a muscle wound.

Although even mortally wounded bucks have enough life in them to travel extended distances, it's doubtful that they'll go farther than 200 yards from the point of impact. According to Deer Search Inc., an association dedicated to the use of tracking dogs [BRACKET "see below"], rifle-shot deer travel an average of 35 yards when shot in the vitals and arrow-shot deer go an average of about 90 yards. Since most of us hunt whitetails in thick cover, chances are good that a deer won't drop for keeps until it gets well out of sight.

A friend of mine wounded a buck with his muzzleloader several years back, and I joined him in the recovery. While trailing the buck by blood drops, I was so intent on looking for sign that I missed seeing the buck buried in the oak leaves practically underfoot. The buck scrambled to his feet and stumbled off a few yards, but my friend was ready with another round ball to finish the job.

Exhaust All Possibilities
Sometimes even the most methodical and painstaking search ends without success. I was in an elk-hunting camp last fall when such a search failed to produce the elk one of the hunters had shot. Luckily for him, there was a search-and-rescue team in the area. The outfitter contacted the team leader and asked if his squad would help locate the wounded bull. The team was preparing to hold a mock search for practice anyway, so the outfitter's camp donated funds to cover the mission of recovering the downed elk. The search-and-rescue team found the dead bull that same day, but it took an organized sweep of the area.

Of course, most of us don't have a search-and-rescue team at our disposal, but sometimes we can use nature's scavengers to help find downed game. After you've lost the wounded deer's trail and have searched everywhere without success, go back to the area the next day. Instead of searching the ground, look in the sky for circling buzzards or listen in the woods for concentrations of crows, ravens and magpies. Listen for groups of coyotes howling at dawn, which might indicate feeding activity. Mark and check all such locations and you just might find your missing deer.

[pagebreak] Nothing Beats A Dog's Nose
A growing number of hunters are seeing the practicality of using dogs to find animals that otherwise might not be recovered.

Well-trained tracking dogs can quickly differentiate the scent of a wounded deer from that of a healthy animal. And since the tracking technique requires the dog to be leashed, there is no chance of the dog chasing after other deer.

One of the more popular breeds to use is the German wirehaired dachshund, which is small enough for searchers to control on a leash or to pick up and move to a new position. Larger breeds that are used to blood-trail deer include German wirehaired pointers, German shorthaired pointers, Labrador retrievers, beagles and various hounds. They, too, pose no threat to healthy deer when controlled by a leash.

In 1975, New York issued the first Experimental Scientific Collectors License, which authorized the use of licensed tracking dogs to help retrieve game. The results were impressive, and now members of the New York-based Deer Search Inc. (deersearch.org) stay so busy during deer season that they have little time to hunt themselves.

As of last summer, the use of unleashed tracking dogs was allowed in six other Northern states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Maine, Vermont, Ohio and Maryland. Kentucky also allows the retrieval of game using trailing dogs, as do most Southern states. If you can use a dog to locate wounded game birds, why not use dogs to aid in the recovery of wounded deer?

Tracking Tools
Along with a roll of toilet paper or photodegradable trail-marker tape to mark a blood trail, there are several other items that can assist a recovery effort. To determine whether a tiny drop of blood you've spotted really is blood, spray it with a homemade concoction of two parts water and oot. Luckily for him, there was a search-and-rescue team in the area. The outfitter contacted the team leader and asked if his squad would help locate the wounded bull. The team was preparing to hold a mock search for practice anyway, so the outfitter's camp donated funds to cover the mission of recovering the downed elk. The search-and-rescue team found the dead bull that same day, but it took an organized sweep of the area.

Of course, most of us don't have a search-and-rescue team at our disposal, but sometimes we can use nature's scavengers to help find downed game. After you've lost the wounded deer's trail and have searched everywhere without success, go back to the area the next day. Instead of searching the ground, look in the sky for circling buzzards or listen in the woods for concentrations of crows, ravens and magpies. Listen for groups of coyotes howling at dawn, which might indicate feeding activity. Mark and check all such locations and you just might find your missing deer.

[pagebreak] Nothing Beats A Dog's Nose
A growing number of hunters are seeing the practicality of using dogs to find animals that otherwise might not be recovered.

Well-trained tracking dogs can quickly differentiate the scent of a wounded deer from that of a healthy animal. And since the tracking technique requires the dog to be leashed, there is no chance of the dog chasing after other deer.

One of the more popular breeds to use is the German wirehaired dachshund, which is small enough for searchers to control on a leash or to pick up and move to a new position. Larger breeds that are used to blood-trail deer include German wirehaired pointers, German shorthaired pointers, Labrador retrievers, beagles and various hounds. They, too, pose no threat to healthy deer when controlled by a leash.

In 1975, New York issued the first Experimental Scientific Collectors License, which authorized the use of licensed tracking dogs to help retrieve game. The results were impressive, and now members of the New York-based Deer Search Inc. (deersearch.org) stay so busy during deer season that they have little time to hunt themselves.

As of last summer, the use of unleashed tracking dogs was allowed in six other Northern states: Illinois, Wisconsin, Maine, Vermont, Ohio and Maryland. Kentucky also allows the retrieval of game using trailing dogs, as do most Southern states. If you can use a dog to locate wounded game birds, why not use dogs to aid in the recovery of wounded deer?

Tracking Tools
Along with a roll of toilet paper or photodegradable trail-marker tape to mark a blood trail, there are several other items that can assist a recovery effort. To determine whether a tiny drop of blood you've spotted really is blood, spray it with a homemade concoction of two parts water and o