You did everything right and finally a buck walks within range of your tree stand. When you release the bowstring, it results in a sudden explosion of excitement. All too often the action is over so fast we almost feel cheated. On the other hand, the trailing process more than makes up for any letdown. It generates a rush of pure adrenaline. Yet it is at this point that rational thinking can evaporate and emotion take over. Regardless of how excited you are to claim your prize, muster the self-discipline to follow these tips to recover every fatally wounded animal.
Don’t push too soon: When darkness or bad weather complicates the recovery effort, many bowhunters make the mistake of hurrying after a wounded deer. Except when the weather is so warm that meat spoilage is a problem, it is always better to wait too long before trailing than not long enough. Give the animal at least several minutes to bed down and expire on its own. Even if you lose the blood trail, the deer should be fairly easy to recover from its first bed. If you try to rush and jump the deer, you extend the trailing process. That can present a big problem if it rains or snows.
Stick with the blood: Don’t start to search the woods in the direction you think a wounded deer went without first finding the blood trail. That’s the first step toward losing the animal. A wounded deer is very unpredictable and may circle, backtrack or take a 90-degree turn at any point. Without blood to guide you, finding a deer in thick cover is very difficult.
Stay alert after the shot: On three occasions, I greatly simplified the recovery of nice bucks that were marginally hit because I stayed on stand well after the shots — watching and listening. One time I saw the buck I shot an hour before cross a field (where he didn’t leave a blood trail). The other two times, the snorting of deer nearby told me where my bucks had fallen. Keep your binocular handy and watch the general area where the animal disappeared. If it’s a morning hunt and you are convinced the hit was not perfect, stay on stand for at least two hours.
Be ready for a second shot: I’ve seen wounded bucks jump up in front of me and run a short distance before slowing to a walk or stopping to look back. When I’m trailing, I stay ready for a follow-up shot. Don’t worry about your maximum range in this case. It is ethical, under such conditions, to take shots that are beyond your proven ability. You may sight-in an extra pin for long-range shots.
Not all blood is external: Just because you don’t find a heavy blood trail doesn’t mean you haven’t made a fatal hit. In particular, downward shots from tree stands are problematic. They usually result in an entry hole high on the side. If there isn’t an exit hole low on the other side, external bleeding could be minimal. Even when there is an exit hole, the blood trail may be slight. Always assume the shot was fatal until every effort to find the deer has been made.
Single-lung hits are trouble: Single-lung hits sometimes aren’t fatal (although they generally are, given time). Bucks have been harvested with only one healthy lung and the other collapsed and shriveled, presumably as a result of an arrow or bullet wound. Do everything you can to ensure that your arrow will puncture both lungs. If you judge that you’ve made a single-lung hit, you should wait at least two hours before following the trail.
When you lose the trail: During most of the blood-trailing procedure, one assistant is plenty. But if the blood trail runs out, you can’t have too much help. Have everyone form a tight line and comb every inch of the area. If the searchers stay close together and look carefully, there is almost no chance that the animal can go undetected if the shot was fatal.
When the arrow strikes home you have to force yourself to be patient and rational. What you do next can mean the difference betweeen a successful hunt and the low point of your season.