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One of the biggest nightmares a hunter can experience is shooting at an animal and then finding a blood trail that goes on and on. If you haven’t already done that, let me suggest three reasons why: You haven’t hunted very much, you’re a superb marksman or you have a problem with the truth.

My most remarkable recovery of a wounded animal occurred in Saskatchewan a few years ago. A huge whitetail walked into view and I eased my gun up, but the rifle butt hit a juice can in the bottom of my blind. The buck jerked his head up and stared at me, and I knew I had only a second or two for a shot. Though he was standing in some brush, I thought my bullet had a clear path. I couldn’t wait–the buck was ready to bolt. He lurched at the shot and took off.

My guide and I took to his trail, which was marked by sparse blood. Snow helped us stay on his track, and we followed for three hours, most of the time trotting. We jumped him several times in the dense bush, but I had no time for a finishing shot. I knew his wound must be superficial, but we had no choice. We hung in.

The bottom line is, that buck, my biggest ever, literally ran out of blood, because we pursued him so intently and allowed him little chance to rest. Where was he hit? Sit down as you read this–in the knee. I learned later that the brush had deflected my bullet badly. This deer should have survived, albeit with a knee injury. The snow and flat terrain allowed us to keep up the chase.

On that hunt, snow provided the perfect medium in which to follow a blood trail, but what do you do if no blood is present? The first rule is: Follow up on every shot. An animal may or may not react to a hit, and you may not find blood. But that doesn’t mean the animal is not wounded.


Once you’ve made the shot and watched the quarry run off, re-create the shot in your mind. What did you see or hear? Did the animal lurch, stumble, kick its legs violently, hump up? These all may indicate a hit. Did you hear the bullet strike or hear the animal crash to the ground out of sight? Before you head out to check for signs of a hit, be sure you’ve absolutely pinpointed the spot where the animal was standing when you shot at it. This is important. Often hunters have taken me to the spot where they thought the animal was standing when they shot at it and have found no blood. In truth, they marked the wrong spot and it took a long time to locate the animal’s actual position when it was hit. It’s especially easy to lose sight of the spot if the animal was standing on a featureless hill or surrounded by nondescript brush. If you’re hunting with a companion, send him to the spot, directing him as he goes. If you’re alone, take time to find the spot by using any distinctive landmarks you see: snags, branches, shrubs, etc.


Should you wait before you head out? That depends on several factors, including the weather, the time of day, your confidence in identifying the type of bullet wound, the species, the terrain and the presence of other hunters. If it’s extremely hot, blood may dry within minutes. If it’s raining or snowing, blood will quickly wash away or be covered up. In either case, don’t wait. Get moving.

If it’s late in the day and there isn’t much time left, you might consider picking up the trail the next day. That’s a bad idea, however, if rain or snow is possible during the night, and also because you might lose the meat if you find the animal dead the next morning. I’ve heard people tell me that a deer or elk won’t spoil if left overnight, especially if the temperature is cold. Having been there and done that, I don’t believe it. Any animal will begin to bloat within an hour of its death, and the longer it lies there the more contamination you’ll find. Following a blood trail at night with a powerful flashlight or a lantern isn’t difficult; in fact, in some cases it’s easier.

If you find bits of digested food in the blood, you’re following an animal that was struck in the guts, in which case it will likely stay well ahead of you. With this evidence, I’ll wait a half hour and then follow the trail very quietly, in an attempt to make a finishing shot at the quarry, which will probably be bedded. Remember, the animal will be alert to its back trail–you must be as stealthy as you’ve ever been to finish it off.


The species of animal you’re hunting influences how you track it. Generally speaking, I’ve found that caribou and moose go a shorter distance before bedding than more tenacious species such as elk, deer and wild hogs. Bears are in a category of their own. If you don’t find the bear dead within the first 40 yards of the shot, you’re probably in for a long, unsuccessful stalk. The bear’s thick hair soaks the blood, and its fat will quickly seal the wound. Tracking a bear is usually a hands-and-knees operation. Of course, you should always have your gun ready. A wounded bear can be big trouble indeed if it decides to take out its fury on the thing that caused its pain–you.

The terrain you’re hunting will also figure into your recovery strategy. Tracking a wounded whitetail in the back 40 is much different from following a mule deer across wide-open spaces. The whitetail has a smaller home range and will typically cover less ground than a muley. Hunt the whitetail slowly, and expect it to flush in front of you. With the muley, cover ground more quickly and look far ahead for a bedded deer looking back at you.

If the woods are full of other hunters, take your chances and follow quickly, or someone else might tag your animal.

If you can, use a partner to help you ambush the animal you’re tracking. Have him sniff out the trail while you make a wide circle and try to intercept the animal. Remember that an animal with a less than fatal wound can be successfully recovered if you do your part well. Above all, be patient and don’t give up until you’ve exhausted every option. And then try one more time.

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Hunt of the Month

North Idaho Black Bears

WHERE: Northern Idaho, units 1, 2, 3, 4 and 4A, all of them north of Interstate 90

SKINNY: Large bear population, including good numbers of “color phase” bears. Clear-cuts and meadows offer good visibility in this timbered country. Access is good, with many roads penetrating the mountains. Spot-and-stalk is the technique used most often by nonresident hunters. Seasons generally start April 15 and end May 31.

COST: Nonresident license, $128.50; nonresident bear tag, $235.50.

CONTACT: Idaho Department of Fish and Game (208-334-3700)

Quick Tip As you follow an animal, mark the trail with flagging when you find blood. By looking back at the flags you can often pick out the most obvious route to follow.

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