When to Back Out. When to Push On.

It wasn’t the best shot opportunity, but the basket-rack seven point I had been watching for the past hour stepped forward just enough to offer a window. I decided that I couldn’t pass the chance up. It was late October during Pennsylvania's bow season, and I was hunting a parcel of public land where not only are the deer skittish and hard to come by, but any rack is a trophy.

He was slightly quartered to me, and a perfectly placed arrow would slice through the his vitals and dispatch him quickly. But things don’t always go as planned when your hands are shaking and your heart is pounding. At the noise of the shot, he stepped sideways and I couldn’t tell where the arrow hit. The buck didn’t hop or kick, but his tail was tucked as he barreled away.

To track or wait longer? With darkness fast approaching, I had no time to flounder. I waited 10 minutes and walked to the spot I had shot him. Judging by the brown matter and sparse, dark red blood on my arrow, I knew I had hit guts, but held out hope that I had also clipped the liver or kidneys, which would still mean a fatal shot.

Temperatures were only forecasted to fall into the upper 50s that night, so I knew that letting him lay overnight would mean the meat would spoil, a scenario no hunter likes to face. I backed out and waited four hours, hoping that was plenty of time to allow the buck to die. Returning, I slowly followed a few blood droplets for a few yards, then nothing. I’d walk in his general direction and spot a few more drops. This routine lasted for around 200 yards before I spotted the buck. He was laying in dense brush and had bled out after bedding down.

Had I began to look for the buck any sooner, I likely would’ve pushed him to go die somewhere out of my reach. By analyzing the clues left behind - from the way he acted on impact to the type of blood I found - I was able to piece together a plan. But there are always exceptions and certain circumstances demand aggressive tactics, such as when a hard rain threatens that’ll wash away fresh blood, while most situations require a tactful approach. Here are a few tips to help you decide when you should start tracking a wounded deer and when you should back out.

Sit Tight At Least 30 Minutes

One of the hardest things to do in all of hunting is to sit still for half an hour after you’ve shot a deer that’s just run off. It’s imperative the woods quiet back down so the deer is allowed to follow its natural instincts, which would be to get clear of danger then lay down if it’s hurt. The minutes are excruciating, especially if you didn’t hear a crash, but this step is the most important to recovery.

Assess the Situation

Determine if the shot was poor or well placed by studying your arrow and the immediate area where the deer was standing. How did the deer act when it ran away? Could you hear it moving off for what seemed like a long time?


Rich red blood indicates that the vitals were struck and the deer will expire soon. 

If the blood is a rich pink and full of bubbles then it’s likely a lung shot. A bright red stream means the heart and/or lungs have been hit. Blood that appears dark and crimson is likely the result of your broadhead hitting the kidneys or liver. Of course, what all bowhunters hate to see is their arrow covered with a yellow, brown or green plant matter, indicating a gut shot.

If you’re having a hard time finding any blood at all, locate your arrow and look for signs of a hit. Look for hair or blood on the broadhead or on the fletchings. Often, white hair means you’ve shot low. Dark, coarse hair means a high shot, while thinner, lighter-colored hair is from the side of the deer.

Make a Decision

Once you have a good idea of the shot placement, it’s decision time - start tracking or wait a few hours? If the blood is thick or you heard the deer crash, you can begin tracking. Chances are the deer is dead.

While a kidney or liver shot is probably a fatal one, it’s best to back out for at least three hours to give the deer time to lay down. In the case of a gut shot, give the deer the rest of the day or overnight before you begin tracking. You might even consider returning with a dog.


Mechanical broadheads, such as the Wasp Jak-Knife and Dueler, create gaping holes that result in maximum blood loss.

Tracking

If you happen to bump the deer, mark where you last found blood with bright flagging, then slowly back out. Deer are incredibly tough animals whose will to survive has few equals on Earth. Give it a chance to lie back down and bleed out.

Of course, there are exceptions. If you’re hunting in a marsh or swamp with little dry ground, blood trailing may be futile. It’s best to track as quickly as possible by following bubbles in the water or droplets on marsh grass. Fresh sign can disappear after even a few minutes in these situations. If a heavy rain is impending, it may be best to start tracking immediately as all fresh blood will likely be washed away. The risk of losing a deer outweigh the harm you may cause by bumping it. Just ensure while you’re tracking that you do so slowly and quietly. If you stumble upon the wounded deer, you may have an opportunity for a second shot.

By following the clues as closely as possible, you should be able to piece together a story. Analyze everything carefully. Make a calculated decision. Doing that should result in a successful recovery.