Don't be a statistic
We owe it to game animals we hunt to follow up on the shots we take as best we can. There are rarely second shots with bowhunting. Make the first one count and follow up with this solid tracking routine: collecting and analyzing clues, waiting, following the trail, and making logical decisions along the way.
The moment of truth
The moment of truth is what separates the hunter from the target shooter — the instant an arrow is launched at a living animal. It is unfortunate that this moment is so short because there is a lot to do during this critical period like watching your arrow impact your target, listening, observing animal behavior and marking key locations. After shooting, watching the arrow fly to see the point of impact is key to knowing if your shot was lethal or not. Was it on target? How deep did the arrow penetrate? How did the animal react? If the animal ran off, could you still see the arrow in it? Which way did it go? Where was it standing when you shot at it? What did you hear? All these questions need answers.
As far as hitting the mark goes, the best shot to end an animal’s life quickly is to hit the lungs (the largest organ) or the heart. Liver shots, although lethal, are not as quick to kill. Replay the shot in your mind to visualize where the arrow struck and what organs (if any) were likely damaged. Next, recall the impact sound of the arrow hitting the animal. A soft, echoing thump will resonate if the arrow entered through the rib cage. A loud smack will be heard if you hit bone (similar to that of your arrow embedding in a tree). If you hit too far back in the paunch (guts) you will hear a hollow pop teamed with a whooshing sound.
It is also important to determine the depth of the arrow penetration. Penetrating half of your arrow length will be sufficient for deer, sheep and antelope. For larger, mature animals, you will want the arrow buried up to the fletchings. Pass-through shots are nerve-racking because the visual confirmation of the arrow in the animal does not exist. Doubt can creep into the hunter’s mind. Fortunately, analysis discussed later deals with this uncertainty.
Animal reaction is different depending on the shot, animal and species. Whitetail and mule deer tend to be the jumpiest of all while other types of deer rarely flinch until the arrow hits them. I have watched animals do many things: simply look up, run as fast as they can, trot a few steps and go back to feeding, or even nothing at all. It all depends on what and how much tissue your arrow cut. In most cases, running is the result of the shot. A good sign of a lethal hit is when the animal sprints a short distance but then is seen slowing down to a trot or walk soon afterwards. For whitetail deer, a general rule of thumb is: tail up, non-lethal; tail down, lethal.
Paying attention after the shot
You will need to note the following locations: where you took the shot from, where the animal was, and where it fled. You will need to identify these locations to investigate your shot further. After you calm down after the shot, record the exact time of the shot. You will now have plenty of time to replay the shot in your mind as you regain your composure.
Listening is very important because many times you will lose sight of the animal as it quickly flees from danger. Listen for the sounds of the direction and speed of travel, for branches breaking or the animal moaning or walking. Quite often, animals sprint short distances (less than 100 yards) and then slow down or stop, perhaps out of sight. Keep listening. A big crash followed by repetitive sounds (as the animal kicking a few last times) is an encouraging melody. Silence is also a welcomed sound after a thunderous crash. What you do not want to hear are hit animals maintaining or increasing speed and getting further away. Healthy animals will plow through any debris to escape danger, while wounded ones avoid obstructions with great care. Do not forget to keep watching while you listen.
All the clues discussed above must be analyzed collectively, not individually. The first bull moose I ever shot happened as follows: my arrow hit low with poor penetration (only 10 inches) and the moose just stood there, stunned. Soon afterwards, it started walking slowly into the trees but I could see the arrow twitching rhythmically, indicating a heart shot. I waited patiently and heard trees breaking followed by a few seconds of heavy breathing. Fifteen minutes is plenty of time to wait before taking up the blood trail on lethal shots, but depending on your analysis of the clues, you may want to wait longer. I prefer investigating the area of impact as soon as possible to gather more information quickly. In the case of my first moose, I knew the bull was dead so I waited only a couple of minutes before taking up the trail.
Finding the arrow
The next step is to find your arrow. It is either buried in the animal or on the ground (or a mixture of both if it broke in two). Look for depressed tracks where the animal took off when you shot it, remembering what shot angle was used. Look for your arrow by first checking around or just past this location. With a pass-through shot the arrow should be stuck in the ground, entirely coated with blood or other internal animal tissue.
Additionally, look for hair and blood drops, hopefully finding short cut hairs with blood on the tips. If you cannot find your arrow at the area of impact, follow the tracks or blood carefully to where you lost sight of the animal, looking for the arrow with each step, while being careful not to step on the blood or tracks.
Upon finding your arrow or parts of it, inspect it. Is it intact? How much is covered in blood? What colour is the blood? A light red (possibly smattered with small bubbles) means a lung hit. A deep red indicates liver. Are stomach contents on the arrow or does it have a foul smell? This signifies a gut shot. Do the answers you find confirm the shot details and the animal reaction you remember? Up until this point, you have simply been gathering information in the same proximity as where you made the shot and saw the animal flee, but it is now time to make a decision: Do I wait or do I take up the trail? Every situation is different and you will have to choose based upon the information you have. If you are in doubt, back out and wait or get help (if feasible). If bad weather is on the horizon, you may have no choice but to proceed so that you have the best chance at tracking blood drops before they vanish. Lethal shots should kill an animal in a few minutes, but some animals need more time to expire. Anything from 20 to 60 minutes will suffice for good shots. If your information points to a less-than-ideal shot, waiting up to four hours is usually a good idea, and for paunch shots, waiting 12 to 24 hours is best, depending on the size of the animal. The assumption is that the bigger, more mature animals are tougher and will take longer to expire.
In general, tracking should be done slowly and quietly with another arrow nocked. As you follow the tracks, listen for labored breathing or struggling movements just in case the animal is still alive after you waited 30 to 60 minutes. If you hear this, stop and wait longer until the sounds cease. This situation can be agonizing but you do not want to risk jumping the animal and having it run further on a surge of adrenaline. Keep looking forward as you would with still hunting and look for bedded animals, ear twitching or any signs of movement. Freeze if you see any motion and wait. Proceed only if the movements stop or you need to get into a better position for a second shot.
Continually analyze the blood trail as you move along. Blood droppings can show direction of travel which is very important if the animal beds and circles back. How much blood is on the ground? A small two-year-old deer weighing approximately 150 lbs. will have around 5.28 quarts of blood but would expire long before losing all of it. Is the blood trail a spray, which shows that the animal is exhaling blood? Is the amount of blood diminishing or increasing?
Only one drop of blood is required to prove the animal was there and you are on the right track. Do not be afraid to crawl and use flashlights to find the next blood drop — many times it is required. The blood trail sometimes stops and starts again so mark the last blood drop you found to make it easy to spot again. When you find the next drop, move the marker along. Sometimes, you will go several yards without any blood, which means you may have gone the wrong way.
Return to the last blood marker and use the process of elimination, investigating each possible path until you have discovered more evidence, such as more blood, tracks, upturned leaves, or freshly broken twigs or branches.
You may encounter bloody beds signifying the animal laid down to recover, and it could have, but keep going anyway. I once found seven beds within 50 yards and eventually I came to a dead elk. A wounded animal does not want to move far when they are sick or wounded. Beds can have more clues about timelines, especially if you have waited several hours before taking up the trail. Finding a fresh bed might mean you jumped the animal out of it. In this case, you should stop and back out for hours; I would suggest at least four.
Keep note of the general direction of travel when tracking. If you know the area well you may be able to predict where the animal is headed. Is it headed back where it came from — to a familiar bedding area or water? This information could be vital if the blood trail stops, but you still believe a lethal shot was made. When this situation occurs, I first follow all the paths of least resistance (most likely a game trail) from the last known blood drop. Many times, animals go on a death march where they travel slowly, not feeling well, until they simply collapse. Sick animals do not feel like exerting extra energy so they follow familiar game trails. As a last resort, I will walk back and forth, expanding out in a cone-like pattern in the general direction of travel from the last blood in hopes of finding more evidence to follow or the animal itself.
It happens sometimes: You do not recover the animal. You put forth the effort, but you could not find it or you found it but only after the scavengers devoured it. How much time or how far should you travel before accepting defeat? How far is enough? At a minimum, searching for at least 24 hours after you made a shot seems fair. At that point, depending on temperature, the meat is starting to spoil and you are really just seeking closure. Personally, I have crawled for almost a mile over two different days tracking a black bear that I never did recover. On the other hand, I once gut shot an elk and backed out for 24 hours before tracking him a mere 600 yards through several beds. I have been involved in recovering double-lung shot animals that travelled nearly 300 yards, some with blood drops along the trail and some without. Each situation is different and the more you know, the better your chances of a successful recovery.
Following up on every shot is necessary. Gathering the most information possible helps you make the best decision on how to proceed. Adding to that information as you track the animal helps you arrive at a happy place - either taking pictures with your quarry or knowing you did your very best to retrieve it.