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Reading Whitetail Body Language When Hunting Deer

You can often tell where you've hit a deer by the way it acts when it's shot.


Whitetail hunting can be tough.

Once upon a time, I read an article in a hunting magazine about making sure your deer is hit where you think it is, before you trot off through the woods tracking it. A couple of events from the author's bowhunting experience had demonstrated that the ol' eyeball can fool you into thinking the hit landed somewhere other than where it did.

Several times, the author suggested noting the deer's "body language" at the time of the hit, to help determine where it was hit... but he didn't give any examples or try to educate his readers on what to look for.

Thinking about it, I've rarely (if ever) seen tips in print to help hunters determine where they hit their deer via its actions. So, here goes!

The ultimate hit puts a deer down immediately, leaving no guesswork about whether or not to start tracking now or later. Most of the deer I've shot have dropped where they stood, or have fallen and died within eyesight. This isn't always the case, so it's nice to be able to have an idea where you hit your critter. This is sometimes crucial, as a poorly hit deer can run for miles if pushed too hard by trackers bent on its recovery, and may be lost in the process.

Gutshot deer will usually "hump up;" they'll arch their back, and do a sort of a stiff-legged trot.

I heard this from someone years ago, and found it to be true early in my hunting career when I failed to "pick a spot" to aim at, and instead shot at the entire deer... never a good idea, and a mistake I strive to avoid repeating. In my case, the deer went only about 75 yards or so and stopped, at which time I shot him again and he fell dead.

Had it come to tracking him, I would have known to wait before tracking, since the arched back and stiff-legged gait told me where I'd hit him. A gutshot deer can often live for a long time before dying, and if pushed by trackers may easily be lost.

Deer hit through the lungs will often kick their heels like a mule. I've seen it, and I'll swear to it.

The first time I saw this happen was on a muzzleloader hunt, years ago. When I shot the six-point buck broadside through both lungs, he kicked his heels straight back and started running. The thick woods prevented me from seeing very much of the deer as it fled, but it appeared to be slowing as it left my view.

I later found that it had run about sixty-five yards before stopping in front of my Dad, who was about to shoot it again when the buck fell, my .45 caliber maxi-ball having done its job.

Another instance of this occurred in the Ocala National Forest. When I shot that buck through the lungs, he kicked his heels up so high, I thought he was going to do a somersault. He crashed through the brush for 50 yards or so, then died.

Lung-shot deer won't always kick their heels, but in my experience they will always run before they die, and they may even run away "flag up" (see below). They usually don't travel far before dying quickly, and can usually be recovered within the hour.

Busting a Myth

There is a campfire myth that says if you shoot at a deer and the deer runs away "flag up" (with its tail held up high), then you missed the deer. This is not true! On more than one occasion, I have known well-hit deer to run away with flag up at the shot, looking for all the world as if they are perfectly healthy.

A couple examples: One deer was hit a quartering shot through the lungs with a 44 magnum, and another was shot broadside through both lungs with a 308 Win. Both deer ran away immediately with tails held high, and both died soon thereafter. One of them ran about 80 yards, and the other went 150 or more, down a steep hillside. Each was blood-trailed and recovered, though at first we thought we may have missed the deer... and these are not the only instances of this that I've seen.

So next time you shoot at a deer and it runs away with its long white tail waving good-bye, follow up and search for blood, and for your deer.

Which Way Did he Go?

A hit deer that runs without any jumping or bucking or other acrobatics will usually run in the direction it was facing when the shot was fired, even if that means running uphill. This is not always the case, though.

I once shot a whitetail doe broadside with a good heart/lung shot, and she turned and ran away, turning to the left as she went. I found no blood within the first 20 yards or so, but I eventually found a good blood trail and recovered her without much trouble. So be sure to always follow up and look for blood, no matter what the deer did when you fired.

Heart Shots

I have never aimed specifically for a deer's heart; in my opinion, it's too small and too low a target to count on. I have hit deer in the heart before, though. A heart-shot deer will sometimes rear up on its hind legs, but they'll often just drop or run, as well, giving no indication of a hit.

Most deer shot through the heart won't go far, and will die quickly. But because the deer's heart isn't functioning, it has low or no blood pressure - and may not bleed. Again, always make every effort to follow up on every shot, even if you think you missed.

Sometimes, deer will jump upward at the shot. The one that stands out most clearly in my mind is my hogbuck deer. When I shot that deer, it leaped straight up, with all four hooves off the ground - and then it left. It didn't go far, though, and I found it shortly afterward. My bullet destroyed the top of that buck's heart, along with the front of the lungs. A jump like this is often an indication of a good hit.

Take Care!

Whatever the case, be sure of the shot before you take it. Don't take a shot you don't think you can make. When you shoot at a deer, follow through and find it if you hit it, and take it home! Give it a couple of hours if you're not sure of the hit, or if you know it was a poor hit, and then track it down. Take a buddy or two with you to help out... having more eyeballs out there can often make a big difference. Don't give up, and pray often for guidance. It's always worked for me!

-Russ Chastain

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