The next experience was so much like Dad's that it was almost eerie. A doe stepped out into a field. I raised my rifle, aimed, and fired. The shot felt good and I was willing to bet it was a solid hit, but the deer showed no sign of having been hit. It ran across the field with tail held high (which wounded deer supposedly don't do) and disappeared into the thick woods on the other side.
Although I had started chambering a new round as soon as the first shot was fired, the deer was gone before I could get back on her to shoot again. I was flabbergasted.
A walk across the field revealed a profusion of blood where the deer had been standing, and more blood had been spattered with every lunge she'd made. The low bank where she had gone into the woods had a shotgun-pattern of blood drops on it. This deer was bleeding - a lot.
A deer bleeding like that shouldn't be able to go very far, but deer often do things they shouldn't be able to do. Knowing something about how deer react when shot and feeling confident about the steadiness of my aim, I reasoned that it was probably a lung shot, which meant that wherever it was, the deer was already dead.
After waiting for Dad to arrive, I started trailing the deer. I found blood fairly often along the winding path through the brush and briars. A few drops here, a smear on a blackberry bush there, but it began to thin as I followed the dim path down the steep hillside. Naturally, the critter was running out of blood... but where the heck was she?
Which Way Did She Go?
In the intervals between blood, I followed what seemed to be the path of least resistance for a wounded animal to take. Usually, my guesses were right and I'd find blood again - but not always. At those times, I'd go back and try again, and find the next blood without much delay.
Finally, I came to a fairly open stretch, with only low grasses and briars. Blood on the grass pointed me in the right direction, and finally, there she lay - only a few yards short of a mercilessly thick copse of brush adjoining a creek bottom. The blood had told its tale.
Long Shot, Short Trail, Long Time Tracking
Then there was the time I shot the doe at about 220 yards. I'd had a rock-solid rest and supreme confidence in my rifle and ammo, so I took the shot at the broadside doe. She was facing to my right. Much to my surprise, she turned and ran away from me, and then curved left before disappearing from view.
In case you didn't know, deer are supposed to run the way they're facing when they're hit. Apparently, this old gal didn't know the rules. I took the long cold walk to where she'd been, and started hunting for blood. I could find none!
Try a Different Place
I kept looking, farther than I thought she'd been standing when I'd fired, and finally spotted some blood. Obviously, my estimate of where she'd been standing when I fired was a little off at 220 yards. From there, I trailed her to the spot where she'd entered the woods, which consisted of thick briars and low planted pines. The blood was not plentiful, but it wasn't sparse either.
Mark it as You go
I used a trick that works well. I always try to carry some paper towels folded in a pocket, should nature call while I'm hunting. When trailing, I'll tear off small chunks of paper towel and drop them at each spot of blood I find. This helps me return to the trail when I don't find blood and need to start looking in a new direction.
I made a few false starts trailing that doe, having to go back to previous blood sign, and guess at a new direction. Each time, I eventually found blood. Soon enough, the trail turned right, and there lay a big fat doe with a bullet hole right where it ought to be.
Even Good Shots Sometimes Lead to Trailing
Fact is, even a well-placed shot can lead to a deer you have to trail. My bullet had hosed both of her lungs and her heart, but she had still run about 60 yards - and had looked healthy doing it. Without diligence and attention to detail, I might have decided that I'd missed that deer, which would have been a big mistake.
Trailing Tips and Tricks
Most of our deer have been recovered without need for blood trailing. The majority of them have fallen within sight, if not right in their tracks at the shot. But from time to time, it's necessary for a deer hunter to know his (or her) way around a blood trail. Here are a few tips that may help, next time you find yourself tracking a deer that "should have" fallen dead in its tracks:
- Deer that are badly wounded will usually tend to go downhill - but a hit deer will generally run in the direction it's facing when it's hit, whether that's uphill or down. If wounded, if the deer lasts long enough, it will likely begin to veer from an uphill direction and start heading downhill. Also - the doe mentioned just above ran neither the way she was facing nor downhill - she turned and ran uphill, away from me. There are exceptions to every rule.
- Mark each bit of blood sign as it's found, so you can return to it if need be. If the blood is easy to find again, that's cool - but if it's a small drop or in thick brush, mark the place with a bit of bright flagging, toilet paper, or something else that's easy to spot.
- After you find a few spots of blood, you can get a general idea of the direction the deer was heading when it passed that way (just line up the spots of blood). Use this to tell you in which direction to look for the next sign. If you don't find the next spot, then you can start looking in other directions.
You may have to employ the flies to help you out, as I did on my first blood trail all those years ago. But no matter what it takes, I hope you find and take home all of your deer.
Don't give up based on sparse blood sign, because even a deer that's not losing much blood externally may well be hemorrhaging. I once shot a big doe and the bullet took the top off her heart. She still managed to run about 50 yards before collapsing, and didn't bleed more than a drop or two.
And always follow up your shots. As our experience indicates, a raised tail is not a reliable indicator of a miss. In fact, I don't believe there's any reliable indicator of a miss.
- Russ Chastain