Blood Trailing A Deer - Post Hunting Shot Tactics [#1 Hunters Guide]

Blood Trailing a Deer – Post Hunting Shot Tactics

Guide to blood trailing a Deer and how to successfully recover the animal

For the uninitiated: Blood trailing a deer or game during bowhunting combines a series of simple techniques that will lead the hunter to the prey. It’s often these things that eventually lead to success when bowhunting, so pay attention and take your time.

The sun is creeping up on a cool, crisp fall morning.  Light mist is rising off the morning dew that covers the forest floor.  You are enjoying this moment in time when your eye catches movement just inside your peripheral. Slowly turning your head, you see it, a deer slowly feeding towards you at 20 yards.

The first thought that crosses your mind is “how the hell did it get so close without me seeing it”, as you slowly remove your bow from its hanger.  You wait for the deer to turn broadside, and then come to full draw.

As the animal’s onside shoulder creeps forward exposing its vitals you execute your shot and lose your arrow.  Suddenly it feels like reality is moving at light speed, the forest explodes, you hear leaves crunching, twigs snapping and see the unmistakable white rear end of the deer bounding through the timber away from you, in the direction it was feeding.

As the deer is leaving you see the animal normally known for its grace stumbling, its white tail hanging down and wagging side to side instead of standing straight up, indicating your shot had connected.

What do you do now?

Post shot tactics are some of the most critical skills a hunter can have in their toolbox.  It will often determine if an animal is or is not recovered.  You cannot, as much as you will it, determine what an animal is going to do after the shot.  As a hunter, the only factor that you can control is shot choice.  Is the shot within the scope of your personal skill level and effective range of your equipment?

Did you sight your bow in with your broadheads, or just say field points were good enough?  Did you sharpen your broadheads after taking them out of the package (if you don’t do this, fix yourself)? Did you sight in your firearm with the actual brand/grain/charge weight of ammo you will be hunting with?  These are all things that a hunter can control.  But what the animal does after the shot, unfortunately, is not one of them.

The next few paragraphs will address post-shot tactics, blood trailing an animal, and what to do to increase the likelihood of recovering an animal after a not-so-optimal shot.  By no means is the following information gospel of the woods, or the only way to achieve success.  These tactics are what I have found to work for me, and the people who taught them to me.

As hunters, the successful recovery of an animal is the ultimate symbol of respect that we can show the creatures we pursue.  With that being said, I believe knowledge in recovery tactics is just as important as proficiency with your chosen weapon, scouting, and woodsmanship.

Now let us get back to our scenario.  You have just made your shot, and the deer is leaving the point of impact.  Watch the animal as it leaves the area.  Note the trees, shrubs, and terrain features around it as it leaves.

Once you lose sight of the animal intently listen for the animal to change direction, stop and bed down, or crash.  DO NOT take your eyes off the last spot you saw the animal.

In my previous article Practical Guide to Hunting Etiquette on capturing your game, I made use of a cell phone camera for documenting hunts.  Well, we are going to maintain that trend here.  Pull out your cell phone and snap a photo of the area in which you last saw the animal.  Now slowly zoom in to that area and snap a few more.

This will aid in the process of finding the blood trail, in most cases the animal does not begin to bleed heavily at the point of impact.  You can even use the “Markup” feature to mark the exact track the animal used to leave.

Now, at this point in the process it is highly likely that you are beginning to shake uncontrollably.  This is totally normal.  In fact, I have told myself if I were to ever not get that feeling after successfully running an arrow through an animal, I would take up golf.

Did you take your eyes off the last spot you saw the animal?  You shouldn’t have.

Calm Your Nerves

The next thing you need to do is shoot an azimuth with a compass to where you lost site of the animal.  This can be done with a wrist compass, hand-held compass, or the compass app on your cellphone.  This azimuth will be used to reference the direction of movement the animal took from where you were at the shot, which will also assist in locating the blood trail if it is not found initially.

The next step is likely the hardest step in this whole process.  Do not get out of your tree stand or blind.  For a few reasons.  If you are still shaking it is not a smart choice to attempt to climb down out of a tree.  Give yourself time, sit back, gather your thoughts and wits, and enjoy the moment.

No matter how big the antlers are, you need to bring you’re A-game to the recovery process, and if you are jacked up on adrenaline mistakes will be made.

The animal also needs time to expire.  There is no need to induce stress on a wild animal during its last few moments on the earth.  Let it be, give it some time.  If you get bored use your binoculars to locate your arrow to prepare for the first step in recovery.

Also, take a moment and break down the shot scenario, and where you witnessed the shot impact on the deer’s body.  If the shot was back from the vitals in the guts, don’t fret.  Obviously, that is not the goal, but the likelihood of finding the animal if the track is executed correctly is still relatively high.

If you are convinced the shot was too far back, do not follow the next steps. When you exit your stand/blind do it extremely slowly, and instead of attempting to take up tracking, exit the woods as quietly as you can.  We will get to the reasons for this shortly.


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Locate The Point of Impact

Now, are we ready to begin blood trailing?  After waiting 20-30 minutes I am willing to bet you are chomping at the bit.  Time to climb down or exit the blind, but do not wander aimlessly around looking for blood.  Go directly to the impact location to begin the search.

When archery hunting one of the best methods to determine shot placement and lethality is the arrow, but this tracking scenario can be applied to firearm hunting as well.  So, we are looking for the arrow.  Lighted nocks are effective in this process, but in recent years quality control has fell to the wayside resulting in bow dry fires.

I use brightly colored white feather fletchings for daytime, and bits of reflective tape on my arrows for low light situations.  Use whatever color is easily identifiable to you.  If you couldn’t locate your arrow from your stand with your optics, begin quietly checking under leaves and brush according to the shot angle.

When the arrow is found examine the evidence of the shot extensively. What do you see? What do you smell?  If the arrow is not found use the photos and azimuth you shot to pinpoint the animal’s last known location and move there slowly and quietly.  Once blood is located do the same examination as you would have on the arrow.

What do you see? What do you smell? There are two types of blood that you should be concerned with when it comes to blood trailing, and we will break both types down in two different sections.

When blood trailing there are two types of blood you should be concerned with

Lung blood

Lung blood will be bright and frothy.  Check the blood on the arrow and ground for small bubbles of air.  The bubbles come from the oxygenated blood that flows through the lung tissue.  Even with a solid heart hit I have found that there are still small bubbles in the blood.  Generally, this type of blood results in a short blood trailing job.

Unless it is a one lung hit, which often is the consequence of taking a hard angle shot on an animal directly under the hunter, or the hunter being too high in the tree.  A deer can live a long time on a one lung hit.  There are some tactics that can be used for recovering a one-lung hit deer, but we will not get into that here.  Best practice would be to make wise shot choices.

If the blood is bright and bubbly you should continue with blood trailing the animal.  If you suspect a one lung hit, best practice would be to back out and follow same guidelines as a gut shot found below.

Dark blood/Stomach matter

Darker blood will likely not have bubbles. Check the blood and arrow for evidence of stomach matter.  If you see remnants of stomach matter or the blood on the arrow is dark and smells of putrid stomach contents, BACK OUT NOW.

It is time to quietly mark last blood, pack your gear as silently as you can, and make your way out of the woods.  Go home, get some food, take a nap, etc.  But under no circumstances (unless a torrential down pour is likely) should you begin or continue tracking the animal for the next 10-12 hours.

A gut or liver hit animal will live for a long time, but they will not travel very far from the point of impact. On average, a gut hit animal will only be able to travel 75-100 yards before they are so overwhelmed with discomfort that they must bed down. And as long as the animal is not bumped and ran out of their bed they will likely stay in that same bed until they expire.

As mentioned earlier a gut hit is not the goal, it is a slow and agonizing death for the animal, but the likelihood of recovery is very high if you DO NOT bump them.

Finding a blood trail on a gut-hit animal after it has been bumped is extremely difficult.  When in doubt, back out.  After 10-12 hours you will be good to continue tracking the animal.

Be Cautious and Deliberate

When blood trailing a deer or any other animal, it should be done as silently and slowly as possible.  Be deliberate in your movements.  Let your eyes swivel back and forth from the blood on the ground to the area in front of you looking and listening.  No matter how perfect you think the shot is, always assume the animal might not be expired at the moment, so silence is key.

Mark the blood trail with pieces of toilet paper (again, if you don’t keep toilet paper in your kit, you are wrong).  Do not use engineer flagging tape.  No one ever returns to pick up the remnants of their tracking job, and if there is one collective pet-peeve amongst avid hunters it is finding orange and pink tape scattered throughout the timber like Christmas decorations.

Use toilet paper, it is light, easy to spot, and biodegradable. And when it rains…poof it is gone.  No cleanup, and no angry hunters.

If you come across a bloody bed area it is likely that you have bumped the animal.  Take some cover and utilize your binoculars to check the direction of movement, it is possible that the animal has bedded down rather quicky out of discomfort.  Occasionally an animal will stop bleeding momentarily or change direction.

If you are unable to relocate the blood trail, do not stray from your tactics. Remain quiet and calm.

Use your mapping software (google maps, onX) to scout ahead and look for areas where the animal is likely to find sanctuary and feel safe to bed down (swamp, pine thicket, briar thicket, creek bottom).  Look for not only blood, but disturbed leaves and ground.  The animal is wounded, it is likely stumbling and not sure-footed.

Picking out a dry trail (foot tracking a wounded animal) is rather easy if you do not rush and pay attention to detail.  If you cannot relocate blood or a dry trail begin grid searching in 25 yard by 25 yard increments towards the terrain feature the animal was likely to seek safety in.  Once you have reached the terrain feature, continue grid searching until the animal is found.

Be thorough and deliberate in your search.  Grid searching is a last resort for a few reasons.  First, it is noisy.  A human walking through the woods is loud, even if you are attempting to be silent.  Second, it disturbs the ground.

If there was a dry trail or sparse remnants of blood a thorough grid search would likely destroy that evidence.  I am not the biggest proponent of grid searches, but they are a useful tactic when everything else has failed.

Successfully blood trailing a Deer and recovery of buck after hunt

Final Thoughts

Remember, be thorough and deliberate in your search. The number one contributor to lost animals is rushing through the track and bumping the animal.  These are all blood trailing and recovery tactics that I personally use.  I learned them from hunters who came before me, and that were gracious enough to help me improve my recovery skills.

Recovery of the animal you shoot is a responsibility of the hunter, if you shoot it, you are responsible for showing that animal the respect it deserves by finding it.

Bad things do happen, and if you hunt long enough you will undoubtedly lose animals to variables you cannot control, but if you are intentional and thorough in your recovery tactics, you will undoubtedly decrease the possibility of animal-loss and meat spoilage. By the way, keep these traditions alive and take a kid hunting or fishing.

Meet the Author

Joe Long
Joe Long is an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Having grown up in the mountains of North Georgia and Eastern Tennessee, Joe learned the basics of fishing, hunting, and woodsmanship. During an open hunting season, Joe is highly likely to be involved, whether it’s from the top of a tree with his bow, or from a ground blind with one or both of his kids. Joe has always had a special connection with the outdoors and hopes to pass this knowledge and obsession with being outside and among the wild things to others.

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About Joe Long

Joe Long is an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Having grown up in the mountains of North Georgia and Eastern Tennessee, Joe learned the basics of fishing, hunting, and woodsmanship. During an open hunting season, Joe is highly likely to be involved, whether it’s from the top of a tree with his bow, or from a ground blind with one or both of his kids. Joe has always had a special connection with the outdoors and hopes to pass this knowledge and obsession with being outside and among the wild things to others.

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One thought on “Blood Trailing a Deer – Post Hunting Shot Tactics

  1. Brad says:

    Excellent job, Joe. Looking forward to teaching these tricks to my son in the coming years.

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