By Bob Robb
Bowhunt long enough and you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to try to follow a blood trail after dark. After all, many good bucks, bulls and bears do not make an appearance until it’s almost too dark to see your sight pins. When you shoot them and they run off, you have to go find them. And while bloodtrailing is more art than science and each situation is unique unto itself, here are some rules of thumb that will help you recover game.
1) The Right Stuff
First and foremost, hunt with a bow-and-arrow setup that has been perfectly tuned and meticulously sighted in. Remember that the goal is to place a broadhead with scalpel-sharp blades precisely. The bigger the hole, the more internal damage and the more blood that will hit the ground, making tracking easier.
2) Listen Carefully
You shoot an animal and it runs off. When you lose sight of it, sit quietly and listen to see if you can hear it fall down. Note the noises made. Were those antlers clacking against limbs and brush? Oak leaves being kicked aside? The sounds of hooves splashing through a creek? I like to wait at least 5 to 10 minutes before climbing down from my stand, both to give the animal time to get out of there and for my nerves to calm down enough so that it’s safe for me to descend and that I’m capable of making good decisions.
3) Which Way Did He Go?
Carefully note the animal’s direction of travel after the shot. This can make finding the initial trail much easier, especially in the event there isn’t much blood. Know where the animal was when you shot. Keep your cool and, before you move, pick out a discernible landmark and mark the spot. I take a rangefinder reading off the spot so I can walk exactly to the right place.
4) The Scene Of The Crime
When you get to the spot, search slowly and carefully for blood and tracks, being as quiet as you can in case the deer is still alive and close by. The most important
clue you can find is the arrow, but hair and blood are critical, too. A unique arrow shaft line that can help you a lot with this is from Bloodsport, whose shafts feature the company’s Blood Ring Certain Shot Technology. This shows you quickly what kind of hit was made using the age-old logic of blood types. Different organs produce different blood types and colors. Bright red, red with air bubbles, dark red or greenish brown blood collects on the arrow shaft, making it possible to quickly assess the hit and, thus, help you decide what move to make next. Also worth checking out is Bloodsport’s full line of broadheads, including the Gravedigger. The Gravedigger is a hybrid head that features a 1-inch fixed blade and 1 ¾-inch cross-opening curved mechanical blades. It has a patented blade-retention system that keeps blades closed until impact, and requires no rubber bands or O-rings. My experience with them has shown them to be very accurate and super strong, and they cut a giant hole.
5) Take Up The Trail
Once I decide it is time to take up the trail, I dig a small GPS out of my pack and mark the spot. I really like the compact, simple units like those in the Bushnell BackTrack line for this task.
6) The Buddy System
Trailing after dark is almost always best done with two people. By yourself it is easy to miss something. More than two and there tends to be too much noise and confusion. With two, one can stay focused solely on the blood trail, while the other can use a light to scan ahead.
7) Taking Up The Trail
OK, you’ve decided it’s time to take up the trail. Here are some things to remember while bloodtrailing, day or night:
- Take your time, moving slowly and deliberately. Try not to get frustrated if things aren’t going well. Slow and steady is more likely to lead to recovery than quick and hectic.
- Take care not to erase any blood sign or tracks with your own walking.
- Get down on your hands and knees to search for blood if you’ve lost the trail. Sometimes that’s the only way you’ll find it. And don’t forget to look on the sides of bushes, trees and grass for blood wiped off as the animal passed by.
- If you jump the critter while trailing, it’s a good idea to back off for a while and give the animal more time to expire. Continuing to trail it will often just push it and result in a marginal blood trail that’s difficult to follow.
- Be sure to mark the trail as you go. After dark the same reflective bright eyes used to mark trails to and from stands can be a big help when used together with bright orange biodegradable surveyor’s tape. Another good product for this is the APAL (All Purpose Adhesive Light) from Bright-Strike. APALs are a micro-thin LED light strip that operates in three modes (fast strobe, slow strobe and steady on), run for up to 35 hours, and are waterproof and dustproof. They make great markers for following the trail or for marking the animal once it has been found if you have to leave and come back with help to get it out.
8) Big Lights
Maximum candlepower is the key to following a blood trail in the dark. I’ve used everything to blood trail at night: tiny headlamps, small flashlights that use a pair of AA batteries, huge flashlights, rechargeable handheld LED lights, gas lanterns, propane lanterns, and halogen lights. There are lots of choices out there, but one I’ve used a lot in recent
years is the Cyclops Flare, a 3-watt handheld LED spotlight that uses six AA batteries and puts out 103 lumens. With this light I can clearly see a deer at 100 yards and a deer’s eyes at a quarter mile. It also makes locating tiny specks of blood on the ground possible. Whatever the source, my rule is basically this — just like there is no such thing as Too Much Gun, you can never have Too Much Light.
I have had more than one person ask me why I would even try to trail an animal in the dark. It took me a lot of years to realize that some people get very nervous in woods as dark as the inside of a coal sack. They are afraid of getting lost or tripping and hurting themselves. Maybe they are afraid of the bogeyman. Whatever. Leaving an animal out overnight risks losing the meat to spoilage or predators. Also, rain or snow can obliterate blood and tracks, making finding the animal a crapshoot the next day. That’s why I always have the lights, small GPS, trail flagging stuff, and my cell phone so I can call my buddies and let them know what is going on every time I hit the deer woods.
One never knows when Lady Luck will smile and that buck you’ve always dreamed about gives you the shot you’ve always wanted right at dark. When he does, I want to make sure I can find him.
Luminol and Bloodtrailing
Luminol-based products can make blood glow, making it easier to spot small flecks and specks both day and night. Luminol (C8H7N3O2) is used by forensic investigators to detect trace amounts of blood left at crime scenes as it reacts with iron found in hemoglobin. A luminol-based liquid can be sprayed evenly across the trail, and trace amounts of an activating oxidant in the blood will cause the luminol to emit a blue glow that can be seen in a darkened room. The glow lasts for only a relatively short while, but it does work.
Commercially, BlueStar is a luminol-based product that works well, even during a rain. It is mixed with water and then sprayed over the affected area to try and locate droplets of hard-to-find blood. Their website has a video that shows how the product works, and it is worth checking out. It’s one more trick in your tracking bag to help ensure that no deer is left behind after being hit.