Blood-Trailing Advice for Deer Hunters

The actions you take immediately after hitting a whitetail can determine whether you ultimately find or lose a deer.

Blood-Trailing Advice for Deer Hunters

Look closely at any blood sign left on the ground or your arrow for clues on where you hit an animal. It can greatly affect how long you wait before tracking.

Thwack!” You saw the hit, heard the impact and watched the buck bound off into a jungle of underbrush. Immediately, sensory overload occurs as you try to gain control of adrenaline gone wild.

Last fall I had an encounter with a brawny buck. My buddy Levi was beside me in the blind and filmed the entire event. Despite his “you smoked him” replay of the hit, I still had doubts, especially after taking up a bloodless trail an hour after the shot.

What you do after the shot dictates a successful outcome during deer recovery. It is that simple. A rushed follow up could lead to a lost deer. That said, taking too long could lead to spoiled meat in warm temperatures. A plan based on facts offers the best chance at finding a deer and preserving the venison. Take these factors into account after you launch your arrow.

The author has tracked numerous deer over the years and always cautions on the side of patience. As long as conditions allow for meat preservation, leaving a deer longer ensures it has more time to bleed out and expire.
The author has tracked numerous deer over the years and always cautions on the side of patience. As long as conditions allow for meat preservation, leaving a deer longer ensures it has more time to bleed out and expire.

Plan Ahead, Then Pause

Days, weeks or months before season, you should be prepared to track a hit animal. A top-notch hunting app such as HuntStand, or a GPS, aids you in marking sign to evaluate for a possible escape path of the wounded deer. You can also mark blood or hoof prints with biodegradable blaze orange surveyor’s tape or toilet paper. This gives you a quick, over-the-shoulder view of an escapee’s route. Have options in your daypack.

Always carry a bright flashlight or headlamp, not your phone’s app, along with extra batteries. Some blood-tracking lights such as the Primos Bloodhunter HD include LEDs to accentuate blood. You can also emphasize blood by using a small spray bottle filled with hydrogen peroxide, which foams when sprayed on blood and works in sunlight or flashlight conditions. Always pack your binocular to scan cover ahead for any clues to a deer’s whereabouts. You do not want to jump a wounded deer because the odds increase exponentially of losing it.

Always bring a flashlight with extra batteries. The Primos Bloodhunter HD, includes LEDs to accentuate blood.
Always bring a flashlight with extra batteries. The Primos Bloodhunter HD, includes LEDs to accentuate blood.

Lastly, consider every other aspect of what could affect a future recovery. Bowhunting too close to a property line may result in a deer escaping onto land you can’t access for tracking. Hunting on a public property, especially one used by multiple hunting groups, could lead to others bumping your deer before it expires. Taking into consideration unique situations such as these adds to your calculation on when you should take up the track. Ultimately though, following up comes down to shot placement.

Now back to business. First, calm down, do not move and begin recollecting what just occurred. Important: Memorize the exact spot you last spotted a hit deer. If it helps, take a pic with your phone from the stand and write a note. If you filmed the shot, then rewind the video, enlarge and try to determine where the shot hit and at what angle. Next, without getting out of your hide, phone a friend. They will not be awash in adrenaline and can join you to help make composed decisions without emotion. A rush to begin sending social media pics can cloud your judgment, and a friend can reign you in. In addition, a second set of eyes is also beneficial in spotting blood because one in 10 males are colorblind. Most females get a pass on the colorblindness condition.


First Hour

Even if you have a good feeling based on your mental rewind or filmed review, wait an hour unless the deer tips over in sight. This gives you time to settle your nerves, allow a friend to arrive, and formulate a rational plan supported by another’s viewpoint. Now do the math based on what you believe you know. And remember, not everything you recall is what actually occurred.

Two years ago, I thought I made a perfect heart shot on a buck. The video rewind told another tale of a shot farther back. We waited the appropriate time and then found the buck with minimal effort, but my mind wanted me to believe a better story than reality.

Your math skills correlate to where you believe the shot hit. A double-lung hit results in a deer dying almost immediately. Regardless, it is best to still wait a full hour for a non-adrenaline approach to recovery. One-lung or liver shots often require 3 to 4 hours for the animal to die. In some cases, one-lung-hit deer could live even longer. If you believe you sent an arrow through the paunch, oftentimes indicated by a deer humping up, then wait at least 7 hours or more for a death that is certain.

Your shot placement may not be obvious in some situations. Like a humped deer, try to recall all deer movements after the shot, especially out of the ordinary actions. A deer kicking its back feet up indicates surprise. Unfortunately, it could mean a perfect shot or a shot too far back requiring lots of wait time. A hit through the vitals, too far forward, or back, may cause a deer to drag a leg. Again, death could be minutes away, or never.

By assessing visual observations and adding in blood clues, your plan takes shape on when to take up the trail. Finding the arrow also provides a wealth of clues with penetration a major concern. Your arrow requires approximately 12 inches of broadside penetration to pierce both lungs, and more inches for elevated shots shooting down at extreme angles. Measure the blood mark on the shaft for penetration evidence. Next, check the color of the blood on the arrow and ground.

Frothy blood signals a lung shot. Unfortunately, it could mean single lung unless you have blood spraying on both sides of the trail. Bright, red blood indicates an artery wound with a good chance of finding a deer if you have a splashy trail that continues. Dark, red blood tends to indicate a muscle hit, but it could also indicate a hit to the liver. Wait the required 4 hours and pray for a generous trail of the red stuff. Finally, brown- or green-colored blood means a paunch hit; this blood sometimes contains bits of other stomach matter, too, and it smells like guts. Death is certain, but it takes time. Wait at least 7 hours before tracking. One great advantage to not pursuing a paunch-hit deer is it will usually run less than 150 yards (in forested habitat) and then bed. If you can wait at least 7 hours, then the odds are very high you’ll find the dead deer in the first bed, or in a second bed very close nearby.

Along with blood, review hair left at the scent. White hair indicates a low hit. Dark hair could mean a brisket, and brown hair leans toward a body shot with anyone’s guess on where.

Dark blood such as this could be a good hit or marginal, so trail carefully.
Dark blood such as this could be a good hit or marginal, so trail carefully.

Additional Considerations

Climatic, daylight and scavenger conditions also play into tracking considerations. Although you do not want meat to spoil, you must weigh the gamble of tracking at night, when weather is warm and whether coyotes may find the deer before you. Rain could also wash away any blood trailing evidence. Regardless, think of it this way: If the deer is not dead and you go into the woods, odds are high you’ll bump the deer and never find it until shed season next spring. Losing a deer is losing a deer, whether via bumping it, meat spoilage or coyotes scavenging it.

My advice is to always wait the required time based on where you think the shot hit. Rally several trackers, equip yourself well with high lumen lighting and then track when evidence tells you the animal is likely dead. Tracking dogs may be legal in your state and provide another avenue after the suggested wait time.

As for my story, Levi’s proclamation of “You smoked him,” was spot on. The buck soon began bleeding and we found him piled under a cedar 10 minutes into tracking from a perfect heart shot. My blood pressure dropped exponentially as I reveled in the success of another patient recovery.

In-the-field photos by Mark Kayser


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