With Hunting Comes Great Responsibility

Recovering Game an Art, Skill (Plus Technology), and Obligation

By Joe Arterburn


With great power comes great responsibility.

Though widely attributed to Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, versions of that quote have been around for a long time, as far back as the 1700s, not to mention similar statements from more recent figures such as Winston Churchill and both Roosevelt presidents, Teddy and Franklin D.

The statement is just as apt when paraphrased this way: With hunting comes great responsibility. The very act of handling firearms, hunter education, training, and practice comes with great responsibility and none more so than when you aim at a game animal and pull the trigger.

By pulling the trigger you have released an awesome power that links you irretrievably with that animal, in this case, let’s say a whitetail buck. A clear miss is one thing, something all hunter’s experience, with short-lived responsibility and consequences, unless you count nagging regret at a missed opportunity. But a hit, whether instantly lethal or wounding, is instantly and forever linked to you, the person who pulled the trigger, and it is your responsibility to see it through to the best possible outcome, namely, recovering the buck in a timely fashion, harvesting the meat and honoring the animal.


Even with a perfect shot through the heart or lungs, a deer might run out of sight. Don’t panic. Be attentive and be patient. What you do in the next moments can determine whether you recover your deer. Here are steps to recovering wounded game.

·      Wait. If you rush after the wounded animal, you may push it to run farther and farther or go into hiding. Give it time to lie down and stiffen and weaken from the wound. Most recommend waiting a minimum of 30 minutes before taking up the search. Wait quietly and at the location from which you shot. Movement or noise may prompt the deer to keep moving.

·      While waiting, mentally mark distinctive features, like a tree or brush or rock, which will help you remember exactly where the deer was when you shot it, which direction it ran, and where you last saw it. Also, now is a good time to mark the spot from where you shot in case you need to recreate the scene.

·      Think through your shot and what happened next. What did you see after the deer ran off? Even after it is out of sight, listen for sounds and watch for movement of brush, trees, and other vegetation that tip off its direction of travel.

·      Replay the shot in your mind. Are you confident it was a hit and not a miss? Are you confident you know where the deer was hit? What was the deer’s reaction to the shot? Did it jump, kick, stagger, or just run off? For instance, a deer that kicks out both back legs, like a mule kick, at the shot, sometimes indicates a heart or lung shot. A deer that hunches or humps up, particularly after running 50 to 100 yards, and shows signs it is sick is probably shot in the gut.

·      Even if you think you missed, always check for signs of a hit, blood, or clipped hair or bone fragments where the deer had been standing. Staggering, limping, or other unusual movement can also indicate a hit.

·      The location of the shot, and whether you’re hunting with firearm or bow, factor into the length of time it will take for the deer to die. You can tell a lot from the type of blood and tissue you see. Dark red blood suggests a heart or liver shot. Bright pink blood can indicate a lung shot, particularly if it is frothy. Any sign of foul-smelling green matter can mean a gut shot. Research different types of blood, tissue, and hair and what they mean. Accurately reading them is an important skill to learn.

·      Mark where the animal was when shot. Use trail-marking tape or bits of toilet paper. (Remember to pick them up after you recover the deer.) Look for signs of a hit to confirm the location. Then take a compass bearing in the direction the deer went. It can help establish a line of travel.

·      Move slowly in the direction the deer ran, looking carefully for drops of blood, hair, and tissue as well as tracks, broken ground, or disturbed vegetation. Before moving from one location where you find such signs, scan ahead for the next. Mark sites at reasonable distances along the animal’s path. Do not step on tracks, blood, or other sign. Walk to the side of the animal’s trail.

·      If you lose the trail, look back at your trail of markers to determine likely direction of travel, then search in widening half-circles from the last sign you marked. Remember that wounded animals tend to go downhill, and often toward a water source, especially gutshot deer. Also remember never to assume anything. Wounded animals don’t always follow the rules.

·      If you have help, send a flanker out to scan ahead and to the side for sign (and the animal) while paralleling the tracker who continues to establish the direction of travel and mark the trail. Or have the third person stand at the site of the last sign while you move forward looking for the next. Don’t invite a crowd. One makes for a lonely search. Two see better than one and three is probably enough.

·      While scouring the ground and vegetation of sign (on hands and knees if necessary), keep an eye out ahead in case you spot the animal lying down or antlers sticking out of tall grass or brush.

·      Once you see the animal, approach it carefully from behind. Check to see signs of breathing or other movement. Poke it with a stick to see if it reacts. If there is no sign of life, double-check by examining the eyes for blinking. Some hunters touch the inside corner of the eye with a stick to see if it blinks. If the animal is still alive, carefully kill it with a finishing shot. Recommended spots are at the base of the ear, unless you plan to turn it into a taxidermy mount. A heart shot will also finish a wounded deer.

·      If it gets dark, you can continue the search if you’re properly prepared. If you prefer, you can wait until the next morning. Be sure to clearly mark the site of the last sign so you can return to it easily in daylight, when visibility (and safety) improve.


The most important factor likely to help you recover a wounded deer is woodsmanship, having the skills and knowledge to put together pieces of the puzzle. There are technological advances that can play an important role in recovering wounded animals, but don’t plan on substituting technology for good sense and woodsmanship skills.

That said, let’s look at the items you may want to consider stashing in your hunting pack.

First, a flashlight. That’s just common sense, whether you expect to be trailing a wounded animal into the night or just getting in and out safely in the dark. But from a game-recovery aspect, a good flashlight can extend the search into the dark, though as noted, there are steps you can take to resume the search in the morning light.

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Flashlights can do more than light up the scene. They can also light up blood. For instance, the SureFire Aviator ( flashlight has dual-light output, a primary white LED light and your choice of amber, red, yellow-green, or blue as secondary light output. Choose blue, which causes blood to glow, helping you pick up and follow blood trails.

Also, Primos Bloodhunter HD ( series (full-size, pocket light, and head light) uses a custom optical filter to reduce select colors, which amplifies the color of blood.

And you don’t have to wait for dark. These lights will cause blood to stand out under most lighting conditions.

Next on the technological side is thermal imaging, essentially using technology to detect a downed animal’s heat signature. I had a vague idea how thermal optics worked, but pitched questions to Eric Overstreet, Product Line Manager at Leupold & Stevens, Inc. I was particularly interested in Leupold’s Thermal Optics Quest and Quest HD (

And Overstreet was the right guy to ask. He knows his stuff; the challenge being to explain in layman’s terms.

“In an effort to demystify how thermal devices operate, we can say that they function very similar to the human eye,” he said. “Where the human eye picks up visible light reflected off objects, a thermal camera picks up infrared light emanating from objects. The human eye then focuses this light on the retina (rods and cones), where they are converted into electrical impulses. Conversely, the thermal device focuses the infrared light onto a sensor, called a bolometer, where the sensor geographically registers differences in these infrared light waves.”

In an eye, the optic nerve transmits the signals to the brain where the image is constructed, whereas in the thermal device, an image is transmitted onto a display where the user can view the changes in infrared intensity represented as different colors, he said.

Still with me? So how can that help find a wounded or dead deer in the woods?

Animals emanate infrared light that makes them detectable as heat, making finding animals during recovery easy as long as you have line of sight vision to the animal or a part of the animal, Overstreet said.

“I think it best to use an example of a deer that has been shot and takes cover in a clump of bushes,” he said. “These elusive deer can be hard to find with the eye. The color of their hide blends into the shadows of the bush and without an outline of an animal, our brain finds it harder to detect. Additionally, if the deer isn’t moving, it can become even more challenging. This is where thermal devices can excel versus human eye sight. The infrared light (heat) the animal emanates can be easily seen through all the gaps between the leaves and branches on the bush. When looking at the bush with a thermal device, while the animal’s outline may not be visible, the detection of heat is very real.”

The Quest and Quest HD can detect heat signatures out to 300 and 750 yards, respectively, but a lot depends on the variation between the deer and the environment around it. During a warm day, much of the environment absorbs heat, which makes it more difficult to differentiate between the animals’ body heat.

“Somebody can take really expensive military-grade thermal optics into a clear-cut in the evening and struggle to find a bear due to all the surrounding ‘hot stumps,’ Overstreet said. “Conversely, in the morning you can take a low-end thermal device when the temps are cool and easily find a bear in the same clear-cut as all the hot objects have cooled over the night making the bear more detectable.”

Also, if it’s been raining, the animals’ wet fur can help reduce its heat signature even more, he said. Throw branches and leaves in front of the deer and you may lose a sharp outline, making them even harder to detect, and snow that might build on the bedded deer will reduce the visibility even further, he said.

Best case is when temperatures are cold, there’s no rain, and there’s a clear line-of-site view of the animal, he said. “However, these favorable conditions can be hard to continuously achieve and can work against this optimal viewing distance,” he said. “Water can have a significant impact on viewing an animal. Wet fur will suppress the infrared energy and make it much harder to detect.”

Warming daytime temperatures might mask the heat signature of the downed animal, especially if it has been losing heat, he said.

So how long will a dead animal give off detectable body heat?

“While it is difficult to ask how long somebody can see the heat signature of an animal after it was expired, the answer is almost always at least during the night and next morning when you would be searching for it,” he said.

There’s a lot more to thermal imaging and I also asked what else one of the devices could do for a hunter. Overstreet said you can use the unit to find animals under a house or building; detect heat leaks in insulation and windows, and determine if a campfire is completely out. He said they can also give you confidence when you’re camping and go outside in the middle of the night that there isn’t a bear next to your tent. You can also use them to sneak into your deer stand in the dark without bumping into nocturnal animals, he said.

And this wouldn’t be complete without mentioning another highly sensitive (if not as high-tech) deer-finding device—a dog. Even if you don’t have access to a trained blood-trailing dog, a hunting dog may be able to trail and sniff out the animal. But first, make sure use of a dog is legal. It’s illegal in some states, but shouldn’t be because recovering an animal is extremely important and anything that makes that happen quickly and ethically should be in the playbook.

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