After a shot, many deer just don’t go down like a bag of bones. Sometimes it’s not about firepower or shot placement, the deer just scampers off. But knowing what to expect when tracking a deer and how to determine what is next on the list of “to-do’s” will help you stay sane and focused during the often awkward period of time after you take that shot.

A word of pre-planning advice: Note that you shouldn’t take any shot unless you are absolutely confident that you can hit the mark, and do not take a shot just to take a shot because it is late in the day on your hunt. If you are on the last half hour of the last day of a hunt and you know it’s already too dark to easily track a deer, factor that into your planning. The last thing you want is to try and track a deer late into the night without proper equipment when predators will be ready for a wounded animal. It’s not a lecture. More of a friendly hint on how to avoid a lot of frustration. 

Taking that trophy is exhilarating. Stalking its blood trail in a cold evening in the dark without a legitimate set of lights or a friend to help is much less exhilarating. 

·       Wounded animals, especially those that don’t go down with perfectly placed shots and adequate ballistics, are super unpredictable. You just cannot tell what an animal may do. With changes in bullet design, it can impact how deflection, penetration, and ultimately wound channels are received on an animal.

·       Sometimes what you see in the scope isn’t how it plays out on the animal. On a 400-yard shot, with a wind susceptible projectile, you might not have hit right where you thought. You may not even get the kind of blood trail you’d be expecting. It’s ALWAYS a good idea to have another piece of glass on your field of view, and even more preferable to have another set of eyes. Spotting scope? Check. Loyal Friend? Check. Both are good for tracking a deer with blood drops.

·       Two people are good, three can be chaotic. Be careful when in the realm of a wounded animal and sending more people into the mix. If you can get it handled with you and your buddy, do it that way. If you must be solo, try to have a powerful sidearm or access to your rifle in case you meet up with a still energetic wounded animal. If you can, avoid that third or fourth party member! It’s probably for the better—mostly for the crime scene aspect of the hunt: you don’t want to miss something because someone inadvertently stepped on a piece of evidence. 

·       Have a good communication plan. Animals that are wounded are full of adrenaline, but many of them haven’t lost their senses and often have heightened sense, so you want to plan accordingly. 

·       Take charge and call the shots. If you are solo, make sure you have a plan with a legitimate checklist of items to do to ensure you don’t fall all over yourself by getting too excited for the hit on target. 

·       When you get to where you know you hit the animal, make a legitimate monument to ensure you are able to find the orientation and placement a half hour later, or even three minutes later. Half of the work happens before you get up from your prone position or crouched shot, because you want to make sure you can accurately mark the shot hit location of the animal. Not to mention which way they went immediately after. 

·       Take your time. Animals can take 30-45 minutes to bleed out at times. That doesn’t mean you have to wait that long, but you shouldn’t be darting off as fast as your wounded animal in the direction it left, unless you plan on meeting up with a scared, angry animal or plan on just pushing it and pushing it while it bleeds out and you lose it. A few minutes, plus the slow walk over, plus a few more minutes for good measure usually will be enough on a pristine hit. For anything less than that add more time. 

·       Bright aerated blood means you have arterial bleed-out or high-pressure artery nick bleeds, and this can help you identify your total area of tracking. The more blood loss the closer the animal. The brighter the blood the higher the likelihood it is dead or close to dying.

·       Double your time figures on shots of more than 50 yards with a bow, compared to shots at 300+ with a rifle. Similarly, let your timing be dictated by your surety of a proper hit and the likelihood of a terminal wound. No hunter ever regretted letting an animal die on its own terms. Again, plan accordingly. 

·       Arterial blood and large blood volume, although great indicators, are the exception, not the rule. You want to be looking to identify drops smaller than a pea, and they will usually be sticky, dark red, and turning brown/maroon at the time you get to the place of the hit. It's these types of blood trails you are likely to see more often than not. 

·       All that said, follow the trail. You don’t leave a 40-foot zone until you find more blood. The facts are laid out clearly—whether you see them or not is a different story. Be focused, be methodical, and don’t move forward until you find a clear trail. 

·       It’s good to use a center-out cone-shaped approach with blood. Move from dot to dot and use that fan-shaped scanning procedure to find the next droplets. That is, the cone tip is your body, the field of view widens but only enough to make sure you don’t find more droplets, before you change orientation. Keep this fan-shaped/cone-shaped methodology intact until you identify the next droplet. Use that droplet’s relative orientation to solidify the next fan shaped direction you’ll move in. 

·       You still have time. Meat handling safety isn’t affected by an hour. Take a deep breath and think about what is your best next move. Meat safety is, however, affected by six hours, so again, plan accordingly.

·       Use tools. A variety of companies make terrific blood-finding lights and thermal imaging products that can help you track and find your animal more effectively.

The concluding point is this: A wounded animal is both unpredictable and simultaneously unique in its physical capabilities. You never know what will happen or how long it will be able to stay alive. A poorly placed shot might yield hours-long bleed outs. It’s not ideal of course, but what you must do is be patient, be focused, and be methodical. Take your time because a wounded animal WILL eventually lie down. Do your best to NEVER abandon a wounded animal from a tracking perspective unless you have to for safety reasons. It will be exceptionally difficult to deal with the aftermath of that choice. Do your best to take a measured approach to your shot if you are late in the day or in a hard to track area and without resources. 

Finally, don’t get discouraged. Consider this final act by the deer to be a parting shot to you and accept it as both a challenge and a satisfying accomplishment to track the animal. It can be as rewarding as the hunt and the shot if you stay engaged. From an experiential perspective, you’ll learn more about hunting from tracking a wounded and dying deer than you will from a hundred books on taking the perfect shot or building the perfect feed plot.