Once you fire an arrow and draw blood, it is your ethical duty to work until you find that doe or buck. Do whatever it takes, for however long it takes. It might take you five minutes or five hours, but heed this advice and most of the time the trail will end at your 8- or 10-pointer.
1. See Buck Run
After the thwack of the arrow, watch the buck run as far as you can see him. In thick woods, look for flashes of white as he darts through the trees. In open country, follow him with your binoculars. At the spot where you lose the buck, pick a marker—big tree, rock, fence post, etc. Climb down from your stand, walk to the marker and flag it before you forget it.
2. Listen Up
Watch and listen. If you lose sight of the deer, cracking sticks, clattering rocks or sloshing water will tell you the general line the deer fled. Listen for him to crash down, that’s music to your ears man! From your stand, take a compass reading to the last sound you heard. If the tracking gets difficult, go back to your stand with your compass and re-gain a line to him.
3. When in Doubt, Back Out!
Big-deer expert Terry Drury says, “Even when a shot looks and feels great, don’t get carried away. If you don’t see a buck go down, trail 50 to 75 yards and look for sign. But if you get the slightest doubt he is not dead within another 50 yards or so, back out. It never hurts to wait an hour or longer to trail a buck, even one that you find shot through both lungs.”
4. Where Did You Hit Him?
At the point of impact, examine the blood and cut hair on the ground. Look for your arrow. Determine as best you can where you hit the deer; the clues at the end of this article will help you out. Walk out to the marker where you last saw the buck and pick up the trail. Walk along the trail out to your marker—you might find your arrow or part of it—but don’t waste too much time between the impact spot and your marker, you know he’s farther away than that.
5. Take It Easy
Move slowly and quietly off to the side of a blood trail, almost like you’re stalking. You never want to jump a wounded deer because he can run a long way on adrenaline. He might cut hard left or right and then back again, making the trail doubly tough to pick up again. If his blood clots, you might lose the trail altogether.
6. Two Trailers Max
Only you and maybe one buddy should follow a buck at first. You don’t want a crowd making noise and possibly stepping on specks of blood or tracks. “Any friend with you should be a good hunter with tremendous eyesight,” adds Terry Drury. “He should know what sign to look for and have a knack for finding blood. Some guys are just better at it than others, so take along the best hunter you know.”
7. Check Low and High
Don’t just look for blood on the ground, but check high on brush, weeds and trees. A lot of times you’ll find streaks or specks of blood from an arrow’s exit hole on stuff two feet off the ground.
8. Use Peripheral Vision
Look well off to the sides of a blood trail as you creep along. A deer might have leapt a log and sprayed blood three feet off to one side.
9. Tape the Trail
Beginning at point of impact, mark a blood trail with orange tape at 10- to 20-yard intervals. Turn back and study the flags, and it will give you a line on the general direction the buck is taking. Keep projecting that line out front as you look for more blood.
10. Scan the Woods
You can become so engrossed in stalking on a the trail, staring at the ground for blood and tracks, that you don’t see a wounded buck standing or bedded up ahead. Stop every so often and scan 100 yards out front. Use your binoculars and check for movement and white patches of hide in a thicket or depression, against a fallen log, etc. If you see the deer, most of the time it is best to hold tight and watch him. But, you might be able to stalk him from downwind and shoot him again. Use your best judgment.
11. Where Would He Go?
While you’re glassing out front, think and try to predict where a buck might be headed–maybe to a river, a low creek crossing or a big thicket up ahead. Check brush piles along a blood trail. A buck might crawl into a patch of cover and die. Mark last blood and veer over to check those thickets and terrains for more spoor.
12. Read the Tracks
When a buck’s running tracks slow to a walk (the stride gets shorter and drops of blood fall straight to the ground) stop and back out of the area. Chances are the deer is looking for a spot to lie down. Give it a few hours, come back and you’ll likely find your trophy a short ways ahead.
13. Don’t Spook Other Deer
One morning Montana longbow hunter Eliot Strommen and I trailed an 8-pointer I had just shot on the Milk River. “Wait,” he whispered, “let those does move on.” Six animals that had been with the buck I shot had gathered and were milling in the head of a small wood 120 yards away. “If they spook and run, your buck might get up and try to run with them, and we might lose the trail,” Eliot said. That was fantastic advice that I had never considered. We knelt and waited, the does drifted off and we found my buck 80 yards ahead.
14. When the Blood Stops
If you lose a trail, get down on your hands and knees and look for upturned leaves or stumbling tracks. Many times I have followed leaves and tracks for 50 yards or so, and then found where a deer started bleeding again.
15. Grid It Out
A few years ago, I looked for a 10-pointer for hours. I went home and called a couple of buddies, and we went back to that 100-acre block of woods. (When it is time for a grid search, call in a couple more hunting friends.) We spread out 75 yards and did a grid for another two hours. I was feeling low when Jon yelled, “Here he is!” The buck had pulled a giant fishhook, turned back, crawled under a deadfall and died about 120 yards from the stand where I shot him. When all else fails, grid it out for hours, and stay as positive as you can. You’ll find him yet.