The buck emerged from the trees at a fast trot during last light on the last day of the season. I had been still-hunting all day and assumed my season was over when he appeared. The adrenaline surge hit me like a train. I raised my muzzleloader and fired, dropping the buck in a cloud of blue smoke. I was midway through a small dance of celebration when the buck stood up and staggered off into the trees as I frantically tried to reload. I backed out of the area and called my brother. Two hours later, we took up the blood trail in the dark with flashlights in our hands. As we followed the trail, the blood we found began to dwindle and soon vanished altogether. Suddenly there was a crashing in the trees ahead of us and we realized we’d jumped the buck out of his bed. We made the decision to back out and return to take up the trail the next day, but a sick feeling overwhelmed me. On some level I knew I would never see that buck again. I didn’t sleep at all that night.
Eventually it happens to us all. We make a bad shot or we push an animal too hard. For whatever the reason, an animal we’ve wounded gets away. It’s an unfortunate inevitability and part of being a hunter—perhaps the hardest part there is, as it haunts us forever. That buck would have been the biggest of my life and losing it left a scar on my soul. Yet it may have been a blessing because it was something I vowed wouldn’t happen again. I started working to remain calm during my shots and, above all, I started paying closer attention to blood trails. In the hunting world, so much emphasis is placed on how to take the shot, but little discussion is had on what to do after the shot is taken. As responsible hunters it’s our job to know what to do when things don’t go perfectly. Thankfully, there are steps we can take to help ensure we recover our game.
Know your marks
After your shot, it’s essential to mark the spot where the animal was standing when you shot and to note the spot where you think you hit the animal. The former is easy enough. Note landmarks around where the animal was standing or running when you pulled the trigger, and note the direction it headed after the shot so you have an exact picture in your mind of where to start looking for blood. The latter is a bit harder, as adrenaline and excitement can often cloud your memory. Try to remember exactly where the sights were on the animal and how it reacted to getting hit. Did it hunch up, flinch, drop, or did it not react at all? This can tell you what you’ll have to deal with on the trail.
Know your blood
The blood on the ground can tell you a great deal about how challenging your tracking job will be. A lot of blood generally means it’s going to be a shorter trail; a little blood can mean a longer one. The color of the blood, whether bright red or dark and black-looking, can tell you if you have hit a vital organ or if you’ve hit the guts or muscle. Dark red blood lets you know you’ve hit the heart or liver. Bright red with bubbles in the blood tells you that you’ve struck the lungs. Blackish blood with bile or bits of stomach matter tells you it’s a gut shot. The amount and color of the blood will let you know how long you should wait before taking up the trail.
Know how to improvise
Often enough, even with a great hit, there will be very little or even no blood on the ground. The key to a successful tracking job is knowing how to improvise on the trail. Look for hair, tracks, marked-up trees, or anything that seems out of place. I once recovered a deer I shot in Maine—after only finding a small bit of flesh on the ground—by following a set of staggering tracks through the mud and moss. I recovered an elk in Montana by heading into an area where I saw a number of ravens flying in and out of the trees. Looking for more than just blood, thinking outside of the box, and, above all, staying determined on the trail can all help lead to a successful recovery.
There are many unfortunate realities of hunting that we come to accept as aspects of the sport we love. However, that love comes with a responsibility to the animals we hunt—a responsibility to make a clean kill and do our best to ensure the animal’s life does not go to waste. Learning how to read the trail and follow it properly is quite possibly the most important aspect of being a hunter because hunting is about so much more than just killing. Hunting is about respecting wildlife and doing our part to follow the trail to the end.