Unfortunately, not every shot is perfect. Things go wrong and bad hits happen. Here are the tracking tricks you need to find your prize before scavengers move in.
Unlike what many of the hunting shows out there would have you believe, not every shot you’ll make will be a perfect, right-through-the-boiler-room kill shot. Hunting is too unpredictable for that. A particularly strong gust of wind. The animal takes a step just as you’re preparing to squeeze the trigger. Or maybe you just got excited or panicked. Any of these scenarios can turn your shot into a less-than-ideal hit, leaving you with some work to do to find where the animal went down. But with patience and a little know-how, most of these animals can be recovered.
Accept the situation and get to work
When—not if—this happens to you, don’t feel bad about yourself. Even the most calm and experienced hunter, if they’re honest, will tell you this has happened to them at least a few times, no matter how good a marksman they are. Just get to work and do everything in your power to find the animal. It’s our responsibility as ethical hunters to do so.
Quick tip: Keep a roll of fluorescent surveying tape in your pack so you can mark every location where you find blood. This will help you visualize the wounded animal’s path and give you a last-known point from which to restart a search if the trail goes cold.
Start where you last saw the animal
This may seem obvious, but start at the last location you saw the animal. Don’t go tromping through the woods where you think it might have gone. You are not very likely to find it and you may accidentally destroy sign you could have used to follow it step by step. Start from the last place you saw the animal and follow the steps below.
Watch where you step
Once you get to where you last saw the animal, stop. From here on out, you do not take a step unless you are sure where you are putting your foot has no blood. Only put your foot down on a place you have already carefully checked. In a case where you are following individual blood drops spaced yards apart, accidentally stepping on a blood mark and destroying it could be the difference between finding the animal you hit and losing the trail entirely.
Establish a general direction of travel
After finding blood in a few locations, you can look back and establish a general direction of travel, enabling you to spend your time looking for blood in the most likely places. A wounded animal typically won’t turn sharply unless it comes to a barrier or a game trail. With that said, don’t forget the previous section: Watch where you step!
Keep an eye out for game trails
Game trails can be both a blessing and a curse when tracking wounded game. Once on a game trail, your quarry is likely going to follow it—until it gets to an intersecting game trail. Then it could go either way down the trail, or continue in the direction it was heading. Take your time at game trail intersections. You must carefully check each direction for a number of yards until you find blood, all the while keeping your step discipline. If you don’t find blood down any trail, go farther down each trail until you do.
Don’t ignore bushes and low-hanging branches
If the blood trail mysteriously vanishes or is strung out and difficult to follow, make sure to pay attention to tall grass, bushes, and low-hanging tree branches. In the same way that you can’t move through brush without disturbing the landscape, neither can an animal—especially one that’s wounded and moving fast. Look for bent-over grasses and broken-off branches. You may even find blood sign. Blood can get rubbed off on branches and tall grasses, even if it doesn’t fall all the way to the ground.
Look around you
While you’re tracking, take the time to look around. You could save yourself a lot of time. It’s easy to get fixated on the task at hand, focusing on the minutiae and scanning the ground a few feet in front of you for blood, but a quick glance around could reveal your wounded game within range to deliver the finishing shot.
Tracking an animal can take hours. Don’t be in a rush and don’t get frustrated by a slow pace. Nature doesn’t follow your schedule. You took the shot, now take the time to find the animal. If you bump the animal—you get close and it turns out it’s not dead and runs some more—stop and back off. Mark your location on your GPS and with your surveying tape. Then wait. Give the animal a few more hours to lie down and bleed out. Then resume where you left off.