How To Find Your Deer After The Shot

You shot your deer, but it took off. Now what? Follow these 10 tracking tips to recover your deer and make your hunt a success.

By Bryce M. Towsley

How To Find Your Deer After The Shot
Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
Very rarely do deer "drop in their tracks" at the shot. Once you make your shot, stay focused on the deer noting where it was when you fired and the direction it took off in. Credit: Photograph Courtesy Howard Communications, Inc.

Despite what we may see on television, deer usually do not drop in their tracks at the shot. Sometimes, too, “stuff” happens and the shot is less than perfect. That’s when you have to unleash your tracking skills and go find them. Here are 10 tried-and-true tracking tips that have served me well over the years in finding deer after the shot.

Stay Focused

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
Before you leave your stand, use your phone to take a photo of where the deer was standing when you shot and the landmark where you last saw the deer before it disappeared.

After the shot, stay as calm as you can and stay focused on the deer. Watch it as long as you can then listen even longer. Often you will hear the deer long after you can’t see it anymore.

Before you leave your stand, pick a clear landmark where you last saw the deer and another where you last heard the deer. Also, pick a landmark noting where the deer was when you shot. Have these landmarks firmly in your mind before you exit yours stand. If you have a compass, take a bearing to each of these locations. Snap a few photos with your cell phone or use a small notepad to note the locations or draw yourself a little schematic that shows these three key landmarks.

Go to where you last saw the deer and look for blood and tracks. Remember to look on the bushes as well as on the ground for blood. If you fail to find any, go to spot where you shot the deer and search for blood and/or hair. If you still don’t find a blood trail of any kind, go back to your stand and double check to make sure you were looking in the right places.

Next, start where you last saw the deer and walk to the location where you last heard the deer. Watch for blood and other sign along the way. Sometimes it takes a while for the blood trail to start. 

First Blood

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
When looking for a blood trail, heavy signs higher up on bushes or spurts off the trail may indicate arterial bleeding, which means you should find your deer shortly.

When you find blood, note its location. Is it high up on the bushes and far out from the trail? That might indicate arterial spurting. Does it seem to be in the center of the tracks, even though you took a broadside shot? That might be lung blood leaking out of the nose and mouth. Is the blood in the track? Maybe it’s running down the leg.

Is there green gunk on the ground with a little blood? That’s a gut shot. Resist the tendency to keep tracking that deer. Leave quietly and come back in the morning, or at least six hours later. A gut shot deer will lie down very quickly and if you leave it alone, it will die in that bed. Usually it will be relatively close to where you shot it. But if you keep pushing and jump the deer, they can turn into the Terminator, unable or unwilling to die and they can run for miles.

Did you find pieces of bone? Trust me, it’s not ribs as so many people think; 95% of the time it is pieces of leg bone. You may get that deer, but it’s not going to be easy.

A lot of blood at the start that turns into a few drips and then stops in a ¼ mile or so, is usually a low hit in the brisket. You are in for a long day with that deer.

With a leg or brisket hit, the deer is very mobile and will keep moving if pushed. If you can get some help, it’s best to place hunters along the escape routes and hope the deer comes by as you track the blood.

Mark The Way

If the blood trail is tough to follow, mark the blood you found with toilet paper or torn paper towels, so you can easily find it again. Although many people recommend using flagging material, I don’t use it. I know you plan to come back and take it all down, but plans rarely work out. Flagging tape lasts a long time in the woods. Paper towels or toilet paper are biodegradable and will disappear rather quickly.

Often, if you line up several pieces of paper you left hanging on branches you can see a clear direction of travel, which is a good place to continue the search if you have lost the blood and tracks.

Watch Your Step

Take care to walk to the side of the deer trail. You never want to step on the tracks or the blood. You may think you won’t need to come back and find them again, but you will probably be wrong. Leave all the sign untrampled.

Tracking With Technology

Photograph Courtesy of Leupold® & Stevens, Inc.

I used a thermal imaging unit in Zimbabwe a few years ago to watch for lions while the PH and trackers cut up a buffalo I had shot just before dark. Back then they were very expensive. Today, there are several affordable units designed for tracking.

I have been using a Leupold LTO Quest. This is their entry-level unit and it has a camera and flashlight built in with the thermal sensor. Leupold claims the LTO Quest can detect heat signatures out to 300 yards. Deer season is closed as I am writing this, so I am finding alternatives to test it with. It easily can find my dogs even when they are out some distance.

I couldn’t find a blood donor to help with the test, so I spit on my walkway on a cool night. The unit could easily see it, even after several minutes. This unit is sensitive enough that when I stood on my deck in my socks, the unit could detect my foot prints for several minutes after.

This technology may well be a game changer for tracking and finding wounded deer in the years ahead.

When the Blood Stops

If you lose the blood trail, make wide sweeping circles that start and end at the last place you found blood. Keep your eyes on the ground and miss nothing. If you fail to find the trail, make a bigger circle. Repeat as necessary.

Get Low

The recent passing of a deer will scuff up the leaves. Older tracks will settle from time and gravity, but a fresh track will show a bit higher. It’s usually not noticeable when standing up, but when you get your eyes to ground level you can often see the trail very clearly.

When All Else Fails

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
If you simply cannot find a blood trail of any kind, divide the land where you last saw the deer into a grid and walk each grid point until you find the deer or a sign of its trail.

A grid search is just what it sounds like. Divide the land into a giant grid, just like on graph paper. The lines should be close together so that no part of the land is unseen. Walk along these imaginary lines one by one until you find the deer, or some sign of the deer, or have walked the entire grid.

In that case, expand the grid and repeat. Look under every bush and in every brush pile. A mortally wounded deer will often crawl under cover and will die there.

Light the Way

You have no doubt read that when tracking at night, a Coleman lantern, “makes blood glow like neon.” The lantern does show blood a bit better than a conventional flashlight, but it’s always been a disappointment to me when I have used one. Besides, who has a Coleman lantern in their backpack?

A quality flashlight will show blood like its electrified. It’s a good idea to have one in your pocket or backpack when hunting.

Become the Deer

Walk along while thinking, “If I were a wounded deer, which way would I go?” Just follow your instincts. You may have to return to the last sign and strike out in another direction a few times, but sooner or later the odds are you will find a new spot of blood or identifiable track and you’ll be back in the game.

Turn Off Your Brain

Another approach is to turn off your brain and just walk. Let the terrain and vegetation guide your feet. Deer and other animals will take the path of least resistance and if you walk in a “Zen” state, going with the flow, you will find you do the same thing.

Once you get in tune with the woods, things like that just happen in the back of your mind. If you try to think about it too much, you screw it up, but if you just let the reptilian part of your brain operate then eons of evolution are suppressed and the caveman in you will come out of hiding and turn you into a creature of the woods, just like the deer. I know this may sound a bit too “new age,” but I have found several animals we thought were hopeless using this technique.


About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website

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