Kevin Holsonback, Wildlife Biologist
You’ve made all the right preparations. You’re in the stand, just waiting for the opportunity to harvest the beautiful eight-point buck that you’ve scouted all summer. Suddenly, he appears at 50 yards. You find him in your scope, and put the crosshairs behind the shoulder. You squeeze the trigger and BOOM! You know that your aim was true. You climb down from the stand and rush over to where you thought he was standing only to find there is no sign of hitting him. What now? This is probably a hunter’s worst nightmare, the thought of wounding an animal, trophy or not, and being unable to recover it. The following are a few basic tips to help increase your chances of recovering that deer that you’ve worked so hard to harvest.
First, let’s back up to before you squeezed the trigger and fired the shot. One of the most critical steps in the process of recovering your animal is to know where it was before you made the shot. Then, you will know where to begin looking for sign. Choose a landmark such as a tree, or even a rock that can place you in the general area where the deer was standing. Now you’re ready to make the shot.
Next, pay close attention to the animal after you’ve made the shot. Even if it falls in its tracks, you’ll want to wait and keep your attention focused on the animal. It may try to get up and a well-placed second shot may be necessary. If the animal runs after you shoot, watch closely to determine the path that it took to escape. This will help you determine where to look for signs. Another good tip is to pay attention to the animal’s body language to determine if it appears to be wounded. Watch for things such as a limp, a leg that swings freely, or a tail that is tucked tightly to the deer’s rump. Now, you want to wait at least half an hour before climbing down from your stand to look for the animal. When you get down, be sure to go straight to where the deer was standing when you squeezed the trigger. Begin to look for signs such as blood, bone and/or hair. Be very careful where you step because you don’t want to destroy any sign that may be present.
Next you should start to follow the trail of signs, being careful not to walk on the trail but alongside it. Look for signs on leaves and twigs as well as higher brush that the deer may have touched as it moved past. If you don’t find any immediate sign, start at the point where the deer was standing when you shot and make a small circle around this area. If you are unable to locate any sign at that point, work your way in the general direction the deer headed. If you do not find any sign at the last point you saw the deer, again make a circle looking for sign. Continue to widen out and make another circle around that area. Keep making wider and wider circles as you go until you discover a sign of your deer. If you are trailing the animal, there may be occasions where the sign stops and you’ll have to begin looking in circles again. In some cases, you may be able to follow tracks.
Look for leaves that have been turned over or rustled. The most important thing is to work slowly to keep from destroying signs that you haven’t discovered. Always mark the last place that a sign was found with a piece of tissue or similar material.
A good tip if you aren’t finding much of anything is to mark the last sign and turn back to get help from one or two buddies. It is important, though, that you don’t get too much help. The last thing that you want is a bunch of people tromping around and destroying any sign that may be present.
As a responsible hunter you should take only good, clean shots to reduce your chances of crippling an animal. However, if it should happen, then follow these tips, and your chances of finding that deer that you’ve worked so hard for should greatly improve.
Responsible hunters always make a valid attempt to recover any wounded animal. You will feel better about yourself and you won’t have to lie in bed at night wondering what went wrong or thinking about what you should have done.