Bowhunters have no higher priority than recovering the game they shoot. It isn't just a matter of ethics; it's where our sport is most vulnerable to opponents. Bowhunters know the 30- to 40-percent loss rate cited by animal-rights groups is greatly exaggerated. Learning how to lower your odds for losing a single deer is the best way to combat bowhunting's enemies.
Prepare for a successful recovery by packing along a watch, notepad, pencil, compass, survey tape and flashlight. The first four items are needed to document what happens immediately after you shoot.
When a deer flees, listen intently for noise. Discern where the animal ran, listening closely to see if it fell or kept running. The longer you hear the animal, the farther it is probably traveling. Listen for the melon-plunking sound of an arrow striking flesh, or the crack of a broadhead hitting bone.
Immediately after the shot, catch your breath. Now record the time and the direction the deer fled. Sit tight and keep your composure. Inexperienced bowhunters mistakenly climb down too quickly to check the fruits of their efforts.
Unfortunately, all shots are not clean kills. When liver- or gut-shots occur, pushing the animal can be disastrous. Jumped too quickly after they have lain down to die, deer often get a "second breath" and can sometimes cover over a mile before stopping again.
Note how the animal reacts to the shot. Missed deer usually run away, but so do those that are heart- and lung-shot. A whitetail that prances off could mean a miss. Deer jumping up and bowing up in the middle are often gut-shot.
Wait 45 to 60 minutes before leaving your tree stand.
When on the ground, it is time to solve the mystery of where the deer is. Gather all the evidence. Go to where the animal was shot. Are there blood spots or splatters? Is it a lot or a little? Is fluid other than blood present? Recovering the arrow is key. Fluids or substances other than blood on an arrow shaft can reveal if the animal was gut- or liver-shot. Resist the temptation to quickly trail such deer; it may take 4 to 6 hours, and sometimes longer, for them to perish. Wait 3 to 4 hours before tracking the blood trail.
Following a blood trail can be tricky. First, review your evidence. Mark the initial blood spot with a 12-inch strip of bright-orange surveyor tape tied well above the ground for visibility. In your notepad record the compass direction. Tie surveyor tape above the other blood drops. Do not walk on the blood trail. If you need to start over later, a walked-upon blood trail can be useless.
Accurately reading a blood trail requires time spent trailing. Each tracking chore is unique. Easy-to-follow gusher blood trails occur when primary blood vessels are severed. These are in the neck's carotid artery, the pyloric artery behind the stomach paunch, the aortic artery under the spine, or the hindquarter's femoral artery.
Not all mortally arrowed deer immediately spill blood, however. Hard-hit deer typically leave blood 15 to 25 yards from where they were shot.
The color and condition of the blood sometimes reveal the type of hit inflicted. Bright-red is a great sign, usually indicating an oxygen-rich artery has been clipped. Pinkish, frothy blood usually indicates a lung hit. Easy-to-follow dark-red droplets that disappear after a couple of hundred yards often indicate a muscle shot. Chances of recovering such deer are low.
Be alert for blood where you don't expect it. Take your time. Be observant. Understand that wounds do not always bleed externally, and that blood trails often "dry up". Many times your tracking efforts will move from following a blood trail to following nothing. This is a critical point. Look back at your surveyor-tape trail, and slowly move in the charted direction. Be alert for sign other than blood. Overturned leaves, hoof prints, trampled grass, and tufts of hair and leaves pressed flat when a deer lies down must be searched for.
Some hunting experts recommend a "circle search" when a blood trail is exhausted. Such a search starts where the last sign was marked, expanding from the center with each circle. This is largely a one- to three-man effort. It often works, but this random approach is not foolproof.
It is tough enough to find a buck during daylights when there's little blood. Night recovery is far more difficult, but it can be done if you are persistent. Flashlights such as the large Streamlite model I use project a bright beam and are a must to carry. My Streamlite's blinding light is great for illuminating wide areas of ground, actually making blood drops appear to glow.
Make sure you know the local hunting laws when trailing deer at night. Some states prohibit carrying a firearm or bow in the woods along with a light after legal shooting hours.
So you did all of the above and still can't find your deer? Believe it or not, there is a foolproof method for finding lost deer. Several years ago while running my deer hunting camp in northeastern Pennsylvania, I became frustrated with losing animals I knew were mortally shot. After considerable thought, I came up with what I named the "grid system for recovering animals". I recommend it as a last resort to those determined not to abandon a deer.
Once you have come to the end of the blood trail, initiate a "grid search." This is a manpower-intense undertaking. I like to use eight to twelve people. Using a compass, I line people in a row, shoulder-to-shoulder, to go in one direction. The searchers must be close enough to one another to clearly see the feet of the person on each side. The line moves slowly, searching for the deer as it goes. After going 50 to 100 yards, or reaching a barrier such as a fence or road, the line "flip-flops", then moves across the same tract. This is repeated until a grid has been thoroughly searched. If the deer has not been found, the same thing is done in the direction the animal is thought to have gone. After using the grid system for recovery everywhere from Mississippi to Montana, I have yet to see it fail to turn up a lost deer.
Sooner or later, most bowhunters face the frustration of losing a trail or having it dry up because of rain, or just bad luck. Grid searches are not as well-known as circle searches, but in my opinion they are more effective. A grid search is something of a "community" effort. It may sound cumbersome, but it is without question the most foolproof approach to finding a lost whitetail.