Nothing will make you sicker than to lose an animal. I don't claim to be a world famous tracker, but I'll share with you some of the tricks that I have learned over the years.
Rule No. 1 is to always go look after you make a shot. I can't tell you how many times I could have sworn that we missed only to find a blood trail or a dead animal not far away. If you're not going to go look then don't shoot. I've seen or heard of way too many people that didn't think they hit the animal and didn't even go look to see. If you don't have any confidence in your shooting, don't shoot. Always go look. When we were kids this kid shot at a deer and thought he missed. Two days later they found it less than 30 yards away bloated. What a waste.
The author uses small squares of toilet paper to track blood.
I usually go to where I first hit them and look for evidence. If there's pinkish material, great. That's lung. You won't have a long track. If there's green fibrous material — bad. That's a gut shot. A whole lot of hair can mean that you just grazed them. Small amount of blood tapering off to none can mean a minor flesh wound. If bow hunting, look at the arrow. It will tell you a lot. An arrow covered from tip to tip with blood is a good sign. If it has grass material on it that's a gut shot, not good.
I then jump to where I last saw them and mark that area. I then go back to the first spot and trail it to the other spot. I tear off a small piece of toilet paper (1 inch by 1 inch) and lay beside each spec of blood. Sometimes with the paper you can see a pattern. I also tie a little piece to a twig. That way I can find it easy if I get ahead of myself and lose the trail.
Look for unique habits. For instance, many years ago I hit a buck with my blackpowder rifle up by Craig, Colo. Every three steps he'd stumble to the left. There were tons of deer tracks and it was tough tracking but on the other side of a pile of tracks I could pick him up due to this stumbling habit.
Everyone doesn't realize it but a wounded elk will also take you out as will some deer. I once had a big buck jump up and charge me. I ran backwards emptying my .357 magnum into him. It was like I was shooting blanks. We were in tall grass and while running backwards I tripped and he nearly ran over the top of me. He ran 15 feet and tipped over dead.
Years ago I hit a bull with four cows. One of the cows would drip a few drops of pee every 50 yards. We had a small bit of snow and I could always pick up the herd by scanning around and finding her sign.
Once I shot my buck and within a few minutes he slowly moved on. I waited a few minutes and then went down to where he'd been and got my arrow and surveyed the scene. Even though I was in the mountains, the nights had been extremely warm and it was going to be dark soon, plus we'd just seen a bear down the ridge not far away, so I had to start tracking.
It was pitch black and in dark timber. I was on my hands and knees with a flashlight trailing him. (Always carry a good light. Now is not the time for one to die.) A wolf started howling over the ridge. I needed to find him before the pack of wolves did. He was bleeding fairly well and not too terribly hard to track. After two hours it got to be tough tracking, and I decided to knock off for the night.
Be sure to have a good flash light when tracking at night.
The next morning I picked up the trail but after 20 minutes the tracking got tough. I came to a small clearing with three trails flaring out. I lost the blood trail and went ahead on all three trails. No luck. I went out further ahead in hopes of locating it. No luck. I came back and finally located blood on some brush 10 yards ahead.
(You want a shot to go clean through. That way you have leakage on both sides. It may wipe blood on brush even if it isn't a heavy bleeder.)
I lost it again after 15 yards. I scanned the area for an hour. I came back and got on my hands and knees. I finally spotted a spec of blood the size of a pinhead on a small 3/16-inch sized twig.
I looked for another 30 minutes to no avail. Something prompted me to double back. I saw a small dead limb with six deer hairs. It could have been from any deer. I looked closely and saw a few very small blood droplets on the hair. Bingo. Back in the saddle. He had cut back and was heading back the way that we'd come from. I started finding a trail again and in another 40 yards found him. He was OK and the wolves hadn't found him.
I thought that it was for sure dead. I hit it right behind the left shoulder angling forward. The arrow hit right where I shot but for some reason it angled back 6 inches after entering and missed the lungs. Obviously it had to of hit a bone.
I thought that I'd made a good shot. I could see it bleeding right where I'd aimed. It took off walking and I flung another arrow at it but hit it too far back. About 8 inches of liver popped out on the other side. How could it keep going? It looked like it'd been hit with a 30-06.
I knew that it was about to tip over so I walked up to retrieve it. It took off and I had to track it up to the top of the mountain. How it ran that far bleeding like it was is beyond me. Morale to the story: No matter how bad you hit them or how many times with your bow, wait and let them bleed out.
When trailing a dangerous animal like a bear you want to be able to see, so have a good flashlight. Bears are hard to trail. Due to their fat and hair they don't leave much of a blood trail.
I always have trouble tracking bears. I don't know if it's their fat, their hair or a combination but I never have them bleed much. They're tough to trail plus they always go for thick brush, which is always fun to trail in on your hands and knees. I carry a pistol when tracking bears. A rifle will get hung up on brush and you'll never get a shot off before he drills you.
Rain complicates things. Years ago I hit a deer with my bow; I didn't have a flashlight so I borrowed one from the farmer but it was weak. I ran home and got my floating light and boat battery. It was heavy but it lit up the area. By now it had started sprinkling and was washing off the blood. I got on my hands and knees and turned over leaves. If they're bleeding heavy you'll find blood washed on the underside. After a while though I was sunk. It was raining too much and I lost all sign.
If you hit one with a rifle and they're still standing, don't stop shooting. I've seen and heard of too many animals that spun around and took off while the hunter just set there looking. Put them down for the count. A buddy shot a big moose. It got up and he didn't shoot again. It took off down an embankment and crossed a river...almost. He ended up paying a guy $350 to pack it back up to where he'd originally shot it. If an animal is still up, I always, always keep shooting.
After the author shot this bear, he quickly ran off; however, when he was found, there was no drop of blood around him.
Years ago I shot at a bull. I looked up after the recoil and he was still standing there. I snapped up for another quick shot and my gun had jammed. I finally got another shell jacked in and got off a quick running shot. How could I have missed!?
I went to where I had shot at him. There was a 3-foot square area of hair and a few specks of blood. What's that tell you? As much hair as there was I'd just grazed his brisket and shaved his chest. It was coarse brisket hair. I tracked small specks of blood for 200 yards. Finally it pretty much stopped bleeding.
They can lose a bit of blood and not really be hurt too bad. I've tracked countless people that have been cut by a knife that bled a pretty profuse blood trail that by all rights were only mildly cut and elk are a lot tougher than people.
Many times animals if hit will try to stay with the herd. They may stand there with the herd and bleed out. It's easier to trail a herd so hopefully they don't spook. I've especially found this to be true of antelope. Years ago I almost called a bull back to me after I'd just stuck an arrow in him. If you're set up calling with a Montana Decoy they may come back to it.
Sometimes if hit hard they run off in a blind panic. Once we shot two deer simultaneously with our blackpowders and mine came running toward me in a blind panic. I don't think it ever saw me. It was running dead. I had to jump behind a tree to keep from getting run over. It ran a few more yards and fell over dead.
Many times you'll hear them thrashing around. If someone is with you, leave them on the trail and go ahead and look. If you totally lose the trail then break the area up in quadrants and search them one at a time much like search and rescue does. Many times you will find them like that through sheer persistence.
Good trackers are patient. Take your time and look for sign-tracks, blood, stumble marks and unfortunately days later, crows, ravens and magpies. Hopefully you'll find it before then though. Take your time on the first shot so you can skip the tracking.