I can still remember a particular whitetail buck that haphazardly ventured up to my stand. He did everything “right,” and so did I. The eight-pointer came into view about 40 yards away, beyond my effective shooting range. The buck took a left turn and ambled to within a few yards of my ambush location. If that wasn’t enough, he quartered away and looked back from where he had come. What more could a bowhunter want?
Without hesitation, I drew my bow. When my sight pin settled on a few hairs just behind the buck’s shoulder, I released. I didn’t see the swift-moving arrow pass through the lungs, but I knew it was on target. Meanwhile, the buck turned and ran at break-neck speed before disappearing, only to pile up 80 yards from my tree stand.
During the last three decades I have seen whitetails, black bear, antelope and other critters crash to the ground quickly after making a kill shot. You know the kind of experiences I’m talking about. The arrow zips cleanly through the vitals and the animal is down within moments (I only wish all of my shooting endeavors ended that way). Unfortunately, as most veteran bowhunters know, not every close encounter with a big game animal ends so easily. Yes, we do sometimes miss our intended target. Even worse, we may hit the animal poorly and experience an exhausting tracking experience. Shot placement and the precise location of the vital lungs and heart is an explanation best suited for the layman. The readers of this magazine are educated and well aware of their responsibility to take only ethical and warranted shots at the primary vitals.
However, there is another responsibility that each bowhunter assumes each time he draws his bow with an animal at the opposite end of a broadhead. Hunters must do everything they can to recover the animal, especially if the shot is less than perfect, and even if they believe the animal is only superficially wounded. Before getting into various wounds that require certain tracking strategies, let me first discuss hits that are forward, or back in the animal. All too often, I have heard bowhunters discuss the “shoulder” wound. On the flip side of that, I have heard many talk about the dreaded “gut shot” animal. As we know, we can also find ourselves dealing with a wound too far forward, or back, if our shot is only off target by a few inches. In fact, I would wager my luckiest tracking hat that most bad hits occur when the arrow is barely off.
A slight miss is all it takes to turn a delightful hunt into a nightmare. That was the case last fall when a whitetail buck presented a shot a little closer than I preferred. However, after he stopped and exposed his shoulder neatly between two trees, I released the arrow. There was little doubt in my mind that I would soon be tagging this fine buck. That is, until he ran off with three-fourths of my arrow swaying in the breeze. The arrow and razor-sharp broadhead had penetrated only a few inches thanks to the buck’s concrete shoulder. This eventually led to many hours tracking the deer before realizing that it was hopeless.
This was not the first time I had lost an animal thanks to the shoulder scapula. The same goes for most veteran bowhunters. The shoulder of a big game animal is downright hard to penetrate. Sometimes the arrow does get through the shoulder and reach the vital lungs, but all too often it will stop suddenly before reaching its intended target.
My point is this: Although I don’t want to see bad hits in any situation, I would much rather see a hit too far back than too far forward, simply because of the possibility of a recovery. Animals wounded in the shoulder seldom recover since the arrow is often stopped by bone and muscle. In the worst scenario, one lung is severed which makes recovery very difficult, or impossible.
On the other hand, I cannot say that a hit too far back is necessarily something that a bowhunter should dread. On the contrary, I believe that we should recover every paunch-shot animal, because every paunch-shot animal will go down within a few hours. The bowhunter, therefore, can recover the animal if they practice certain tracking techniques when an arrow passes through an animal’s liver and/or stomach.
I can honestly say that I have tracked, or assisted others in tracking several paunch-shot animals in recent years, none of which have been lost, thanks to persistence and the use of proper tracking strategies. Even though I stress the advantages of hitting the vital lungs and heart, a shot just inches behind the vitals that does pass through the paunch is not necessarily something to fret about. But I must stress, these are not shots anyone should ever deem acceptable.
The first step in recovering a paunch-shot animal is to be aware that your arrow struck the animal too far back. In some instances, you may see precisely where the arrow hits; other times you will not. The animal’s reaction to the wound is usually unmistakable, however. Most paunch-shot deer will usually bolt, run a short distance and stop. They may also appear hunkered when they walk off.
Second, the color of blood is much darker than the bright blood of a lung and/or wound. Thus, you may find dark blood on the ground or the arrow if it passes through the liver or stomach. The arrow may also have a disgusting odor if it passes through the stomach.
Third, you can rest assured that a paunch-shot animal will bed down quickly if left undisturbed. Most animals, in fact, may bed down within 100 to 200 yards of where the shot occurred. An example is the mature doe my wife harvested one evening last year. After the arrow passed too far back on the doe, the animal proceeded to travel about 100 yards before bedding down in a thicket. Although she was unsure where the arrow had hit the deer, we determined by the dark blood that it had passed through the stomach. Tracking was delayed until the following morning, after which we recovered the deer with no problems.
I would suggest you wait at least two hours before tracking a liver-shot animal, and at least four to six hours before attempting to recover a stomach-shot animal. Wait even longer for an animal hit behind the stomach. I’ll discuss more about this type of hit later. When tracking the paunch-shot animal, you should not necessarily expect to find a great deal of blood on the ground. The amount of blood depends entirely upon the height of the entry
, departure of the arrow, and whether the hole is clogged by the stomach or intestinal tissue. However, never assume that little or no blood reaching the ground means that the animal is only superficially wounded.
As for intestinal wounds, you can expect the same type of dark blood on the trail. You can also expect to find little blood on the ground. However, I would suggest waiting at least eight hours or more before tracking the animal since most intestinal-shot animals do not succumb as quickly as liver and stomach-shot animals. When tracking any animal, do so slowly and quietly. It would be advantageous to have at least one other person assisting you (too many people may hurt more than help). When the blood trail is lost, begin checking all trails and make circles around the most recent blood. Finally, check by water holes, ditches and creeks because the animal may seek water due to dehydration. Persistence is often the ticket to finding the downed animal.
When an arrow passes through the paunch, you would always hope that it severed the kidneys. The kidneys are located just in front of the hips, but the target is small compared to the vital lungs and heart. It is true, however, that a kidney-shot animal will succumb quickly. As one physician and surgeon explained, “A severed kidney is like letting the drain out of a bathtub.” In other words, bleeding is profuse and death comes quickly.
As for the hip-shot animal, it too is a shot that we would prefer not to see. Nevertheless, when and if it does happen, you can recover the animal. First, consider the femoral artery in each hip. When an arrow severs the artery, the animal bleeds profusely and goes down quickly. Even a shot to the hip that misses the femoral artery can still result in a downed animal. The blood trail can lead a cautious tracker to the animal.
There are always exceptions to the rules when it comes to tracking a wounded animal. Consider these general guidelines. I have also emphasized how “bad hits” can still end in a filled tag. However, never let this become an excuse to take shots that are less than perfect. Every bowhunter has a personal responsibility to release an arrow at only the vitals of the animal, and then do everything humanly possible to make a clean recovery.