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How to Handle Gut Shots and Single-Lung Hits

Understanding anatomy and physiology plays a key role in the recovery process.

How to Handle Gut Shots and Single-Lung Hits

Although no bowhunter intentionally aims to hit a deer in the paunch, a gut shot is always lethal and the key to recovery is patience. Editor Christian Berg hit this Iowa buck well back in the body and waited overnight before taking up the trail for an easy recovery.

In the first installment of this series, I addressed cause of death from an arrow-inflicted wound to both the circulatory (blood flow) and ventilation (oxygen) systems.

My interview with retired surgeon and bowhunter Dr. Joe Bumgardner also detailed two types of shock that lead to an animal's demise: hemorrhagic shock (massive blood loss) and spinal shock (transecting the spinal cord with an arrow). Now, I'll discuss the “gut shot” and also explain why a single-lung hit isn't always lethal.

Gut Shots

If you bowhunt long enough, you may very well face the frustration of releasing an arrow and hearing that dreaded, hollow sound of a stomach or paunch hit. The mood in camp when a fellow bowhunter has delivered an arrow “a little too far back” is one I’ve experienced many times. This is no time for feeling sorry for yourself; rather, you need to focus all your attention and energy on finding a dead animal.

Although no one intentionally shoots a deer or other game animal in the guts, let’s start with the good news: an arrow/broadhead sent through the intestines or stomach of a whitetail is universally lethal. As Bumgardner puts it, “Infectious shock, aka septic shock, as the result of a gut or paunch shot is 100-percent lethal…from the spillage of intestinal contents into the abdominal cavity.”

A gut-shot animal dies of septic shock from bacterial spillage into the abdominal/peritoneal cavity, resulting in further bacterial proliferation. “The bacteria from the intestinal spillage invade the lining of the abdominal cavity and enter the blood stream,” Bumgardner said. “When the bacteria get into the blood stream, it causes infection, sending the blood pressure down, ultimately to the point that the circulatory system fails.”

If we know a gut-shot deer is going to die, what’s the bad news? For one thing, the blood trail on such a shot is generally nonexistent. Most of the time, abdominal shots are pass-throughs, with the arrow often found stuck into the ground beyond where the deer was standing. Despite having both entry and exit wounds, the lining of the paunch often seals the exit hole and little to no blood or other body fluid can be found. In many cases, this leaves even the most observant tracker with no choice but to grid search the area for the dead animal.

So, how big of an area should you search? Well, that depends. “A paunch hit deer slowly walks off in a humped-up position,” Bumgardner said. “Gut-shot animals will not generally go very far if left undisturbed. They will generally bed down within 100 yards and succumb to intestinal bacteria entering the blood stream, causing septic shot and demise from infection.”

It’s important to note that although a gut shot is always fatal, not all gut-shot deer are recovered. Given that, what is the most important quality to put the odds in your favor? Patience!

Your arrow typically tells the tale on a gut shot, and Berg's was covered in stomach contents that confirmed the location of the hit.

Bumgardner said gut shots must be analyzed carefully to determine the odds of finding the animal. “If you hit the paunch, it will take longer for the animal to die than if you hit the small intestine,” he said. “However, if you hit the large intestine or the rectum, the much higher bacteria count results in a quicker death.”

“Some abdominal shots can end quickly,” Bumgardner said. For example, he recalled a personal shot on an animal that took a step during his release “I inadvertently hit about eight inches back and high, and I thought, ‘Oh my, I’ve got a gut shot.’ The animal ran about 30-40 yards, stopped, waited about 10 seconds and fell over.”

Only after hanging up the animal did Bumgardner realize he'd hit the large artery that goes to the small intestine, causing it to bleed out. As for a more common gut shot, Bumgardner says it can take between 5 minutes and 72 hours for the animal to expire, depending on the location of the shot and bacteria content. The higher the bacterial content, the quicker the death.

The moral of the story here is never hurry to track a gut-shot animal. If you are hunting in the evening, letting the animal lie overnight is definitely the right call. And if you are hunting in the morning, give it the better part of the day before searching. Remember, if you remain patient and don’t push the animal while it still has the strength to flee, you will generally find it dead in its bed within 150 yards of the sight of impact.


Single-Lung Shots

In whitetail deer, the right and left lungs are separated by the mediastinum, a structure that houses things such as the aorta, trachea and esophagus. A single-lung puncture will actually just collapse that one lung; the other lung is sufficient for ventilation to continue and support the tissues and organs in the animal. I repeat, a single-lung shot is NOT always lethal!

If you collapse both lungs, you have a ventilation-circulation mismatch and you’ve made a universally lethal shot. However, a single-lung hit can result in an unused tag. In this case, the animal still has one lung oxygenating the blood carried throughout the circulatory system, and the odds of recovery can be long. Moreover, a single-lung hit can clot and make the blood trail sparse.

Bumgardner’s experience with humans shows just how reversible a single-lung collapse can be. He recalls stabbing and shooting victims being rushed to the ER for single-lung punctures, only to be fixed up and sent home three days later!

“They come in a little short of breath, and with a little bit of pain or discomfort on the top of the shoulder, but their circulatory and ventilation systems are functioning,” Bumgardner said. In the hospital, a patient with a collapsed lung will have a tube inserted to suck the clotted blood from the lung. The tube will then be hooked up to a machine that applies negative pressure to cause the lung to re-expand.

Of course, whitetails don’t have doctors and medical facilities to assist them in the case of a single-lung collapse. So, the healing process takes significantly longer; however, the collapsed lung generally re-expands after the blood is absorbed into the body. A single-lung hit on a deer quartering toward the hunter is only lethal when the arrow also clips a pulmonary artery or pulmonary vein. In this case, you will get enough bleeding to cause a blood circulation deficiency and lack of oxygen flow to the organs. This should drive home the importance of waiting for a deer to present a broadside shot that increases your odds of a pass-through that transects both lung cavities.

As bowhunters who cherish the game we pursue, it’s crucial we spend just as much time educating ourselves on the anatomy and physiology of the animals we hunt as we do choosing and tuning our equipment. In archery, both the dreaded paunch shot and the single-lung hit bring thoughts of disappointment and disgust to many bowhunters' minds. With a basic understanding of the anatomy and physiology of whitetails, we can ensure those dreaded memories from the past remain in the past, while our future bow shots are patiently taken at broadside targets.

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