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How to Maximize Recovery Success

Marginal shots are bound to happen, so paying attention to all of the details is crucial to finding your deer.

How to Maximize Recovery Success

You can learn a lot about your shot by studying the deer’s reaction and body language. (George Barnett photo)

This column marks the final installment of my three-part series on the science surrounding the anatomy and physiology of an arrow strike, tracking a wounded deer and recovering mortally wounded whitetails.

In Part 1, I covered the different types of shock and organ failure that result in the demise of a bow-shot whitetail. I also discussed the body’s requirement for homeostasis between the circulatory and ventilation systems and discussed how an arrow can disrupt one or both of these systems. Part 2 was dedicated to the dreaded gut and single-lung shots and what they mean for you as a bowhunter.

This month, I will highlight some recovery tips and tricks my friend and retired surgeon Dr. Joe Bumgardner and I have amassed over nearly a century of combined bowhunting experience. More specifically, I’d like to focus on the series of events that occur between the time you reach full draw on a whitetail and when that animal disappears from your line of sight.

Gather the Clues

It is common for many bowhunters to experience mental fog amidst the adrenaline-induced anxiety that comes from a close encounter with a whitetail. However, you should make a point to remain as clear-headed as possible, not only to make the best shot you can but to glean critical information relayed in the seconds after the shot. In short, every bowhunter should have a plan for the moment immediately after they dump the string. That plan involves answering as many of the following questions as possible:

  • Where did the arrow hit?
  • Where was the animal standing when you shot?
  • Did the arrow pass through or is it still in the animal?
  • Did your arrow travel cleanly to the deer, or was there a deflection?
  • Where did the deer go after the shot, and is there an easily recognizable landmark that will allow you to quickly identify where you last saw it as it fled?

If you fail to “record” these facts in your mind, even as chaos ensues, you will dimmish your odds of a successful recovery. Therefore, it is critical that you familiarize yourself with these key observations before that moment of truth this fall!

Shot Placement

While the topic is well covered in bowhunting media, it’s worth mentioning here that the best aiming point for a successful shot at a whitetail is directly behind the front leg, in the lower third of the chest. Your best chance of an immediate kill is with a broadside, pass-through shot that affects both the circulatory system (heart) and the ventilation system (lungs). If the animal happens to “jump the string,” this point of aim will still allow your arrow to pass through both lungs even if the point of impact is six inches higher.

Meanwhile, a shoulder blade, or scapular, hit with a broadhead-tipped arrow is generally a very bad shot location. Making such a shot with a rifle that delivers much higher kinetic energy allows energy to transfer to the heart and lungs, resulting in a very quick kill. This is why shots with archery gear must be extremely accurate.

Since bowhunting is a game of nerves, and the moment of truth finds even the most experienced bowhunter’s heart doing backflips with excitement, it is wise to have a plan for closely observing the animal after the shot. How accurately you observe your shot placement and the animal’s escape route and reaction to the hit will determine how successful you are at recovering your trophy in a timely manner. Keenly noting where you hit the animal will allow you to formulate an accurate recovery plan and get to the picture taking sooner. This is one reason why I like to practice and hunt with lighted knocks, so I can better see precisely where I hit the animal.

Shot Reaction

One of the most valuable pieces of the recovery puzzle is the animal’s initial reaction to the shot/hit. I then like to break the post-shot reaction down further by describing how the animal subsequently flees the scene. Together, these two observations will tell you a lot about the location of your shot. The more information you observe, the more accurate your assessment will be. While there are exceptions to every rule, these reactions serve as a very good rule of thumb:

Double-Lung Shot: Whitetails hit through the lungs generally run off with their tail down, and they waste no time doing it! Bumgardner notes, and I agree, that some double-lunged whitetails act as if nothing has happened, and when that’s the case the hunter may very well watch the animal, much to its surprise, expire within sight. I have also personally made a perfect, double-lung, pass-through shot on a whitetail that the animal made look like a complete miss! I found my trophy, effortlessly, just beyond the edge of the thick brush line I was hunting. Again, this is where employing lighted knocks, along with knowledge of how double-lung hit whitetails may react, helps me draw accurate conclusions. Of course, confirmation of a lung puncture will come from bubbles in the blood droplets once you pick up the trail.

Heart Shot: Most bowhunters have witnessed the characteristic bronco kick of a heart-shot whitetail — this is a great sign! Experienced bowhunters have learned to associate this reaction with antlers on the wall. The heart is in a sack called the pericardium that contains fluid. When an arrow transects the pericardium to get to the heart, the nerve innervation commonly makes the deer do a bronco kick where all four legs come off the ground, with the hind legs pointing towards the sky. Confirmation subsequently comes through observing the heart at the skinning shed and noting the pericardium has been transected.

Gut Shot: An arrow strike in the abdominal cavity, paunch, large/small intestine or rectum commonly results in the animal hunching up and slowly walking off in a hunched position. This is not a welcome sight for bowhunters, as a tremendous amount of patience, and sometimes luck, are required for a successful recovery. An animal hit in the gut is generally looking for a place to bed down as quickly as possible. So, it’s wise to back out and give it some time. A gut-shot whitetail that is not pushed is generally an easy find. Unfortunately, sometimes it is a race between coyotes and hunter!


Spinal Shot: A high arrow strike in the spine can result in one of two reactions from the animal — either temporary or permanent spinal cord injury. If your arrow completely transects the spine, the animal will experience permanent spinal cord injury. But it is also possible to hit the spine and merely cause shock resulting in temporary paralysis, with the animal regaining its full range of motion within minutes. As such, it is imperative that you make a follow-up shot to the vitals of a spine-hit deer as quickly as possible.

Obviously, there are a number of other places where your arrow can strike a deer. A leg hit could result in an animal that limps off, and a ham or hind- quarter strike usually causes the animal to escape with its tail down. If your arrow strikes a major vessel such as the femoral artery or jugular vein, it is common for the animal to run off as though you completely missed. Blood color would help confirm such a hit location.

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