February 23, 2020
My outfitter on a recent hunt was giving us instruction on shot placement when he said something that made my jaw drop.
"Stay away from the front shoulder," he said. "These are mature bucks, and a high shoulder shot is often not recovered." That made sense. "If you have to," he continued, "shoot 'em in the guts." Mine was not the only slack-jawed stare in the room. "We've recovered 99 percent of our gut-shot deer," he added.
At first, his advice seemed to contradict everything I knew and championed about shot placement. The more I thought about it though, the more sense it made. I would add that this outfitter — and I won't mention any names — has control over a large area of land and access to tracking dogs.
Before you start to fire off a letter to the editor, let me be clear. I am not advocating that you intentionally attempt a paunch shot. But it is inevitable that if you put in enough time in a bow stand, sooner or later you will shoot a deer through the mid-section. And if you follow the right course of action, recovering gut shot deer with near 100 percent success is achievable.
Recovering Gut Shot Deer
Increasing your chances of recovery begins almost immediately. If you think there's even a chance you may have hit "a little back," sit tight. Most gut-shot deer will lie down within 100 yards. You're excited, and if you climb down right away you'll cause more commotion, possibly bumping the deer and reducing your chances. Try to wait at least a half hour. Then, as quietly as you can, look for your arrow.
Rule No. 1 in recovering any deer: find the arrow. If you did indeed paunch the deer, finding the arrow should be easy, as it almost certainly passed through and likely without deflection. Once found, it won't take long to determine if the deer was gut shot. The arrow will reek of paunch, and may be covered with a brown smear of stomach contents. If that's the case, check your watch, then slip out as quietly as you can.
The deer's reaction to the shot may also provide clues to the hit. A gut-shot deer will often hunch up, and instead of bolting may trot, or even walk away, in a hunched up posture.
It's not pretty, and there's really no way to sugar coat it. Unlike deer hit in the vitals, which die quickly of shock and hemorrhage, paunched deer usually die of septicemia (blood poisoning), during which the deer may experience symptoms similar to a really bad case of the flu — pain, nausea and fever.
The latter is why paunched deer are often recovered near water. The fever causes severe thirst. Though the deer probably can't comprehend why, they crave and seek out water. I've assisted in numerous recovery efforts and found several gut-shot deer lying near or even in ponds or streams.
Nausea also probably plays a part. Anyone who has had a really bad stomach virus or food poisoning knows the feeling. You just want to lie down and die. Deer likely have a similar sensation, which is why they usually (but not always) bed down nearby. And it is a long, slow process, which is why you need to be patient.
The Waiting Game
When possible, wait at least 12 hours. I once paunched a nice buck on an early-season hunt. It was around 7 p.m. I let him lay overnight, waiting until full daylight the next morning to pick up the trail. I found him 75 yards away, in his bed and still very much alive. Another arrow — this time well-placed — finished the job.
Obviously there are exceptions to this rule. Just last season I paunched a deer due to an equipment malfunction. It was during the rut and he was out roaming. The deer didn't even know he'd been hit, and instead of lying down he simply continued on his route. I watched the deer slowly walk more than 200 yards before I lost sight of it. We waited about four hours before taking up the sparse blood trail, moving slowly and quietly. Once we established his direction of travel, we backed out and waited, ultimately finding him more than a half mile away the next morning.
Another exception is precipitation. Even gut-shot deer usually leave a sparse blood trail that could be obliterated by rain or snow. At the very least, get a general direction of travel. If you decide to continue, move very slowly and quietly. If you can enlist help, have one person follow the blood trail while the other scans ahead for the deer.
Bring In the Dogs
Whether a last resort, or a quick means to a positive end, tracking dogs can be invaluable in recovering wounded deer. They can identify and follow the scent of an individual deer. They can also easily follow the smell of blood and other body contents.
Most hunters are familiar with the aroma of paunch, whether from a bad hit or a slip during field dressing. It's strong, pungent and seems to stick in your nose. If we can smell it, imagine what it's like to a bloodhound that can detect and discriminate microscopic odor molecules.
We've all heard stories, and many of us have experienced, deer hit in the front shoulder, one lung or just above or below the vitals that were never recovered and quite possibly survived their injuries.
A paunch shot is fatal 100 percent of the time. And if you're meticulous with your tracking efforts, you'll have the same percentage rate in recovering gut shot deer.