It was early December and the tail end of the Western Oklahoma rut. I was hunting the Turley Ranch, and, after a slow start to the morning, decided to try a little rattling.
Results were unexpectedly rapid. The buck seemed to come out of nowhere, and I barely had time to dump my antlers and pick up my bow before he pulled into the intersection of two heavy trails 35 yards out. I hesitated to see if he would turn right, into the stream crossing that would lead him directly under my stand. He turned and looked my way, but instead continued straight ahead. Quickly I drew, then blatted as he stepped broadside into my shooting lane. At the shot, the buck bolted, covering 100 yards in a few scant seconds before he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder, as if trying to determine what it was that startled him. Then, his legs got wobbly and he made three quick stagger steps before crashing to the ground.
A wave of emotion swept over me. I felt fortunate to have taken a nice buck, but I was equally grateful for being able to see the deer drop within sight. So often that's not the case. Even with the best of hits, the deer runs out of sight, leaving us to wonder and worry.
A successful deer hunt contains three parts or stages. The first consists of somehow putting yourself within bow range of a deer. The second involves shooting it. The third is recovering the animal. Each step, including the last one, is closely tied to elements of deer behavior and physiology.
A deer's behavior may influence when, or even if, you should shoot. Precise numbers don't exist, but we know that a whitetail's reflexes are extremely quick. Sound travels at 1,125.79 feet per second (fps). Meanwhile, even the fastest compound bows spew arrows at less than half that rate. This leaves a deer ample time to react, particularly if it's alert, which is often the case when rattling, calling aggressively or when the deer catches sight or scent of you. It's a judgment call you often have to make instantaneously, but a better option may be to wait until the deer relaxes, or pass up the shot, particularly if it's a longer shot. Alert deer reduce your maximum effective range. The farther away a deer is, the more time it has to react. A well-aimed arrow could be far enough off the mark to result in a clean miss, or worse.
A deer's reflexes can sometimes be so fast even a well-placed hit can result in some weird and unexpected results. I've seen arrows enter a deer dead on the mark and exit at angles that defy the laws of physics. Sometimes it's the result of deflection off bone.
Other times, it's purely reaction speed.
We're taught that broadside, double lung is the preferred shot. While we may be able to make a deer come close, we can't make it pose. So, we're sometimes left with less than desirable angles. Furthermore, angles aren't always what they seem. A deer may appear broadside when it is actually quartering slightly toward, or away. And that angle could mean the difference between a double-lung or single-lung, lethal or non-lethal hit. If I had a dollar for every deer I recovered that I mistakenly thought was broadside when I shot, I could buy a dozen good arrows.
Besides, there is convincing evidence that quartering-away shots may be superior to broadside ones. A lung shot results in massive hemorrhaging (internal bleeding). The lungs fill with blood and the deer effectively drowns. The result is usually quick death in the case of a double-lung hit; but it can be slower, and in rare cases non-lethal, when hitting the periphery of the lungs, or just one lung. A quartering-away shot first punctures the diaphragm -- the muscle wall that separates the abdomen and the thoracic (chest) cavity -- before piercing the lungs. This compromises the pressure differential between the chest and abdomen. Both lungs collapse and death is not only certain, but quicker.
The quartering-away shot will also very likely pierce the liver. That alone causes massive hemorrhaging and almost certain death.
It's particularly rewarding when it happens, but seeing your deer drop is the exception rather than the rule. A wounded deer (or a healthy one, for that matter) can run at least 35 miles per hour. Translated into terms we can understand, that's slightly less than 20 yards per second. Even when shot through the heart or both lungs, a mortally wounded deer can live six to 10 seconds, which means it can easily cover 200 yards. However, it may not run that far, particularly if it was relaxed when you shot.
There is some disagreement over how long to wait before you attempt to recover a wounded deer. Some say 30 minutes; others say an hour. There is no right answer. When in doubt, however, it's usually best to err on the side of caution. If the animal is dead, it's not going anywhere. And if it's not, tracking too soon will only get it up on it's feet and reduce your odds of recovery. The only exception might be during heavy rain that could wash away a blood trail.
The worst case is sometimes euphemistically referred to as hitting "a little back."
Whether you find good blood on the arrow or not, you should always give it the sniff test.
The odor of a deer's paunch (stomach) is unmistakable. If you smell paunch, go home.
Stomach wounds kill through a combination of blood loss and septicemia, or blood poisoning. The latter results when stomach contents, including bacteria and toxins, enter the blood stream. This, in turn, results in septic or toxic shock, which causes decreasing blood pressure and gradual organ failure. Stomach wounds are nearly always fatal, but a gut-shot deer can live a long time and can travel a long way if pushed (and will leave little, if any, blood).
Conversely, if left alone, gut-shot deer typically will travel only a short distance before lying down -- often less than 200 yards. Unless you have some very unusual and urgent circumstances, wait at least 12 hours before tracking. Even then, be prepared to take a follow-up shot.