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When In Doubt

Animals that die from a broadhead wound die from hemorrhaging, plain and simple. Today's broadheads are engineered to sever major veins and arteries to the point where the wound is not repairable, therefore increasing the amount of blood flow and damage to internal organs. There is no shock impact from an arrow, so having an ultra-sharp broadhead is key, but placing the broadhead in a vital area is just as important.

Whether on the chase for mega-bucks in the Midwest or a 1000-pound Alaskan grizzly, knowing exactly where the arrow enters the animal after the shot is of the utmost importance. If the hit is perfect, a short tracking job will soon follow. If the hit is marginal, key decisions will make or break your end result.

Several factors indicate when tracking should begin. Mother Nature sometimes throws a curve, and that is when you have to decide on when to get after the animal. A heavy rain can wash away a marginal blood trail within minutes. Ultra-warm temperatures start to spoil meat as soon as the heart stops ticking. Where your arrow hits is the only one of these factors that we can control. However, all the practice in the world cannot control nerves, an unnoticed twig or a misjudged distance.

Through the years, I have had numerous experiences tracking wounded animals, but none were more informative than my experiences during the 2005 season.

Less Than Perfect

My first adventure of my '05 hunting campaign led me to the river bottoms of central North Dakota. I was hunting early-season whitetails with Under Armour's Tim Herald during the first week of September. The first evening of the hunt, Tim ran an arrow through a beautiful mainframe 10-point with split eye guards at last light. After the shot, Tim and his cameraman watched the buck sprint to the edge of the field and then tip over backwards.

When I arrived at Tim's stand location less than 40 minutes after Tim's shot, Tim and his cameraman were watching the video footage. The shot appeared to be a little high and far back, but definitely good enough for a kill.

Tim and his cameraman both saw the buck fall over at the field edge, and they even caught it on camera, too. We were all convinced that the buck would be lying dead at the point where the camera recorded his last breath. Or so we thought…

Due to the warm weather, we wanted to get after Tim's bucks to prevent the meat from spoiling. Even though we all agreed that the shot was not perfect, we were confident that the buck was dead. When we reached the field edge, we found nothing but a small pool of blood where the buck had fallen. We backed out and Tim planned on returning the next morning.

When Tim arrived at first light, he headed straight for the field edge where the buck first fell. Upon his arrival, he jumped a coyote no more than 50 yards from him. With no blood trail to follow, he headed to where they had first seen the coyote and he found his buck lying there with not much more than head and antlers. In less than eight hours, coyotes had completely demolished Tim's trophy.

When we realized that Tim's shot was less than perfect, we should have backed out and gave the buck some time to bleed out. If that would have been the case, we probably would have recovered the buck at the last place he had fell, therefore giving the coyotes less time to find Tim's deer.

Any tool that can be used to tell where the arrow hit is a useful piece of information that should not be taken lightly. A bloody arrow, video footage, a speck of blood, or even a second set of eyes all can give us a little better of an understanding of where the animal was hit.

Heat Of The Night

Three evenings later, I took a shot at an impressive eight-point near last light. We did not have the luxury of watching film footage to review my shot, but I knew that the shot was high. I searched for my arrow at the hit site, but to no avail. I found minimal blood, but I knew that the arrow had passed through--although not completely--because I saw it sticking out the other side of the buck as he high-tailed it toward the river that paralleled my stand location.


Being unsure of the shot, I backed out and planned on returning the next morning, even though I knew that there were coyotes in the area.

The choice was a hard one to make to say the least. Yes, I knew that there were coyotes in the area, but I was not sure if my shot was a fatal one. The guys back at camp and I thought of Tim's North Dakota experience and we put our heads together and decided it would be best not to disturb the area and come back the next morning. I would run the risk of having coyotes find the buck before I did, but I was not going to chance bumping the deer and losing what minimal blood sign that I had.

When I returned the next morning, the eight-point was dead less than 80 yards from my stand. My shot was definitely high, but the angle of the shot enabled me to penetrate both lungs. The coyotes didn't find him, but the heat from the early September night spoiled the majority of the meat.

Lessons Learned

I learned a few valuable lessons from my trip to North Dakota: If unsure about the hit, rethink the events that just unfolded as soon as the animal leaves your sight. I for one almost always second- guess myself after the shot, especially when I lose track of my main goal, the recovery.

If I am not using every piece of evidence to my advantage, I am only cheating myself. If I find stomach matter on the shaft of my arrow, I know that it is a gut-shot animal and I am most likely going to have to play the waiting game. If there are "bubbles" in the bright-red blood trail, I can almost be certain that I have penetrated at least one lung. And depending on the angle of the shot--which is a critical piece of information in any bowhunting situation--I may conclude that I got both lungs.

Also, if the weather is warm enough to spoil the meat, get back out there and start searching as soon as you feel that you have given the animal ample time to expire. If that time is 3 a.m., so be it. It is not worth ruining the meat just to get a couple extra hours of sleep.

Patience Pays

My next early season adventure of '05 took me to Remington Outfitters in Buffalo County. This early-fall hunt took place during late September through early October. Even though the highs were in the upper '70s and the moon was in full-effect, quality deer sightings were high.

On the third morning of my hunt, guide Bill Remington and I decided to hunt a transition zone on a ridge top right near a heavily used bedding area. Our plan was to intercept the deer coming to the bedding areas from their morning feeding patterns.

The plan worked and by 7:30 I had a heavy nine-point 15 yards in front of my stand. The problem was that the woods were still so green that when I first saw him I did not have a clean shot. I was at full draw for what seemed like an eternity when the bruiser took one last fatal step and I let my arrow fly through a small gap in the brush.

The shot was marginal at best, but I immediately knew that it was not a paunch shot. I waited for about two hours in my stand before signaling to Bill to come meet me at the stand site. We reviewed the hit site and found no arrow, but good blood, and a lot of it.

Now I know I stated that it is very important to review every piece of information available to help aid in the recovery. However, this situation presented little more than a bright-red blood trail. There was no arrow and I had a hard time seeing exactly where the arrow hit because of the lush early season foliage. We used the information that we were presented and we were off.

As Bill and I followed the trail we had good blood, however, the blood was lacking bubbles, indicating that my shot was probably too far back to clip a lung. At that point we should have backed out and given the animal a couple more hours, but I didn't want the events that happened in North Dakota to reoccur.

About 100 yards into our tracking expedition, we jumped the deer and he seemed to have a lot of life left in him. We backed out in order to give him more time.

Well, it turns out that those two extra hours were not enough and we ended up jumping the buck again. He ran about 50 yards and tipped over backwards. Instead of backing out, Bill and I ran to within 30 yards of where he fell and I ran another arrow in through his vitals.

I knew my initial shot was good enough to bring the animal down, but I should have realized that I needed to give the buck more time to bleed out. It is a question of ethics. Do I take the chance of having my meat spoil, or do I get after the animal and risk bumping him and loosing the blood trail altogether?

I decided on the latter and got after him. Sure, it all worked out in the end, but if he wouldn't have fell that second time, we would have had a hard time getting back on blood.


When to pick up the trail of a wounded animal is a judgment call. Do you take the risk of trailing a gut-shot animal too early to avoid warm weather spoiling? If you have jumped an animal, is it worth staying after it to make sure that coyotes don't get to it before you do? These are all calls that you will have to make at some point or another if you're an archery hunter. I have learned through experience, and I have found that to be the best teacher of all.

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