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How to Track and Find Wounded Whitetail Deer and Other Game

He awoke with a vision.

The elk was down. He could picture it lying in snow at the top of the mountain. That the bull had not left a single drop of blood in the half mile he'd followed it the evening before didn't matter. He knew it was there.

My brother, Kevin, does not normally act on impulse. But as the morning passed, he grew more certain that he could not have missed the elk where it had stood, silhouetted in the twilight against a finger ridge of Montana's Big Belt Mountains. If his rifle was on, that is. He drove to the range and shot once, the bullet cutting a hole an inch high of the bull's-eye.

Three hours later he was standing where all big-game hunters find themselves at some point: bent over the track of a possibly wounded animal, with the chances of recovery dependent not just on the placement of the bullet but also on the next steps he takes.

VERIFY THE SHOT A hunter's first responsibility is to determine a hit. Before you move, scan the place where the animal stood when you shot. Pick out a distinctive tree or feature of topography, for the country may look different as you approach. Mark your position so you can start over if you can't find the spot. Tie a ribbon where the animal stood when you shot.

If blood is not immediately apparent, look for hair. It not only confirms a hit—the color and quantity can indicate bullet placement (see graphic). The absence of hair does not mean a miss, especially in thick undergrowth or on crusty snow where hair can blow away.

WAIT Seriously wounded animals seldom run more than a quarter mile before lying down. Once they have bedded, blood pumping through the muscles during flight returns to injured organs, promoting blood loss and death. However, if jumped before significantly weakened, game may run for miles before bedding again. Wait 30 minutes before following blood trails, and two hours if you suspect a gut shot.

TRACK DELIBERATELY Follow to one side of the trail, taking care not to disturb hoofprints or blood drops in case you lose the thread and need to backtrack. Where the trail is light, mark the last drop of blood before searching for the next. Squat down for a lower perspective; this can reveal shadows of a trail that is otherwise invisible. Overturned leaves, bent plants, dark traces through dew or frost, and scuff marks can all point the way. Keep your rifle ready.

When my brother returned to the trail the second day, he was unable to find blood where the elk had climbed the slope of the finger ridge. But once on top of the mountain he saw a great splash of red, and a few yards beyond was the bull, lying dead in the snow, exactly as he had pictured it. Few of us have the benefit of such a clear vision when following wounded game, but it's our responsibility to persevere until the animal is recovered.

SHOT REACTIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS

BRISKET, THROAT, OR WINDPIPE

Reaction: The animal hops up and may fall backward before running off.

Spoor: Dark or long hair; little blood except where the animal ducks through brush.

Result: Long trail; if the windpipe and arteries were missed, the animal may live.

Tip: Keep after it. Trailing dogs could be effective.

LUNGS

Reaction: Deer will hunch up briefly, then burst away. Elk or moose may show little or no reaction.

Spoor: Clipped body hair; bubbly blood trail may be scanty at first, then steady as the animal slows.

Result: Death will occur within 150 yards.

Tip: Look for blood spray on bushes at the side of the trail.

HEART

Reaction: A deer may leap high and buck backward with its hind legs, then run frantically.

Spoor: Clipped body hair; blood may contain bubbles but it also may be skimpy or absent.

Result: The animal will drop dead within 150 yards.

Tip: Search out cover in the line of flight if you lose the trail.

SPINAL VICINITY

Reaction: An animal may fall as if poleaxed, then jump up and run away. If the spinal cord is injured, it may drag its legs or make a bawling sound.

Spoor: Variable blood trail or none.

Result: Long trail; the animal may survive.

Tip: Persist until certain that the animal cannot be recovered.

PAUNCH

Reaction: A gut-shot animal may hunch up, run, then slow, and also may clamp its tail down tight.

Spoor: Clipped white hair, food in blood, or a putrid smell. Large blood splotches far apart. The trail may subside as blood flows into the muscles.

Result: Game will lie down and bleed out if left alone.

Tip: Wait two hours before following the sign.

MUSCLES (NO VITAL ORGAN HIT)

Reaction: Little reaction may take place besides the game running off, even with a leg wound.

Spoor: Much blood at first, but the trail will peter out as coagulation occurs.

Result: Long trail; the animal may survive.

Tip: Persist until certain that the animal cannot be recovered.

LOWER LEG BONES

Reaction: A crack may sound. Game may fall, then rise and drag or favor one leg.

Spoor: Short hairs; scanty blood trail, with blood drops in the tracks. The trail is likely to dry up.

Result: If three legs remain sound, the animal is very difficult to recover.

Tip: Be prepared for quick shooting. Once the animal knows it's being followed, it can be impossible to catch up.

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