Field & Stream Online Editors
Field & Stream Online Editors

Most hunters think a deer that falls instantly is, as the Munchkin put it, really most sincerely dead. But more than one hunter has unloaded his rifle while his “sincerely” dead deer gets up and runs off. I am extremely suspicious of any deer that drops at the shot; many are only temporarily paralyzed. If a deer falls boom, reload immediately and watch for at least a full minute. If the deer begins to struggle, shoot again.

If a deer walks or runs into the timber after the shot, watch and listen very carefully. Some hunters claim a deer’s actions indicate if and where it was hit, but I’ve seen heart-shot whitetails run fast with tails high, and once watched a 120-pound mule deer walk off after a 250-grain .338 bullet angled all the way through both its abdominal cavity and chest. The only evidence of a hit I take seriously is hair drifting in the air or, even more conclusively, blood running down a deer’s side.

When in Doubt, Crawl
Remain quiet after the shot; sometimes you can hear deer fall. If you don’t hear anything for a couple of minutes, walk carefully over to where the deer stood when you shot. If you don’t see blood, hair, or bone, get down on your hands and knees and look again. Hair and drops that disappear at 5 feet show up at 12 inches.

Blood or hair provides conclusive evidence of a hit, but sometimes you’ll even hear the bullet hit and not find a drop of blood. This hollow thump-a crack if bone is struck-is normally only heard at ranges of over 100 yards, but some people never hear it. So always assume a hit, even if you don’t hear or find any evidence, and look for blood along the deer’s tracks or likely path for at least 200 yards before assuming it was a miss.

If you find blood, follow it, remembering that waist-high brush often picks up much more blood than falls to the ground. If you find blood the color of bright red lipstick, follow right away; the deer is already dead, hit cleanly in the chest. If you find evidence of a hit anywhere else, such as blood the color of overripe cherries, pieces of long leg bone, or half-digested grass, wait at least 20 minutes.

Supposedly this time allows the deer to “stiffen up.” Maybe. It does allow the initial jolt of adrenaline to dissipate, both in you and the deer. But I’m actually hoping the deer will die. Even a shot in a leg or the abdominal cavity sometimes clips a large blood vessel or a secondary vital organ such as the liver. Either will be fatal in a few minutes if you don’t push things.

With two or more hunters, one person should always be ready to shoot. It’s foolish for all the hunters to look at their feet while the deer staggers off. One person should stand at the last place you found blood, rifle ready, while the other hunter looks for the next blood.

If alone, mark the last blood. Break a twig, scuff the ground, or drop a tiny piece of toilet paper. This marks your bearings if the trail fades.

If you lose the blood trail, other signs may point the way. Snow, of course, helps enormously if not tracked up by other deer. Hoofprints, overturned leaves, even bent grass and disturbed dew can all be indicators. Often a deer quits bleeding over level ground but leaves blood when it jumps, and searching along nearby fences and streams finds the trail again.

Don’t get fancy and start guessing where the deer might go. You’ll hear that wounded deer always head downhill, or for thick cover or water. I’ve seen all three-and the opposite of all three. It’s hard work, but the blood trail is the sure trail.

Sometimes the blood quits completely or is lost to rain or snow. Then you must systematically search everywhere. A dead deer can be invisible from 10 feet in shin-high grass. If possible, gather all the people you can and walk in a row, close enough to see the next person’s feet.

** When You See It**
If you spot the deeahead, look at it through your rifle scope, not your binoculars-you must be ready to shoot. If lying with the side of its head on the ground, the deer is almost surely unconscious or dead. But on its belly, chin on the ground, it’s probably alive and hoping to hide. If you can’t put a bullet in a vital place, circle behind where the deer can’t see you before approaching. Wounded deer spook when they see people moving toward them. Very rarely, wounded deer approached from the front will charge. Come from behind and shoot as soon as you can.

If the deer appears dead, walk carefully up behind its back (so it can’t kick you if alive) and touch the eye with your rifle’s muzzle. If the eye blinks, it’s still alive.

Real-Life Cases
Let’s look at a few examples:
At dawn I shot at a whitetail doe on the edge of a hayfield. The deer turned to run as I pulled the trigger, and from the evidence the bullet had broken a hind leg. My wife Eileen and I found dark blood and a piece of long bone, and in the damp earth along the edge of the field were tracks showing only three hoofprints. We waited awhile, then followed the trail.

After a quarter mile the blood trail ended, but soon Eileen found a splash where the deer had jumped an irrigation ditch. The blood stopped again on the edge of another hayfield, but we could see a dark line in the alfalfa where the deer had knocked the dew off the hay. This trail led to a line of cottonwoods. I eased up behind the trees and saw the deer lying, head up, about 75 yards away, and I put a bullet through the lungs. The whole process took about an hour.

After my first shot, a mule deer buck ran limping up the sagebrush hillside beyond, and I missed with the second shot. I followed blood and chunks of shoulder bone up the hill, finding occasional traces. Near the crest I crawled through the sage to the ridge top and looked over into the next draw. Nothing. I followed the trail to the next ridge, again crawling over. Glassing carefully, I found the buck in the shadows of a hillside 200 yards away, one front leg drawn up. A lung shot put him down. The first bullet, from a very popular 150-grain .30/06 factory load, had lost its lead core on the shoulder bone and never penetrated the rib cage.

Eileen sat on her favorite deer stand one morning and shot a big whitetail buck just at dawn. He ran behind some brush toward the nearby creek, and she heard him splash through the water. A few seconds later, she heard the brush crackling loudly.

We couldn’t see any obvious blood or hair where the buck had been standing, but she could plainly remember the crosshairs on his chest when the .270 went off, so we got down on our hands and knees and found a single drop of bright blood the size of a match head. A long, wide patch of willows and alders bordered the other side of the creek. We walked the creek banks and the edges of the brush, finding lots of tracks but no blood. We walked through the brush. Still nothing. We did it all over again, and then again.

By now over two hours had passed, so we drove the two miles home, ate breakfast, then drove back and started crawling under the brush, close enough that we could see each other. After 45 minutes I found a deer antler rising up out of the grass-her buck, a big 4×4 shot high through both lungs, less than 100 yards from where he’d been hit. It had been four hours since the shot.

Do not give up on the meat, even if you have to leave a deer overnight. A gasoline lantern provides the best artificial light to follow blood if it exists, but with no trail it’s smarter to come back in the morning. After a shot too far back on a whitetail doe, I couldn’t find any blood even in the tall weeds where she ran. The next morning I came back at first light and started systematically circling. An hour later I found the doe in the leftover water of a nonflowing irrigation ditch. The temperature never dropped below 60 during the night, but the meat was fine. The bullet had clipped the major blood vessel just under the spine behind the rib cage, so the deer actually hadn’t lived long-just long enough to disappear.

Seek, and ye shall find.on ditch. The temperature never dropped below 60 during the night, but the meat was fine. The bullet had clipped the major blood vessel just under the spine behind the rib cage, so the deer actually hadn’t lived long-just long enough to disappear.

Seek, and ye shall find.