Anyone can follow a good blood trail. But a drop here, a smear there, then maybe no blood at all? That takes skill.

The scenario above depicts the most difficult challenges you may face when tracking a wounded deer. Here’s how to follow the trail to its end.

1. The Hit
Diagnosing your hit is critical. Watch the impact as closely as possible, and note the deer’s reaction. Pick a mark where you last saw the animal. After 15 minutes, go to the hit site and look for the arrow if bowhunting. If there’s no blood on the ground here, walk slowly to your “last-seen” mark, searching for blood, tracks, or scuff marks.

2. The Dash
Most deer make a brief, panicked run, usually downhill and toward water or thick cover. If blood is absent at the last-seen mark, carefully check trails leading in these directions. Once you find blood, note which side(s) of the deer it’s coming from and how high on the grass or brush. Mark each spot with toilet paper to help you see the flight path–TP is cheap and dissolves in the first rain.

3. The Empty Bed
Finding a bloody deer bed within the first 200 or 300 yards is a mixed blessing. A buck that beds this quickly is hurting, but you likely bumped him. The potentially awful news: If you can’t find a blood trail exiting the bed, your chances of recovery have plummeted. Either way, examine the blood to get a better idea of the hit and then back off for several hours.

4. The Backtrack
When a decent blood trail seems to dead-end, odds are the buck backtracked. Catching this move is easy if you’ve determined which side the buck is bleeding from; suddenly there’s blood on both sides of the trail. Or search for identical fresh tracks in both directions if possible. Otherwise, walk it back, searching meticulously for the place where more blood veers off the trail.

5. The Lineout and Circle
A wounded buck may take a straight-line path of least resistance, such as this heavily traveled sidehill trail. Usually at the end of a lineout there will be a dead buck (best case), an end to the blood (worst case), or a change in direction. Slow down here, stay on the blood, and keep in mind that an injured buck has a tendency to circle, especially if that leads him back downhill and toward water again.

6. The Crossing
Wading or swimming is a classic move that can pose a major challenge for you. First, make sure your buck didn’t stop, get a drink, and backtrack. If there’s aquatic vegetation showing blood, wade in and stay on the trail. Otherwise cross, if possible, and curry­comb the banks, paying special attention to crossings and trails, to figure out where your buck came out. This can take time. Be patient.

7. The Last Blood
The first rule of tracking is “Stay on the blood.” But sometimes, you just can’t find another drop. Don’t panic. Clearly mark the last, and start walking in widening cloverleaf circles; walk a trail a ways, circle back, and walk another, looking for any sign. Keep an eye toward water and thick cover. Check every blowdown and thicket, and with luck, you’ll find your trophy lying in one of them.