Each year, we traditional bowhunters put in a considerable amount of time planning how we are going to fill the freezer with various kinds of wild game. Whether its turkey, deer, bear, or elk, many of the plans we formulate, for filling carcass tags that have yet to arrive in our mailboxes, start months in advance of the hunting seasons.
Yet, I’ll bet a dozen quality, hand-crafted cedar arrows that most traditional bowhunters, especially those new to bowhunting, never discuss plans for “the Second Hunt,” which is what I refer to after the arrow has been released, and it becomes time to start planning for the recovery of the bowhunter’s game animal.
Whether we are traditional or modern-day bowhunters, veteran or beginner, we all hope that after the arrow has been released, we find a heavy blood trail which will lead us quickly to our downed game. Unfortunately, we do not always get what we hope for. Even with good hits with razor-sharp broadheads, we sometimes end up with sparse blood trails and tough tracking jobs, as is often the case of bowhunting gobblers or black bears.
So, here is one more fact to think about. Beginning bowhunters should take special notice. With proper preplanning and the development of an exhaustive and determined blood trailing plan, recovery of the bowhunter’s game remains a high-percentage proposition. This is especially important when bowhunting with a large group as when hunting from an established bowhunting camp with family and friends.
As a New York State Certified Bowhunting Instructor with 40-plus years spent tramping forest, field, and boreal bog, we, my fellow bowhunting instructors and myself, have always stressed to our student bowhunters that their game recovery plan starts before they release a broadhead-tipped arrow at a game animal.
First and foremost is the need for the bowhunter to be able to visually follow the arrow all the way to the animal to learn where the arrow has struck. At the same time, the bowhunter needs to observe the animal’s reaction when the arrow strikes its body. For example, when bowhunting whitetail deer, did the deer hunch-up, which often means a gut shot? Or, did the deer jump high in the air then kick-out with its hind feet, which often means a heart shot?
Of course, not all animals react the same way as deer do, therefore it is critical that the bowhunter keep a keen eye on the animal when the arrow strikes. Doing so will enable the bowhunter to explain to the blood-trailing team where the arrow struck and how the animal reacted to the hit. Such information is key when deciding when and how to follow-up on the blood trail. Heading out too soon may result in bumping the animal from its bed, which often results in losing the trail altogether along with losing the wounded animal. Therefore, it’s critical that the bowhunter and the blood-trailing team accurately interpret the bowhunter’s observations as well as the sign found at the “hit” site before following up the spoor.
It is also important that the bowhunter mentally imprint the exact location where the game animal was standing when the arrow struck. As the critter hightails it out of the area to safer cover, the bowhunter also needs to mark the spot where the game disappeared into the cover. Picking out a natural object such as a tree, fallen log, berry-bush, rock etc. where the animal made its exit will later aid in taking up the track. Better yet, take a compass reading of the spot where the bowhunter lost sight of the animal. Oftentimes, wounded animals run in a straight line when mortally wounded. A compass bearing of the critter’s escape route might prove beneficial, thus allowing a quicker recovery of the animal.
Back at camp, after the bowhunter has informed his bowhunting buddies about his hunt and the shot, it’s natural for everyone to get excited and want to volunteer to help the bowhunter find the quarry. This can be a touchy part, because not everyone can take up the track without risking losing the blood-trail and the animal. That is why it is a good idea to preplan for any tracking jobs that may arise during the hunt.
If the group of bowhunters already knows the plan for trailing a wounded critter, they will already know that only two or possibly three trackers are needed. The first chosen should be the lead tracker. Choosing a lead tracker should be based on bowhunting experience, blood-trailing abilities, and tracking skills. Just as important, the lead tracker must have patience and fortitude to stick with the trail no matter how difficult it becomes. He or she must also have a keen eye for picking out detail such as minute droplets of blood or overturned leaves. He must be able to spot bent grass or weeds, or a broken stick the wounded deer made as it retreated into cover, or pick out a deeper than usual set of tracks where the deer has backtracked as it tries to throw off its pursuers. At the same time the lead tracker should have a good understanding of the animal’s habits, which could possibly clue the tracking team in to where the animal is going should they lose the trail.
Accompanying the lead tracker should be one but no more than two other trackers. The second tracker should not be more than ten yards behind the lead tracker. His job is to keep a keen eye out ahead of the lead tracker as he looks for sign and to report any sightings or movement that might possibly be their wounded quarry.
The last tracker is the one who marks the blood trail with bright, biodegradable, fluorescent orange flagging. At the same time, he needs to carefully follow his team trackers, trying to step where they step so as not to destroy whatever spoor the lead tracker finds.
Naturally, if the wounded animal is sighted, the team should remain quiet and then carefully back-off so as not to spook the wounded animal into flight. If possible, it is a good idea to try to watch the animal to try to evaluate its condition in order to decide what the next step or action should be. Sometimes, the bowhunter that originally wounded the animal may be able to stalk closer for a finishing shot. However, oftentimes the lead tracker will call off the tracking in order to give the animal time to expire. Naturally, if that happens, the team should depart as quickly yet as quietly as possible so as not to further spook the wounded quarry.
Before the actual tracking begins, the first task the tracking team faces is to find the arrow. Recovering the arrow is a critical first step in following up on a wounded animal. By finding the arrow, the bowhunter and tracking team might be able to learn about the severity of the hit, due to the kind of blood or other fluids or matter found on the arrow and its fletching.
For example, bright red blood often means a muscle hit like the hind quarter. Usually this type of hit results in finding droplets or thin trails of blood lying upon the leaf litter. Pink, frothy, or bubbly blood indicates a lung hit. Such a hit often results in blood spraying out of the animal, sometimes on both sides of its escape trail as it flees to heavy cover. Then too, the tracking team may discover a dark, gritty, green liquid smeared along the arrow shaft indicating a gut shot animal. If that is the case, the tracking team has no choice but to back off the blood trail then wait the required six to eight hours to allow the wounded animal time to expire.
Believe me, walking away from the blood trail is not an easy thing to do. At the very least it is a stressful and anxious time for the bowhunter. However, if rain is evident or beginning to fall, the tracking team may decide to continue following the trail. However, doing so requires the trackers to be as quiet as possible, exercising patience and stealth.
If, however, the bowhunter is able to back off the trail to wait the required amount of time before following up the spoor, including the time it takes to actually find the carcass, anything can happen. Warm weather can spoil the meat; coyotes, foxes, or bears can feed on the carcass; or strong winds can cover valuable blood trailing sign. It’s no wonder many a bowhunter has lain awake all night hoping for a successful tracking job the next morning.
It’s a fact that recovering arrow-hit deer can be tedious work. Yet done correctly, by applying large amounts of patience, paying attention to detail, keeping an open mind, knowing the game animals’ habits and working as a team with fellow trackers, recovery of game is usually the end result.