The sun broke the horizon on this particular crisp early November day, and I sat there peacefully watching the yellow and red leaves periodically fluttering to the ground under the influences of a steady low breeze.

Then, I heard crunching behind my tree and I slowly turned my head over my right shoulder as I saw a mature whitetail buck steadily plodding downhill. Tall bright-white forked antler tines reminded me of a mule deer, and its large frame colored in more of a tan/grey hue gave this particular buck some unique attributes.

I calmed myself by some deep belly breathing, as the buck kept on a course that would carry it directly to the trail I was watching from my stand. I was careful to not draw prematurely and expose myself to his peripheral vision, but as soon as he turned and stepped slightly downhill away from me, I drew to anchor. Looking at a spot of raised fur above where the front leg met the body, I watched as my orange fletch completely disappeared though the tan body a little back, perhaps about the last rib or two. The buck instantly exploded away from the impact direction and crashed through multiflora rose and vines in a panicked escape.

Initial good blood, but dark red indicating a liver hit.

I knew the arrow was a little farther back than I would have liked, but convinced myself that his slightly quartering position caught at least one lung and probably the liver. I glanced at my watch marking the time and sat reliving the action. I took a clementine from my cargo pocket and tried to relax as I passed the time with a snack. After 45 minutes, I slowly eased out of the tree and crept over to the impact area. I saw the scuffed hoof prints of his two front feet as he launched into his run. There was no visible blood until I reached where he landed after his first jump. There on the leaves, I found large blotches of dark red blood. My arrow lay there sticking out of the leaf litter and covered in the same blood, broken just in front of where the fletch began. Picking up the shaft, dirt was only present on one side of the Ace Standard broadhead.

Continuing at a snail’s pace, I saw blood sign on both sides as he ran, telling me that two holes were leaking. However, after about 45 more yards the faucet turned to a drip. Then nothing. Then blood again after about five more yards. I texted my friend and he suggested I give it some time. It was getting warm, so I backed out and walked slowly and quietly back to my truck. There I shed a layer, took a drink of cold coffee, and planned my next move.

I decided to still-hunt my way back to the last blood in the overgrown hedges by a route through the main woods. Later I would find this a major mistake as I ended up not far from the last bed I found blood in.

Resuming the trail, I eventually determined the direction of travel through some very thick hedgerow of multiflora rose. Blood was specks now 10 yards or more apart. I ended up having to literally crawl through a tunnel of vines to reach the last blood I found. I surmised this was his bed, dark red blood stained two spots on either side, but no deer was to be found. I searched for the remainder of the day, the morning after, and a few hours on Monday, never finding the deer.

My brother, who has vast experience following wounded arrow-struck deer, immediately confirmed upon seeing the photos, “Looks like a liver hit, they can last upwards of two hours with that kind of wound.”

Foamy blood from a lung shot.

This may be one of the hardest things to do after an arrow flies from the bow at a buck. After many years of archery hunting deer, I am still humbled by my inexperience and the toughness of the quarry. Learning lessons is part of the sport, but perhaps I can help others learn some of this an easier way by writing one of my most recent lessons.

My father taught me early on to wait at least 45 minutes before taking up the trail on a well hit animal. He said, “an hour is better,” but 45 minutes is the absolute minimum. I still believe that is a good rule of thumb, but the caveat here is we are confident we have heart and/or both lungs hit.

Knowing where the animal is hit can go a long way to giving the hunter that first clue on how to proceed. I prefer brightly colored fletching and a fully painted white shaft or crest, others go a more modern route of lighted nocks. Whichever method you prefer, seeing where a hit might be can help immensely after the shot. Next look for clues where the impact area is. Do you see hair? Is it white or brown? Look for the arrow or first blood sign. What color is the blood, dark or bright? Does it have bubbles or foam? Is it slimy or watery? Does it have an odor? Are there food particles? Take your time and examine it like a crime scene detective or scientist. Look for the evidence and take time to consider it. When in doubt, back out and wait. If the evidence points to a gut shot, wait even longer. Deer are tough customers and can survive and totally recover from a one lung hit, let alone not tip over an hour after being struck.

Table 1: Suggested minimum wait time before starting a trail

Blood Indication Minimum Wait Time
Pink and foamy Lung and/or heart 45 minutes
Thick dark red Liver 2 hours
Watery or slimy Paunch or gut 6 hours

Speaking of patience and reading sign, I am starting to believe these two traits are often overlooked by younger bowhunters.

One evening I was getting some coffee in a convenience store when I noticed two obvious hunters clad from head to toe in the latest camouflage pattern. I asked how they made out this evening. One hunter spoke up and told me he shot a nice doe right at 6:00 pm this evening with his compound, but it kept going and they never found it. Now, it was only 8:00 pm as we were chatting. I was thinking to myself, how long did you wait after the shot before picking up the trail? Trailing too soon, especially in the dark is a recipe for kicking the animal up and pushing it out of your range. He should have just started trailing it at 8:00 pm, and I’m betting chances would be better he would have found it. Did you ever wonder why you are seemingly so much better at trailing your partner’s deer? Patience and calmness.

This buck was given lots of time due to a neck shot, but he was found within 45 yards of the stand and didn’t go far.

Another bowhunter I know texted me he shot one of his biggest bucks to date, at around 5:00 pm one evening. He said he was confident he struck the deer in the neck. By 5:24 pm he was telling me the first blood was foamy. Trailing so quick? Right away this told me windpipe, but did he strike the carotid or jugular? It has been my experience that with a neck shot deer it will either be down within 50 yards with a lot of blood on the ground, or it will be a long time if it ever succumbs. At around 5:45 pm he said the blood was now almost completely shut down and the animal was heading uphill. I suggested he come back in the morning, but he continued to trail and press onward. When he finally gave up, he told me he found the buck bedded twice within 150 yards. He just kept pushing it.

I should have learned the lesson several years ago on Maryland’s eastern shore hunting sika deer. I was fortunate to make a decent shot on a world class sika stag at dusk on the last day of a grueling 3-day hunt. I was way out in the marsh in the fading light as a monster stag emerged from the brush. My first impression was that he had two Christmas trees growing at angles from his head! I had already missed a few opportunities at smaller stags that weekend, and I doubled down on my focus as he walked 20 yards in front and broadside. I saw the arrow strike at about the last, or second to last rib, but I was confident I got at least one lung. The arrow was buried in the marsh on the other side. Now, it was getting dark, a mile back in the marsh, and I didn’t have a good light or GPS. I was impatient and wanted to use some of the last available light, so after 20 minutes I shimmied down out of the tree and took up the copious trail. Just after where I last heard him splash there was a little hummock of dry ground, and in it was a big pool of bubbly bright pink blood. I got at least one lung, but obviously pushed it. I was confident it would be lying just ahead, but an hour later and 1/4 mile into the marsh the trail crossed a ditch that had water over my waders. I was forced to retreat in defeat. I still regret my impatience and feel confident that if I waited longer, I would have found him in that first bed. Next time I’ll be prepared!

When bowhunting I have come to realize the importance of waiting if the signs do not point you toward a quick recovery. As Tom Petty put it in song, “The waiting is the hardest part,” and so true in our modern fast-paced and immediate gratification society. Older and wiser, it may have finally sunk in.