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Practical Bloodtrailing Tips (INTERACTIVE VERSION)

Bloodtrailing is a skill that every bowhunter should work hard at mastering. We owe it to animals we hunt, as well as to the sport, to follow up as best we can on the shots we take.

While bloodtrailing is more of an art than a science, anyone can become competent at it. It just takes a little careful thought before, during and after the shot. Establishing a standard bloodtrailing routine can make bloodtrailing much easier. The routine that I use is described below.

Much of what you'll read here I learned from outdoor writer and lecturer John Trout, Jr. His book, Trailing Whitetails is easily one of the definitive works on bloodtrailing. Unfortunately, the book recently went out of print. If you're lucky you may still be able to snatch up a copy before they're all gone.

Because the whitetail is the most popular big game animal sought by bowhunters, that's the type of bloodtrailing situation that will be discussed here. Most of this information, however, is applicable to trailing other animals.

KNOW Where the Animal Was When You Shot

You can often tell a lot about the nature of the hit from what you find at, or near, the site of the hit. But first you have to be able to find the spot. You might want to note the animal's position as you're drawing your bow or calculating the distance of the shot. I usually pick a tree or bush that the animal is next to as a reference point. Immediately after the shot, when the animal has left the area, I look back at the landmark I've chosen and etch it into my mind again.

REMEMBER How the Animal Was Standing When it Was Hit

You already know the importance of shot placement. (For a brush-up on the topic, follow this link to the NBEF's shot placement guide here on THE BOWSITE ). Note, however, a deer in perfect position just as the arrow is leaving your bow can move into a bad position before the arrow actually hits. What you observe during the arrow's flight, along with other clues to be discussed later, can help you make some very important bloodtrailing decisions.

WATCH the Animal Closely as it Leaves
Carefully note the animal's direction of travel after the shot. This can make finding the initial trail much easier, especially in the event there isn't much blood. At the very least, pick out a distinctive landmark at the point where the deer disappears from sight. It's not a bad idea to take a compass reading either to map the animal's general direction of travel.

Also, check to see if the arrow is still in the animal, otherwise you might spend a lot of time looking for it on the ground at the scene of the hit.

Many bowhunters believe you can tell where a deer has been hit by how it runs away. This is certainly true some of the time, but it isn't a dependable method of analysis. Deer do have a tendency to "hump up" in the middle and leave the area more slowly if they're gut shot. Other hits aren't as easy to diagnose, however. Some deer will race off with no indication of being hit even though they've been 'double lunged.'


 CAPTION- A walking deer (left) leaves a significantly different blood trail than one that's running (right). The direction of the blood splatter from the running deer points out its direction of travel.

SEARCH the Scene of the Hit for Clues

What you find here can help you determine what type of hit you're working with. Let things quiet down after the shot for five to ten minutes before moving to check the scene (if lighting and/or weather conditions will allow it). Be as quiet as possible when you make your move as the animal may still be alive and close by.

The most important clue to be found here is the arrow (which will be discussed in the next section), but hair cut off by the broadhead's entry and/or exit can provide important information too. This is especially true with whitetails... if you know what color hair comes from what part of a deer's body. This chart from Trailing Whitetails can be very helpful in determining the nature of a hit, especially less than perfect ones.

An Identification Guide to Whitetail Deer Hair
Heart and Lung Hair Very coarse, very long dark hair, with black tips.
Stomach or
Side Hair
Very coarse, hollow, brownish gray and medium length. Tips are not dark as they are higher up on the deer.
Navel Hair All white, hollow, very coarse and very long. Will appear curly and twisted.
Spine Hair Very coarse, hollow, long dark gray hair with black tips.
Top of
Back Hair
Very coarse, hollow, long dark gray hair with black tips. Shorter than spine hair.
Ham Hair Very coarse, medium length, and dark gray with dark tips,
Lower Leg
Coarse, medium to short in length, gray to brown in color with dark tips.
Hair Between
Hind Legs
Not hollow, very fine, white and silky, and also curly.
Brisket Very coarse, long and dark gray, with dark tips. Very stiff, but can curl.
Neck Hair Dark gray and short. Front of neck will be light gray to white, also short.
Tail Hair Top hair is dark and wavy, very long and tipped in black. Underneath is white and also wavy.
Reprinted with permission from "Trailing Whitetails," by John Trout, Jr.

Good blood at the site is usually a sign of a lung hit. If this is the case you'll sometimes find blood sprayed out on the ground in a shotgun-like pattern, the result of the arrow and the deer's respiration forcing blood out through the broadhead's exit hole.

Of course the most important thing to find here is the arrow. Given a body hit on a whitetail, you're most likely to find the arrow nearby.

PERFORM a Thorough Arrow Analysis

The arrow will often tell you a lot about the hit, and its more than worth your time to search for it if its not immediately visible. Because much has already been written on deducing the nature of the hit by the condition of the arrow I won't go into detail here. But generally speaking, there are four types of hits that are relatively easy to diagnose from examining the arrow.

An arrow that passes through a deer's heart or lungs will likely be covered completely with crimson red blood, almost a reddish pink in the case of a lung hit. There may be some tiny air bubbles in the blood in the event of a lung hit too. There should be an excellent blood trail to follow with blood right at the site or within 20 yards.

A liver hit is often indicated by an arrow completely covered in a medium to dark red blood. A blood trail should be evident within 30 yards, but it may be sparse at times. Here's where paying close attention at the time of the shot can help. Match these conditions up with the perception that the arrow may have hit too far back and you probably have a liver hit.

An arrow that travels through a deer's paunch may not have much blood on it at all. Instead, it will be coated with a foul smelling fluid/material, sometimes greenish in color (the contents of the deer's stomach or intestines). While there will be some blood to follow, the trail will likely be sparse.

The last type of hit, one in a leg quarter, neck, rump, or loin, is sometimes called a "meat hit." It will leave a blood soaked arrow and a poor to fair initial blood trail that tapers off after a few hundred yards.
Some meat hits result in only partial arrow penetration, with the arrow being found down the trail a ways. In this case the arrow may only have its front portion covered in blood, the part that was in the deer. It's not uncommon to find just the back end of an arrow in these cases too, an indication that the front of the shaft may still be in the animal.

Don't forget to examine any hair that's on the arrow. Hair here, along with that found on the ground, can indicate the type of shot you're dealing with.

CONSIDER How Long to Wait Before Trailing

How long you should wait before trailing depends upon what type of hit you think you're dealing with. Weather can also be a factor and that will be discussed later.

While there are no hard and fast rules.

MARK the Trail You're Following

Trail makers are a good idea anytime, but they can be especially helpful when you're dealing with a marginal hit. A marker, at the very least, can help you go back to the last spot you found blood in the event that you've lost the trail. From here you can start searching for new sign all over again.

Markers can also help you determine a deer's general direction of travel. Sometimes this will point you toward the next bit of blood or the deer. Toilet paper makes an excellent marker if it's not raining. Bright orange biodegradable surveyor's tape also works well.

TRAILING Dos and Don'ts

Do take your time while trailing, and try not to get frustrated if things aren't going well. Slow and steady is more likely to lead to recover than quick and hectic.

Try to stay off the trail the deer has taken. You may want to go back and examine some of the blood sign and you can't do that if you've walked all over it.

Having a buddy along to help you trail isn't a bad idea, but limit the number of helpers. In the event of a marginal hit, you want to trail slowly and quietly. That can be impossible with a crowd.

Get down on your hands and knees to search for blood if you've lost the trail. Sometimes that's the only way you'll find it. And don't forget to look on the sides of bushes, trees and grass for blood wiped off as the deer passed by.

If you jump the deer while trailing, it's probably a good idea to back off for a while and give the deer more time to expire (unless you're dealing with a meat hit). Continuing to trail will just push the deer and result in a marginal blood trail that's difficult to follow.

DEFEATING Foul Weather and Darkness

Rain and falling snow can wipe out a blood trail in short order. If you're certain of a good hit you should begin trailing right away.

Dealing with a paunch hit in rain or a snow is more tricky. If you have a good idea of where the deer went you may want to wait the usual amount of time. The deer probably won't go far and you'll have a decent chance of finding it when the weather clears.

If you're uncertain where the deer went you may be out of luck. This is a bad situation to be in, and it points toward being extra careful when taking shots when there's bad weather. You may have to begin trailing right away with the hope of jumping the deer, hopefully getting and idea of where it might bed next, and then backing off until later.

Trailing at night has its own difficulties too. Not only is it easy to miss obvious blood sign, it's easy to walk right by a downed animal and never know it. A super-bright flashlight is essential, and a gas lantern is even better. Also, take extra care not to get lost. Even familiar woods can be confusing in the dark.

HOLD on to Hope

If you loose the trail there are a couple of things that you can try to get on the right track again. The first is to begin a zig-zag pattern projecting outward from the last blood sign along the deer's general direction of travel. The second thing to do is search nearby sources of water for sign. Deer often go to, and stay near, water when they're wounded.

Keeping a positive attitude is essential when things aren't going well. It's easier to overlook clues when you're dejected. Don't give up if there's the slightest chance that the animal may be down. As John Trout says, "It's not always the bloodtrail that will lead you to the deer, for it is so often the effort you put forth."

If you'd like to try a bit of virtual bloodtrailing, follow this link in THE BOWSITE to An Actual Bloodtrail

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