Blood trailing a wounded deer is a situation that can break bad in a hurry. This is due to the generally high optimism before the trail starts, to the reality that often sets in when the spoor starts telling the real story.
Unless you’re dealing with a double-lung or heart shot, or even a severed artery, there are no forgone conclusions. Well, that’s not true. If you shoot a deer in the liver or the guts, it’s going to die. When and where are the big questions. Other hits mostly involve muscle groups that bleed heavily at first, then dry up and disappear.
Understanding what you’re dealing with on every trailing job is important, but it’s also important to consider what you think you know, versus what you don’t. There are blood-trailing myths out there that just won’t die, and some of these do us a real disservice when we’re hunched over the forest floor with our headlamps on with nervous anxiety coursing through our veins. Two of these myths are common and should be mostly forgotten.
Wounded deer always head to water, and they never travel uphill.
Whitetailers will discuss these two beliefs on blood trails across the country all fall. They color our thoughts throughout our blood-trailing efforts, often in a way that costs us a recovery.
The problem is that wounded deer often do go uphill, and not every wounded deer will view slaking its thirst as a top priority. I don’t know where the uphill myth came from. But I’d guess the go-to-water myth originated partially from the fact that we naturally go to water when we are outdoors, whether we’re scouting or maybe just trying to catch a few trout in the spring. It’s there that we find dead bucks and reinforce the myths we so readily cling to.
If you spend some time busting through thick homesteads and bedding areas after the firearm season in your state, you’ll likely find holed-up, dead deer in those places, too. Whitetails have a brain, four legs, and an unshakable survival instinct. Remember that this instinct often takes them to the areas where they’ll feel safe from predation, so it often causes them to dig into deadfalls, cattails, and other thick cover.
A good rule of thumb is to consider that a deer contains about an ounce of blood for every pound of body weight. Take a 160-pound, live-weight buck for an example. That deer is going to contain about 1.2 gallons of blood.
Imagine now, taking a one-gallon milk jug full of blood into the woods and being tasked with creating a blood trail. If you dripped blood from it, you could go for miles before it was empty. The blood trail you created would be a walk-at-a-steady-pace type of trail. Now, you might be thinking, he doesn’t need to lose all of his blood to die. This is true, but also consider this, when you go do your good-citizen blood donation, they’ll take on average about 8% of your blood. Most folks don’t even notice that.
If a deer lost 8% of 1.2 gallons, that’s about 13 ounces. If you round that up a few ounces, you have your typical half-liter water bottle. Imagine just that amount on a blood trail and spread out over the leaves. It would look like a lot, but it’s really not.
What we think is a lot of blood, often isn’t. Be careful with this, because it’s easy for us to talk ourselves into pushing it on a trailing job because we believe the amount of blood we’re seeing is much more than it actually is.
The flip side of this is little to no blood. This can be a bad sign or a sign that the entrance was high and there was no exit. It could also mean that the exit wound is mostly plugged up with fat or intestines, and the bleeding is internal. The danger here—just like with focusing too heavily on water or writing off uphill travel—is that we persuade ourselves to trail a certain way for a certain length of time.
When it comes to blood trailing with your best efforts, you have to factor in your post-shot thoughts (deer body positioning and overall reaction to the hit), the evidence on the arrow or at the impact site, and every bit of spoor while you’re on the trail.
Then, you have to be ready to readjust your plan as new information comes in. Do this on every trailing job, and you’ll soon realize that blood trails are like snowflakes—no two are the same. But they often follow a similar trajectory depending on the type of hit, and that experience is far more valuable than defaulting to some of the long-held blood-trailing beliefs that have permeated our deer hunting culture.