Hunting > Whitetails

Tips for Tracking an Animal’s Blood Trail

These 10 steps will help you recover game while keeping you and your companions safe.

12/21/2011

No matter what you see on television, not all game animals drop in their tracks when hit by a bullet or, especially, an arrow. Unfortunately, sooner or later, you are going to find yourself searching for a downed animal. As hunters, we have a responsibility to do our best to recover game quickly and efficiently—that often means blood trailing an animal after the shot. These 10 steps will help you recover game while keeping you and your companions safe.

1. Relax—Gunshot and arrow wounds often kill by blood loss, so take several minutes to gather your thoughts and let the adrenaline wear off before you set off on the trail. Not only will you have a clearer head for the tracking job, but it will give the animal time to expire without triggering its flight instincts. Pushing a wounded animal can result in a far longer tracking job. If you suspect that the shot was poorly placed and the temperature isn’t too high, you may consider quietly leaving the area for several hours to give the animal time to expire (especially for archers). Take this time to analyze the details of the shot, the animal’s position and the direction in which it ran. Don’t panic if it’s getting dark, white light from a flashlight or headlamp can make blood easy to spot. There are also products on the market—such as sprays and blue lights—that claim to make blood trails easier to spot. We put some products to the test, and you can see the results here.

2. Call for help—While you’re waiting, call a friend or two for help. An extra set of eyes can be invaluable, and your helper’s questions can better help you to recall details of the shot. 

3. Bring in the hounds—If you have one available to you, there’s no substitute for a good dog when it comes to following an animal’s trail. But don’t wait until you’ve trampled the scent out of the area; call in the dog right off the bat.

4. Make a plan—Wandering the woods hoping to stumble across your deer is not an effective way to recover an animal. Take charge of the recovery and delegate responsibilities to everyone involved. Be sure that your “help” doesn’t wander ahead, unknowingly trampling blood and other helpful sign.

5. Start at the point of impact—Begin your search at the spot where the animal was hit. The immediate area can tell you a great deal about the placement of the shot and the animal’s condition. How much blood is on the ground? Did the bullet exit the animal? Are there hair or bone fragments in the area? What color is the hair? White hair on a whitetail can mean that a shot went low and you may be in for a long night.    

6. Think “CSI”—Once you begin to follow the animal’s path you can often determine the location and extent of the wounds by examining the trail. Bright red blood indicates arterial bleeding and is a good sign, while pink frothy blood and chunks of tissue are indicative of a lung hit. Brown or green blood usually means that the animal is “gut shot,” which may be fine if the animal was quartering, but it’s bad news on broadside shots. Blood on tall grass or brush can indicate how high in the body the wound is and whether the animal is bleeding on both sides, which clearly indicates an exit wound. Broken branches, trampled grass and disturbed soil can lead the way in the absence of blood.    

7. Mark your trail—Use a bright, colored object (like a blaze orange garment) to indicate the last spot of blood. If you lose the trail, backtrack to the last visible blood spot and walk or crawl in small circles until you pick up the trail again.  

8. Think like a deer—If you lose the trail, sit back and think about where the animal may have gone. Usually it’s the thickest brush in the area, but a wounded animal will often head for a water source. If you’re hunting familiar territory, think about places that animals have gone in the past when hit. A few years ago, I was helping a friend track a wounded deer in South Carolina. After hundreds of yards, we lost the blood trail but were able to follow his tracks in the mud. Eventually, those tracks ran out in an open area. We knew that he would not bed down in the open so we borrowed a Labrador retriever and headed for the thickest cover around—sure enough, that’s where we found him dead.   

9. Be persistent—Tracking can take time, but don’t give up. I have tracked wounded whitetails for six to eight hours before ultimately finding the animal. Even if your search is unsuccessful, you’ll know that you gave it your best effort if you exhaust every possibility. You owe it to the animal and you owe it to yourself.    

10. Be safe, Be legal—It’s not uncommon to “jump” a wounded animal when tracking. Be sure to know the location of every person in your group at all times in case a follow-up shot is necessary. If the animal crosses a property boundary, mark the location and contact the landowner before proceeding. 

If you keep calm, use your head and stay persistent, your chances of finding a wounded game animal can increase dramatically.

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15 Responses to Tips for Tracking an Animal’s Blood Trail

Rick D wrote:
September 30, 2012

Continued.... Beyond the obvious useage, it is a very valuable tracking tool. Placing a small piece (1/4 sheet) directly on each blood drop will not only point you in the direction of travel, but after you have walked in circles and get disoriented, you simply follow it right back to the start point. As someone stated earlier, unlike survey ribbon, TP will be gone with the next rain shower. I just tracked my first bow kill of the season earlier today. Unfortunately (?), the Muzzy MX3 made such a bloody mess that the TP wasn't required on the 30 yd track.

Rick D wrote:
September 30, 2012

I too never hit the woods without a ziplock bag of folded , wipe sized, white toilet paper.

Bill wrote:
March 06, 2012

I live in Louisiana where we have alot of water, anyway, but I have noticed that a high percent of my wounded animals, hogs and deer, head for the closest stream, perhaps because they are burning from the wound. We have found several in the water.

em wrote:
March 04, 2012

hey randy, you need to read your hunting rules and regs, dogs are allowed in nys but they have to be licenced tracking dogs, and there is a whole seperate set of rules regulating the tracking of wounded annimals!

anthony wrote:
February 24, 2012

I have tracked many deer in my hunting career and have a few basic rules for tracking deer with little blood Get low and scan the ground for disturbed leaves or branches a running deer leaves a heavy trail if you don't get too anxious this ability is easily acquired . Deep prints,dragging marks,leaves flipped dark side up old logs with fresh wood exposed. blood drops can be 3 feet high on grass or limbs mark your spot with orange tape on a branch 3 feet off the ground as often as necessary then scan 10 to 20 yards looking back at previous marks establishing a path all ways thinking the deer favors water and level or downhill slopes. I use these marks for final egress never getting lost in rain or unfamiliar areas and gather my markers for the next deer.

Larry D wrote:
February 23, 2012

I agree wwith Ben A;I hit a big 8 pointer with arrow. The arrow went right thru with blood from pt. to feathers. After tracking blood for a few hours, he crossed a brook, and then no more blood. I sat down off the trail fgor a few minutes. Once I cooled off, I came back to the toilet paper trail. Ass I looked back, I noticed the deer had zigged zagged quite a bit until he crossed the brook. The he went straight for some 50 yards when no more blood appeared. Well, since he now went straight, so did I, and found the buck dead only some 30 yards further, from the last drop of blood...

Ben A wrote:
February 23, 2012

I take a roll of toilet paper with me. As I track I tear off a few sheets and hang them on a limb. You can always look back and see if your still on track. Also toilet paper dissolves with rain.

Dan wrote:
February 23, 2012

If you have a buddy, walk side by side looking for the next blood drop. Often it is very small sign. Look back frequently to see if there is a travel pattern, then look ahead to try to predict where the deer might go. Don't let anyone walk ahead of you. Mark your last sign with your arrow or orange hat. When you find the next sign, move the marker. In most cases, your deer will follow an established trail.

Carl wrote:
February 21, 2012

When you think you've exhausted all possibilities, take a long break and think of what you may have missed. It never fails that I think of something I should have tried after I'm miles away at home. Sit a stump, smoke 'em if you've got 'em, and start over with a clear head. And don't forget that a doe deserves the same respect in recovery efforts as any buck...imho.

Ben wrote:
February 21, 2012

If you get stuck, look for woods and water. A deer with a mortal wound will usually bed down near water or under a thicket/log. Don't give up. I put a bad shot on a big doe after my copper sabot caught a branch and deflected a good shot to a gut shot. It took two miles and two days to find her (in the snow, under a log), but we got her - and enjoyed jerky and burger for weeks.

Owen wrote:
February 21, 2012

Patience is the best term to use when tracking.Here is a list to consider: 1.The determination on how long to track is up to the individual.The author stated that he tracked from 6:8 hrs before finding the animal. 2.Mark your trail.Use markers like the one's that are used to identify cable or gas lines. These are small, portable,light weight wire flags to help identify the last sign. 3.Track in small areas and segments at a time with small steps,utilize not only your eyes but you're nose and ears.4.Designate the primary tracker when tracking with others.This person will regulate and direct other team members where and when to go. These are only suggestions. Happy Hunting

Dennis Mackley wrote:
February 19, 2012

I also use the compass to take a bearing on the last sight of the deer as it disappeared. On average that is about 50 - 60 yards away from the treestand. I take note of a tree or deadfall that is a handy reference. If at times there is very little or no blood at the hit I will walk the 50 or sixty yards following my compass bearing. Most often when I get to where the deer went out of sight I will see it laying usually not much more than 20 or 30 yards away. It seems that the blood really starts to get heavy after the first 30 yards or so. I also wait a minimum of 45 minutes after each shot before getting down out of the tree with the exception if I see the animal go down. This comes from 44 years hunting deer with the bow.

randy wrote:
February 19, 2012

How silly! Not in the Adirondacks. NO dogs allowed. Have to use experience. If its close to dark you might have to punt until morning. Waiting time is critical depending whether southern zone or northern zone. Learn to determine blood color and differences in vitals of the blood. Anyway, big difference in where you hunt.

Dan convertino wrote:
January 11, 2012

Everyone has a cellphone with a camera. Take a pic of the direction you last saw the deer. This can help especially from a tree stand where your viewing angle is significantly different

Bill wrote:
January 04, 2012

Concentrate on watching the animal as it runs away after the shot and use a compass to take a reading on the last place you could see it - pick a tree or other land feature. Mark your shooting location with surveyors tape and follow that compass reading to the place of the last animal sighting. Look for tracks and/or blood and follow. You can always go back to your original location because of the surveyor tape if you need to double check tracks/blood/compass reading. Hopefully, you may be able to easily follow tracks/blood from where the animal was shot. If not, the above procedure usually puts you pretty far along the animal's trail.