Tracking Downed Game

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Learn important tracking techniques to successfully retrieve your game each and every time

We owe it to animals we hunt to follow up as best we can on the shots we take. There are no second shots with bow hunting, so make the first one count and follow up with a solid tracking routine: collecting and analyzing clues, waiting, following the trail and making proper, thought-out decisions along the way.


The moment of truth

The moment of truth is what separates the hunter from the target shooter – an arrow is launched at a living animal. It is unfortunate the moment isn’t longer because there’s much to do during this critical period, such as watching your arrow impact, listening, observing animal behaviour and marking key locations.

After shooting, watching the arrow fly, to see the point of impact, is key when deciding if your shot was lethal or not. Was it on target? How far did the arrow penetrate? How did the animal react? If the animal ran off, can you still see the arrow in it? Which way did it go and where was it standing to begin with? What did you hear? All these questions need answers.

As far as hitting the mark goes, the lungs are the biggest organ and will end an animal’s life quickly. This is the same with a heart shot. Liver shots, although lethal, aren’t as quick. Replay the shot in your mind to determine where the arrow struck and what organs, if any, were likely cut. Secondly, what did the arrow sound like if and when it hit the animal? A thump, echo-like, light sound will resonate if the arrow entered through the rib cage. A loud smack sound will be heard if you hit bone, similar to that of your arrow embedding in a tree. And, if you hit too far back in the paunch (guts), you’ll hear a hollow pop, teamed with a whooshing sound.

Arrow penetration is also a key factor. On small animals like deer, sheep and antelope, penetrating half of your arrow length will be sufficient. On larger, mature animals, you’ll want the arrow buried up to the fletchings. Pass-through shots are nerve wracking because the visual confirmation of the arrow in the animal doesn’t exist and doubt tends to creep into the hunter’s mind. Fortunately, analysis discussed later ends this misery.

Animal reaction is different from shot to shot, animal to animal and species to species. Deer tend to be the jumpiest of all species, while most others don’t move until the arrow hits them. I’ve had animals do many things: simply look up, do nothing, run as fast as they could or trot a few steps and go back to feeding. It all depends on what your arrow cut for tissue. In most cases, running is the result. However, if you see an animal bolt like lighting for a short distance but then slow down to a trot, that’s a good sign of a lethal hit. For whitetail deer, a general rule of thumb is tail up, non-lethal; tail down, lethal.

Listening is most important element after shooting an animal. Listen for the sounds of the direction and speed of travel the animal has taken, for branches breaking, moaning or steps. A common occurrence is animals sprinting short distances, less than 100 metres, and then slowing down or stopping. But keep listening – a big crash followed by repetitive sounds, as the animal kicks a few last times, or silence is a great melody. What you don’t want to hear is timber breaking, but the distance getting further away without stopping or slowing down. Healthy animals will plow through anything to escape danger, while wounded animals go slower and navigate around obstructions quietly.

Don’t forget to keep watching while you listen. I once shot a moose and it dashed out of sight and silence set in for five minutes until I saw it walking slowly again before it vanished once again into the trees. I stayed put, listening intently, and heard a crash a few minutes later as it tipped over. As expected, I followed the blood trail and found a pool of blood where the bull stood momentarily after his initial sprint but then continued onward.

You’ll need to note the following locations: where you took the shot from, where the animal was and where it fled – specifically! You’ll need these locations soon afterwards, to investigate further. After your heart stops beating through your chest, record the exact time of the shot. You’ll now have plenty of time to replay the shot in your mind as you wait a bit to regain your composure.

All the clues stated above must be considered together, not just one by itself. The first bull moose I ever shot happened as follows: my arrow hit low with poor penetration, only 20 centimetres, and it just stood there, stunned. Soon afterwards, he started walking slowly into the trees but I could see the arrow twitching rhythmically, concluding a heart shot. I waited patiently and heard trees breaking followed by a few seconds of heavy breathing. No arrow can kill instantly, but in this case I knew the bull was dead, so I waited only a couple of minutes before taking up the trail. Fifteen minutes is plenty of time to wait before taking up the blood trail on lethal shots, but depending on your clues you may want to wait longer. I like to go investigate the point of impact as soon as possible, to gather more information found on the arrow.


Finding the arrow

The next step is to find your arrow. Start at the point of impact, which you recorded earlier. Try to find the tracks of the animal where it stood when you shot it. Remembering how the animal stood and what angle you shot it at, look for your arrow by first checking around or just past this location. With a pass-through, the arrow should be stuck in the ground, fully coated with blood or other internal animal matter. Also look for hair and blood, hopefully finding short hairs that have been cut by your arrow, with blood on them. If you can’t find your arrow at the point of impact, follow the tracks or blood carefully to where you lost sight of the animal, looking for the arrow with each step. Try not to step on the blood or tracks.

Upon finding your arrow, inspect it. Is it intact? How much is covered in blood? What color is the blood? Light red blood, possibly with small bubbles, means a lung hit; deep red means liver. Are there stomach contents on the arrow or does it have a foul smell? This signifies a gut shot. Do these answers confirm the shot details and the animal reaction you remember?

Up until this point, you’ve simply been gathering information in the same proximity as where you made the shot, but it’s now time to make a decision – do I wait or do I take up the trail? Every situation is different and you’ll have to your make your decision based upon the information you have to date. If you’re in doubt, back out and wait or go get help, if feasible. If bad weather is on the horizon, you may have no choice but to proceed to have the best chance at tracking blood. Lethal shots should kill an animal in a few minutes, but some need more time to expire. Anything from five to 60 minutes will suffice for good shots. If your information points to a less-than-ideal shot, waiting up to four hours is usually a good idea and for paunch shots a much longer time is needed, depending on the size of the animal.



Tracking in general should be done slowly and quietly with another arrow nocked, or perhaps with a rifle when tracking predators such as bears. As you pursue the trail, listen for laboured breathing or struggling movements. If you hear any, stop and wait longer until they cease. This can be agonizing, but you don’t want to risk jumping the animal and having it run further on adrenaline. Keep looking forward, similar to still hunting, look for bedded animals, ear twitching and any movement – freeze if you see any and wait it out.

Continually analyze the blood trail as you move along. Blood droppings can show direction of travel, which is very important if the animal beds and circles back. How much blood is there? A small, two-year-old deer, weighing approximately 70 kilograms, will have around five litres of blood, but would expire long before losing all of it. Is the blood sprayed, denoting the animal is exhaling blood? Is the amount of blood diminishing or increasing?

Only one drop of blood is required to prove the animal was there and keep tracking. Don’t be afraid to crawl and use flashlights to find the blood drops – many times it’s required. The blood sometimes dries up and starts again, so mark the last blood drop you found with a marker to make it easy to return to. When you find the next drop, move the marker along. Sometimes you’ll go several metres without any blood, meaning you’ve gone the wrong way. Return to the last blood marker and use process of elimination, investigating each possible path, until you discover more evidence like blood, tracks, up-turned leaves or freshly broken twigs or branches.

You may encounter bloody beds, signifying the animal laid down to recover, and it might have, but keep going. I once found seven beds within 50 metres and eventually a dead elk – they don’t want to move far when they’re sick or wounded. Beds can have more clues about timelines, especially if you are tracking an animal that you waited several hours for before taking up the trail. Finding a fresh bed might mean you jumped the animal out of the bed. In this case, you should stop and back out for a few hours, I’d suggest at least four.

Keep note of the general direction of travel while tracking and, if you know the area, where the animal is headed? Is it headed back where it came from, to a familiar bedding area or water? This information could be vital if the blood trail stops but you still believe a lethal shot was made. If and when this situation occurs, I first follow all the paths of least resistance, most likely a game trail, from the last known blood drop. Many times, animals go on a death march where they travel slowly, not feeling well, until they simply collapse. Sick animals don’t feel like exerting extra energy so they follow familiar game trails. As a last resort, I’ll walk back and forth, expanding out in a cone-like pattern in the general direction of travel from the last blood in hopes of finding more evidence to follow or the animal itself.


Accepting defeat

It happens sometimes – you don’t recover the animal. You put forth the effort, but you couldn’t find it or perhaps you found it but after the scavengers beat you to it and devoured it. How much time or how far should you travel before accepting defeat? How far is enough? At a minimum, searching for at least 24 hours after you made a shot seems fair. At that point, depending on temperature, the meat is starting to spoil and you’re really just seeking closure. Personally, I’ve crawled for almost a kilometre, over two different days, tracking a black bear that I never did recover. On the other hand, I once gut shot an elk and backed out for 24 hours before tracking him a mere 600 metres through several beds. I’ve been involved in recovering double-lung shot animals that travelled nearly 300 metres, some with blood and some without.

Following up on every shot is necessary. Gathering the most information possible helps you make the best decisions on how to proceed. Adding to that information as you track the animal helps you to arrive at a happy place – either taking pictures with your quarry or knowing you did your best to retrieve it.


Tip: Avoid losing sight of a shot animal

If you remained undetected after shooting an animal, immediately try communicating with the animal by calling. If you’re hunting bulls in the rut, some pleading cow calls may keep the animal in sight until it falls over – avoiding the task of tracking all together.

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