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
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.'
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
| 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
| Top of
| Very coarse, hollow, long dark gray hair with
black tips. Shorter than spine hair.|
| Ham Hair
|| Very coarse, medium length, and dark gray with
| Lower Leg
| Coarse, medium to short in length, gray to brown
in color with dark tips.|
| Hair Between
| Not hollow, very fine, white and silky, and also
|| 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
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
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
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
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