Every hunter hopes for the ideal day in the field. The chosen trophy arrives at the perfect location, and stands still providing a broad-side target within the effective range of the hunter’s bow, cross-bow, shotgun or rifle. The shot is taken professionally, and the projectile strikes for a solid heart impact.
The buck jumps, kicks, runs about 25 yards downslope, and then noisily collapses next to your ATV path (I did say “ideal”). An hour later, you are hanging the beast back at the camp. And sometimes it is that easy. Sometimes it is more harvesting than hunting.
Alas, there are other days when you will need to be aware of best practices in tracking a wounded deer. By carefully and patiently following well-established guidance, you may end the day with a rack for the wall and meat for the freezer. You may end the day satisfied that you have not left a game animal to suffer.
Your preparation starts before heading to the field. You will want to understand the topography of your stand or hunting location. All other factors being equal, wounded deer tend to head downhill and towards a water source.
Whether you use a paper copy of a USGS quad map or a digitized mapping system in your GPS device or phone, you will want to know the lay of the land. It is also helpful if you have a GPS unit on which you can enter the stand location, the wounding location and your search paths. It is a good idea to have flagging tape in your pack, which will let you look back on your stand location and the spot where the arrow or bullet hit the prey.
On these days, the hunt does not end with the squeezing of the arrow release or the trigger. You need to be prepared to watch and listen carefully after your shot. While it is all the fashion on You Tube hunts to immediately shout and pat each other on the back and such, you are missing key clues by doing this.
Instead, watch closely. Where did the arrow or bullet strike? How did the deer react? If he jumped and kicked and took off, this was likely a vital shot. Where did the buck or doe disappear from sight? Note a specific feature at that point of disappearance. Listen intently to the noise of the attempted escapee. Is the deer having trouble running? Did it sound like it collapsed not far away?
This is when you have to fight your adrenaline, which is telling you to go find that deer. Unless you can clearly see the dead prey, you need to wait at least 30 minutes before pursuing. You may need to wait much longer.
Use this time to let your skilled-tracker buddies know that you may need their help. Use this time to find the number for a tracking dog service. Check the weather forecast, and refresh your memory on when sundown is coming.
During this first 30 minutes, quietly approach the wounding point and search for clues. If using a bow, did the arrow pass through, and what type of blood is present? Is there a heavy trail of blood, or just the very occasional drop? Is there hair present? If so, what kind of hair (from where on the animal)?
If you have evidence of a good lung shot (bright, frothy blood) or heart shot (rich, red blood), you can begin your search 30 minutes after the shot. Such deer tend to run a short distance, collapse and expire rather quickly.
Follow the trail blood and other indicators as far as you can, flagging or GPS-plotting your last point. If you lose the trail, work a circular pattern at about a 30-foot (10 paces) radius around the last sign in hopes of again cutting sign. Increase your radius by 10 feet and repeat the process. If your deer was indeed struck in the heart or lungs, you should find it within 100 yards of the wounding location.
Animals hit in the kidney/liver (dark crimson blood) or general gut (blood with plant foods or greenish yellow highlights) will require a much longer time to pass, and will retain an ability to flush and run if you pursue too early. For these deer, you want to wait 4-5 hours in an ideal situation.
However, you need to adapt to your particular situation. If a heavy rain or deep snow is expected, you best track before the bad weather gets there. If you do not have the luxury of possibly returning the next day and you are running out of light, you can bend the wait time guidance. If there are a lot of coyotes nearby, you must adjust accordingly.
Even if you do everything right, you may not find your deer. This is when you need to set aside your pride, and ask for help. The more eyes on the landscape, the better your odds. Draft your friends to help.
You may also get to the point where you fear for the condition of the meat. This could be due to unseasonably warm temperatures in archery season, or nightfall arriving in gun season.
Luckily, tracking dogs are legal (as of 2018) in Pennsylvania to search for wounded prey. These dogs are generally trained to trail based on blood scent, and they have proven successful when human searches have failed. The hounds must remain leashed at all times.
A good resource is your local game warden or the website of United Blood Trackers ( https://www.unitedbloodtrackers.org/find-a-tracker/). The website allows you to enter a zip code to receive a map of the closest tracker dog services. As an example, Wellsboro hunters might call trackers in Coudersport, Stevensville or Owego, N.Y.
These providers know the rules. On state and federal property, the trackers are not allowed to charge for their services, but donations are always welcome. It is best to set expectations for everybody before the trackers make the drive to your location. Nobody can or will offer you a guaranteed recovery, but your odds will increase significantly with canine assistance.
No ethical hunter wants to see wanton waste from the non-recovery of a wounded or dead deer. No hunter wants to leave a trophy rack unclaimed in the woods for the porcupines and squirrels to gnaw. By following these best practices, a hunter can greatly increase their odds of hauling out a deer at the end of the day.