FRANKFORT – I got lucky with my first deer. I took a shot with my .243 rifle and the deer ran straight towards my tree stand, dropping 20 yards away. That early dose of beginner’s luck was just what I needed to build my confidence and bring me back for my next hunt. But as I get ready for my fifth deer season, I’ve learned just how rare that scenario really is.
Even the best shots often result in the need to track a deer. A lethally shot deer can run 100 yards or more, leaving the hunter to pick through thick brush in search of tiny drops of blood. Avoid common mistakes and follow these guidelines to make deer tracking easier this season.
“The first big mistake people make is not paying very careful attention to where the deer was standing when they shot it,” said Tina Brunjes, a long-time deer hunter and big game program coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The second thing they do is jump right down after they shoot the deer and go after it.”
Immediately after you take a shot, memorize the spot where the deer stood by identifying trees or other landmarks close by. If bowhunting, you may even want to shoot a blunt-tipped arrow into the ground where the deer stood. The landscape looks different from the ground than it does from a tree stand.
Brunjes gets down from her stand soon after she shoots a deer – but she doesn’t begin tracking right away.
"Usually I come straight down and go to where the deer was standing,” she said. “I look at what I’m dealing with. I’m looking for evidence that I hit the deer, like blood and hair. Then I wait. I give the deer 30 to 45 minutes.”
Hunters who begin to track immediately risk pushing an injured deer farther into the woods. A well-hit deer may lie down soon after the shot, but it could jump up and run if it feels threatened by an approaching hunter.
Hunters should begin tracking from the spot where the deer was hit after waiting for a time.
“If you’re lucky there will be a blood trail and you can follow it; but you have to really search for those drops,” Brunjes said. “What you don’t want to do is just take off in the direction you think the deer went and stomp all over that trail. Follow it as closely and carefully as possible.”
Mark each drop you find with flagging tape, toilet paper wrapped around weeds or small limbs, or anything else you have in your pack that will stay put. If you lose the trail, you can return to your last marked place and begin again. If you’re having trouble finding the next drop, walk in increasingly large circles, like a bull’s-eye, around the last place that you found a drop.
The shape of a blood drop can tell you a lot. If the drop is round, that means the deer was standing still. But if the drop is teardrop-shaped, that means the deer was moving. The pointed end of the teardrop will point in the direction the deer traveled. Keep in mind the drops may be spread out quite a bit. Be patient. Also remember you must have permission to cross onto another landowner’s property if the track leaves the farm or wildlife management area where you are hunting.
Lastly, before you go afield be sure to pack a few things that will make deer tracking easier. Brightly colored flagging tape is a tremendous help in marking a trail. Some kind of light is a necessity in case you have to track at night. If you’re not familiar with the terrain you are hunting, consider taking a map, compass or GPS, since tracking a deer can take you much farther into unknown territory.
Kentucky’s statewide archery deer season is going on now. Youth-only firearms weekend is coming up Oct. 10-11, and early muzzleloader season is Oct. 17-18. For complete hunting regulations, pick up a copy of the 2009-10 Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide, available at fw.ky.gov and wherever hunting licenses are sold. Hunters should also be sure to visit fw.ky.gov to print an updated page 3 of the guide. The updated page clarifies equipment regulations for holders of valid concealed carry deadly weapon permits.
Author Hayley Lynch is an award-winning writer and associate editor for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. She loves deer hunting, shotgun sports and introducing women to the outdoors.