The hunt doesn’t end when you let that arrow fly. In fact, the moment you finally get that opportunity and make the shot is when a new hunt begins, and this one is for all the marbles. There is no celebration, after all, until the animal is recovered. Bad shots happen. Hunt long enough and eventually fate seems to conspire against you. A twig appears out of nowhere. The deer jumps the string or turns as you re- lease the arrow. Or it could be as simple as just making a bad shot. Nobody likes the feeling – that emptiness in the pit of your stomach kind of feeling – that comes when you see your arrow hit slightly off from where you were aiming. That’s when you have your work cut out for you if you want to recover that deer.
Heck, even a great hit can sometimes pro- duce a sketchy blood trail, and if you’re not prepared with the right tools and the right mindset, frustration can settle in and you can fail to recover an animal. But there are a few tools you can carry in your hunting pack to help you stay focused and make that recovery easier.
REFLECTIVE TAPE AND TACKS
Every hunting pack needs space in it re- served for a roll of flagging or a box of trail marking tacks. I’m especially fond of reflective tape for tracking wounded deer at night. I don’t skimp when using this tape, either. I mark the spot where I find first blood, and usually every few yards after that. Whether you use tape or tacks, just be sure to collect them all after the trailing job is complete and dispose of them properly.
A HANDS-FREE LIGHT
A good headlamp is worth its weight in gold on a blood trail at night. It’s so convenient to have your hands available to move brush aside or pick up leaves to ex- amine them for blood. I carry a headlamp that can be switched from a floodlight to a spotlight, and I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a bright light. Blood can be hard enough to see during the daytime, and a poor light at night only makes it that much tougher. And don’t forget to pack a spare set of batteries.
Even though I prefer a headlamp, I still car- ry a quality pocket flashlight as a backup. You never know when a light is going to stop working. If you aren’t prepared, your night is done until morning or until you can retrieve a new light.
BLOOD TRAILING LIGHT
A dedicated blood trailing light can also be helpful when trailing wounded game. There are several makes and models of blood trailing lights on the market, including the Primos Bloodhunter HD which re- tails for around $90.00. But you can also find more affordable models online for one-third that price. Just be sure to do some research and read reviews before purchasing any off brands. I always make sure that the product I’m buying has been used and reviewed by other hunters.
I’ve even used my smartphone to help me track and recover deer. Apps such as onX Hunt and Hunt Stand offer mapping features that can be extremely valuable when following a blood trail. First, the maps are a great way to learn the terrain features around you and help you predict where the deer might go. You can add an unlimited number of waypoints so that there is absolutely no guessing about where you found last blood. Second, each app offers tracking software that shows where you have already walked. When trailing a deer, it’s easy to get turned around and lose track of your exact whereabouts, but it can also be deceiving in terms of distance. Many times, I’ve felt like I’ve followed a blood trail a lot farther than I have, and checking the app on my phone helps put that distance in perspective.
Even in areas with poor or no reception, I often download maps ahead of time. That way I have them in case I lose blood and eventually need to resort to a grid search.
ELECTRONIC TRACKING DEVICES
Over the years, numerous products have come and gone that were designed to at- tach an electronic tracking device onto an animal’s hide upon arrow impact. Some of them have done well, and some of them are still around and manufacturing products. But they’re not cheap. A quality tracking system can cost upwards of $600. Of course, there’s a lot of red tape involved with using these systems, and they’re not legal in every state or even in every town- ship within each state, so be sure to do your research and know the laws before investing in one of these systems.
Thermal imagining is another pricey tool that has value on a blood trail. FLIR, which stands for Forward Looking Infrared Radar, is at the forefront of this technology with products that range from hundreds of dol- lars to thousands. Perhaps the best application for this product is actually locating the deer, not necessarily for following a blood trail. Weather and temperatures can play a role in how it detects blood, but I’ve read numerous reviews that claim these products detected a dead deer from over a hundred yards away. I’m sure there are scenarios when thermal imaging might come in handy, but once again, be sure to check local and state game laws before using one.
One of the most important things I’ve learned about tracking wounded game, and especially if it’s a difficult trail, is that frequent breaks and snacks help you stay fresh and focused. If you feel yourself get- ting frustrated, stop and take a break. It’s not a race or a competition. Eat a granola bar, drink some Gatorade, and take a moment to think through your next steps.
Although products such as thermal im- aging and electronic tracking devices can help you recover wounded game, it’s often the simple things that make the biggest difference on any blood trail. Making sure a few general items are in your hunting pack, such as flagging and a quality light, and a good dose of common sense can help you successfully recover any animal.
There’s no better way to kick off a deer season than with a harvest. It’s a mood changer, a confidence booster, and it feels great to have fresh backstraps on the table. But if we want that meat to be as good as it can be, we have to take care of it in the time between the kill and the processing of the animal.
With archery seasons in many states open or about to open, it’s a challenge to keep the animal cool, but the first step to great-tasting venison is a quick recovery. Unless you’re unsure of the shot or have reason to believe you need to wait to begin tracking, get on the trail as soon as ethically possible. For a lung-shot deer, that usually means about 30 minutes. Ultimately, though, the decision is yours. Only you know how comfortable you are with the shot. In hot weather, it can be a race against time. At temperatures be- tween 70 and 120 degrees F, bacterial growth can double every 20 minutes.
Considering that a living deer’s natural body temperature hovers right around 101 degrees, bacterial action can spoil the meat quickly. The gut cavity is the warmest part of a big game animal, and it can stay warm long after the animal has expired. This can negatively impact certain cuts of meat, such as the tenderloin if the animal is not field-dressed immediately upon recovery.
When air temperatures are above 50 degrees, you have approximately 3 to 6 hours to recover a deer after it expires be- fore the meat begins to taint. This means that the task of getting that harvest from field to table starts as soon as you let that arrow fly. Pay attention to where the ar- row hits and how the deer reacts, and you’ll know when to start the recovery process.
Getting to Work
I love taking photos of my kills. Nothing brings back the memory or feel of a hunt, for me, like a quality photograph. To get those in-the-field shots we all enjoy, I carry a tripod in my truck and set my camera on self-timer. I don’t always have time to wait until a buddy shows up to get start- ed. Once I’ve gotten a couple good photos, I get to work dressing out the animal.
If a creek or other water source is near- by, I rinse out the body cavity with clean water. Washing out blood can be just as important as removing the vitals, and the cooler temperature of the water lowers the temperature within the cavity. During deer season, I always make sure I have a small bucket and a few old rags in my truck just for these occasions.
Where you hunt and whether you have access to a four-wheeler can make quick work of getting the deer out of the woods. With such conveniences, it can be easy to take some things for granted, but keep in mind that minutes make a difference, and bacteria doesn’t magically stop multiplying the second you load the deer into the truck or get it back to your garage.
One of the first things I do after loading the deer into the truck bed is find a stick long enough so that I can prop open the cavity and allow air to circulate and cool the meat. Once again, this is where most issues with spoiling begin, and time can slip away when you’re excited about a kill. Many times, I’ve been surprised to find that it’s early afternoon by the time I finally get a deer back to my house, even though I shot it shortly after daybreak and made a quick recovery. I just don’t drag deer out of the woods as fast as I used to when I was younger.
Many of the places I hunt are at least an hour’s drive from home, sometimes farther. I fill and freeze gallon-sized milk jugs or 2-liter bottles with water and throw them in a cooler before I leave for hunting. The solid block of ice will stay frozen hard for several hours and buy you more than enough time until you can get home to hang and skin the deer. You’re not
done yet, though. As the carcass begins to cool, bacterial growth slows down, but it’s not until the temperature of the meat drops below 40 degrees that you’re safe from spoilage, so it’s important to remove the hide as soon as possible and keep the meat dry. Moisture accelerates bacterial activity. Most meat experts recommend not spraying out the chest cavity or rinsing off the meat unless you’re planning to refrigerate it right away.
Ego in Check
It can be tempting, after killing a mature buck, to go on a “brag drive” to show all your friends. All I can say is: resist! It’s a great ego boost, and a proud moment indeed, but the risk is too great in warm weather. After all, as long as the skin is still on the carcass, the meat can stay warm for hours after the animal has expired.
I’ve known hunters who lost their deer even in cold weather because they drove around to show everyone their prize with- out realizing that the sun beating down on the cap on their truck was turning the inside into an oven. Even in an open bed, sunlight can cause damage. For years, I worked in a taxidermy shop and was heartbroken to see the condition of some of the deer that guys brought into the shop for mounts. Areas around the eyes, lips, and nose are fragile and susceptible to hair slippage, and it’s important to take care of the skin to ensure a quality mount.
Having a Plan
For the best results, getting venison from the field to the table requires a plan. Being prepared with items such as a bucket, rags, and jugs of frozen water make the task easier. But it’s also other things, such as knowing beforehand how you’ll get the deer out of the woods, which locker plant to take it to, or freeing up the time to pro- cess the meat if you like to do it yourself. In warm weather, every minute counts, but a good plan can help you make sure that meat will taste delicious.