Recovering Wounded Animals – Part I
Wounded Game (Always, Sometimes, Usually, Never, Might…???)
If I were to start a sentence describing what wounded game does, the only word I could not use would be Always. You simply cannot say that a wounded animal always does anything. I have heard it all, too. I have heard the experts say that a wounded deer always runs downhill, always has their tail down, always heads for water and ad infinitum. The one thing I can tell you is that wounded game don’t always do anything. I might also add if you believe any of the above, you are going to lose game you should have found.
Through the years, as a hunter and guide, I estimate I have been involved in the trailing of close to 1,000 animals. As somewhat of a student of animals and trailing, I hope I have learned a few things. Two of the things I know I have learned are not to expect anything and not to overlook the obvious. I never take for granted that an animal did something just because it looks as though they did and I also don’t ignore the obvious even thought it is against all odds. Lessons are sometimes hard learned.
Some years ago in the somewhat barren grasslands of Wyoming, I was helping with the trailing of a wounded whitetail buck. We had been following this buck for close to 30-hours in total over two days. For the last four hours, we were working with no blood and few tracks going mostly on intuition. It had reached the point I was watching for birds and hoping we didn’t unravel any more sign. I was ready to quit. We had stopped to rest and rehydrate when my partner, Jay said, "He is dead. That buck is dead and we are within 100-yards of him."
In 30-seconds we walked right to him and he was indeed dead and partially picked clean by scavengers indicating he had been dead for quite a while. The buck had run and walked almost six miles, apparently without stopping. He had gone uphill, downhill and around hills. He had passed by water and waded into water. Three times, he had doubled back on his own tracks and as far as we could tell, not one time had he bedded down. He had simply gone until he could go no further. How Jay knew that deer was dead and close by was simple. He smelled him. He was sitting on a rock several feet higher than I and he could smell him, I could not. A few feet made a difference and had it been up to me, we would have quit the trail and lost that buck.
That buck dispelled every idea that contains the word always. A wounded animal will do whatever it wants and often with no rhyme or reason for doing it. It is with that premise you must begin every recovery effort. Expect nothing. Unless you have a clear blood trail from A-Z and can trail at a fast walk, expect the unexpected.
If you do a lot of hunting, spend, say 57-years at it as I have, you get to track or trail game in just about every type of cover and terrain there is. Yes, snow may make it easier and it may not. Deep leaves can be almost as handy as snow for picking up a faint trail and in the high desert, with scant blood, trailing can be a nightmare. The most valuable of all trailing tools is knowledge. Next, is eyesight and then, sense of smell. For me, even with glasses, my eyesight just is not as good as I would like and I find myself more and more relying on knowledge of game and their habits. I can say, without reservation, every trailing job on wounded game has taught me something.
Where do you begin? For me, there are two types of recovery efforts. There are those in which I am the shooter and there are those in which I am not the shooter. In 99% of the cases where I have been involved, the shooter is the worst at following a trail and many times that includes me. Quite often, they actually ruin a trail by walking on it and moving too fast. They walk past the obvious. Since I now hunt alone all of the time, I must recover all of my own game. I wish it were different. I wish I had a competent lead tracker because I often get too confident on my own game and of my own skill. I move too fast. Fortunately, it has been some time since I have lost a fatally wounded animal. Three years ago, consulting by phone, once in IL and once in TN, I found two whitetail bucks without ever leaving my office chair. I heard the stories, considered the facts and went SWAG. That is, Scientific Wild Ass Guess. Luckily, I was right in both cases. That is true, I did find those bucks but I am not that good.
Hunter Joe shot a buck and it did not fall within sight. I am his friend (guide, whatever). My first step is to get Joe back in the stand. I want him to show me two things. (1) Where the deer was standing when he shot. Before I do anything else, I either confirm or dispel that. (2) Where was the last place he saw the deer. I then, either confirm or dispel that. I do not want Joe on the ground, I want him in the stand until I can nail those two places down.
Now, I am ready to formulate a plan. I have two dots connected: Where the animal was when shot and where he was when last seen. Now Joe can get out of the stand and if he can be convinced to do so, he can go wait at the truck.
It may sound strange but I do not have a direction of travel yet. That can be determined by blood or tracks or scuffed leaves or some positive sign the deer went that way. I cannot just assume he kept going the way he was going when last seen. At this point, he is still moving from panic. He has not yet begun to think…and he may never. Obviously, if it is a heart or double lung shot, he may very well run until he drops or stop, look around and fall over. Just as obviously, if you have a good blood trail, you simply follow the drops.
If it is a long blood trail, oh, by the way, 125-yards is a long blood trail. It will seem like 400-yards. But if it is a long blood trail, you will need to take note of tendencies. What is his tendency in terms of turning? Does he favor turns to the right or left etc.? What about going around obstacles? Again, right or left? Uphill or downhill? Cross fence, (stream, road etc.) or go beside it or under it?
It is important to note these things when you can see the trail because you may need them when you can’t. Always you keep in mind the animal may have changed his mind and his tendency. I mark each change in direction with a large piece of toilet paper, one I can see from some distance. It is biodegradable so I don’t have to go back and retrieve it.
So far we are still trailing using blood on the ground or underbrush, visible sign. In many cases, the blood gets scarce and smaller. That is why we have to move so slowly. Frequently, I have had hunters get upset with me for not moving even when I can see the blood ahead of me. That is fine but I am looking for signs ahead of that before I move. If I can see the blood three "stops" ahead, I can look even further ahead. That is how I have seen quite a few bedded but not dead animals. You can gauge the correct trailing speed with a plastic rabbit. Tie the rabbit to you leg. If you are moving so fast the rabbit falls over, you are walking too fast. I once watched the best trailer/tracker I ever knew stand on one foot, in one spot for 30-minutes. He was "tasting" (his words) the woods. We found our animal, a bear, an hour later within 20-yards of where Dall said he thought it had gone.
Are you getting the idea I regard animal recovery as sometimes mystical? You are damn right it is and I can’t explain it and but I can tell you I have on more than a few occasions told someone exactly where an animal was laying and I had not even been to the scene. I have seen or heard of several other men doing the exact same thing. Mystical yes, magical no. More the result of maybe 10,000 hours of practice and a heaping helping of knowledge of the animal..
Okay. The blood trail is now faint. Our trailing stick, I prefer an old aluminum arrow, is now slowly turning over leaves and lifting low branches. We look for what does not belong. A leaf turned the wrong way does not belong. A scuff mark on a log does not belong. That trail of ants does not belong nor does that fresh mud on the far side of a creek bank. We listen for the unusual. Squirrels and birds are our helpers. In our minds we are now the wounded animal. What would we do? Often on hands and knees, we investigate. Can the most severely wounded animal climb up that steep ridge? You damn betcha! Can an animal shot through both lungs and the top of the heart with a .50 caliber muzzleloader never bleed a drop? Dam straight!
Okay. Enough mysticism, now what works for me then, why and how I apply them.
- Q – How long do you wait before starting to track?
A – I don’t. I do not wait at all if I can help it. I start as soon as I can. However, after 50-yards, I may stop and wait a couple hours. It depends on how severely I deem the animal to be hit. Even with a gut shot, I start as soon as I can. It is when I decide it is a marginal hit and the animal is still bleeding good and traveling strong that I may wait. The more severe the hit, the harder I push. I Do Not want that animal to lie down. I want them up and moving and bleeding, not resting and letting the blood stop flowing. This is especially true of a gut shot. I don’t want the guts plugging the exit hole. I want that animal moving and bleeding and hurting. I must if at all possible, determine the severity of the wound. That is extremely important in terms of how I push an animal. However, I never push an animal at the risk of working the trail too fast. A slow recovery is always better than a fast lose.
- Q – How many people make an ideal trailing party?
A – Maximum of three. Lead trailer, wing trailer and last blood or sign man. Lead makes all the decisions and directs the wing. Wing works behind the lead by a few yards and to one side. He is looking for sign of a turn. Quite often, women make superb wing trackers. Last blood guy just stands at last blood and lines up direction of travel. If he has to be along, this is where the shooter goes.
- Q – Do you often leave animals overnight?
A – Yes, especially when the trail is slight. In most cases, the only thing you accomplish trailing at night is messing up the trail. If I have a lot of clear blood, sure, I’ll keep going. But if it is a weak trail and I haven’t developed it well within 75-yards, mark it and go eat and sleep and be there are sunup.
- Q – Do you take insurance shots at wounded animals when you have no clear shot at a vital spot?
A – Absolutely, every time I can. The more holes, the more blood, the easier the trail.
In part two, I will look at applying some of things I have talked about and how and why I do what I do.
Before I start trailing, I want the shooter in the stand pointing out where the deer was standing when he shot and where he last saw it.