The fact that more and more states are allowing the use of deer tracking dogs is not just a good thing; it’s a triply good things. First, it means that a whole lot more hunters are fixing tags to deer they might not have found on their own. Second, those deer aren’t going to waste. And third, the increased use of tracking dogs has expanded our knowledge of how arrows and bullets kill or wound whitetails, the behavior of deer in the aftermath of a hit, and what hunters can do themselves, without the need of a dog, to recover more deer.

Think about it. If your entire knowledge of how to recover hit deer was limited to the number of animals you personally shoot each year, your database would be pretty small. But deer tacking pros follow scores of trails every fall, gathering more information every time. And best of all, most deer trackers are perfectly willing to share their expertise.

With that in mind, we talked to Joseph Tenney, owner of Creek Side Tracking and Shon Butler, owner of Longspur Tracking and Outfitting. While Tenney works at tracking deer with a bloodhound in his spare time, he still covered nearly 40 bucks last year. Butler, on the other hand, is a full-time deer tracker and breeder/trainer of deer tracking dogs. Last fall, he and his dogs were on the trails of close to 100 deer. The combined experience of these two men, and their dogs, can teach us all a lot about what to do before and after a shot. Here are some of their thoughts and observations.

1. Study Deer Anatomy

It should probably go without saying that if you want to hit a deer in the vitals, you should know exactly where those vitals are. But even if you think you know, it’s a good idea to study deer anatomy a little closer to be sure, because according to Butler, there are some misconceptions among hunters on this seemingly basic point.

“It’s pretty amazing to me how little many hunters know about the vital areas to kill a deer,” he told F&S. “You can Google deer anatomy now and find dozens of charts and graphs that are, for the most part, highly accurate. They paint a clear picture of where an arrow or bullet has to go to result in a mortally-hit buck. Still, every year I have hunters say they lost a buck because their arrow went into ‘no-man’s land’. I’m here to tell you that there is no such thing. There is the chest cavity, the spine, and the backstrap. There is no mythical spot within the ribcage that an arrow can slip through without hitting something vital. I think that ‘no-man’s land’ or the “dead zone” is just something hunters tell themselves so they don’t have to admit they just shot too high.”

2. Play the Angles for Easy Deer Tracking

photo of hunter in treestand
The angle related to how far above or below a deer you are matters just as much as the angle the deer is facing. Hoyt

Just about ever hunter knows at least to some degree that shot angle matters—that you need to aim farther back on a quartering-away buck, for example, than you would on a perfectly broadside buck. But hunters could stand to pay even more attention to this, especially when it come to vertical angles, which too often get overlooks. “Hunters in general should focus just as much on where an arrow or bullet will exit as they do on where it will enter. For example, if you’re shooting from an elevated tree stand or ground blind and the deer is close, a high hit is likely going to angle down and into the vitals. But that same hit from a ground blind might be too high and non-fatal. The difference is the angle. Before you choose where to aim for the entry, also imagine the exit hole.”

3. Don’t Think Your Crossbow Is a Rifle

The growing use of crossbows has shown the deer tracking pros things they’d never seen prior to their popularity. “I’m not saying they’re not deadly, because they certainly can be,” Butler said. “But too many hunters who have never bowhunted before pick up a crossbow, look at that scope and the trigger, and think they’re holding a rifle in their hands. They most certainly are not. That crossbow shoots a light, short bolt that loses energy in a hurry. The ranges and shot choices crossbow shooters make should be almost the same as those a vertical bow hunter.”

Tenney agrees and notes something else that has surprised him about crossbows. “I’ve learned to not trust the evidence–or lack of it–that you find on a crossbow bolt after the shot,” he said. “Bowhunters typically study their arrow on a pass-through and look for tell-tale clues about where they hit the deer. But some of these crossbow bolts are going through the deer so fast they’re virtually wiped clean of sign. I’ve had several where I was convinced the hunter had missed and then walked a bit and suddenly there’s blood everywhere. I’ve learned to be patient on crossbow hits and just keep studying the area until I find whatever blood is available.”

4. When In Doubt, Back Out 

If there’s a cardinal sin in any deer tracking expert’s book, it’s hunters who simply don’t wait long enough before taking up the blood trail. “The best call I can receive is from a hunter who says ‘I know I made a bad shot, so I backed out and haven’t taken up the trail yet,’” Tenney told F&S. “That’s the ideal, because I can get better detail about where the hunter thinks the shot was and how the deer behaved after. Then we can come up with the best plan, which may mean waiting 12 to 24 hours.”

Many hunters worry that high coyote numbers should push them to trail more quickly, but Tenney disagrees. “Time is often the only difference between finding a buck and not,” he said. “Most bow- or crossbow-hit bucks have no idea what happened to them. They just feel sick and lie down. But if you bump them from that first bed, the adrenaline kicks in and they know a predator is on their trail. A mature buck will turn into Superman. Even in areas where coyotes are abundant, I advocate waiting. If you go early and jump that deer, he’s just laying down more scent and sign for coyotes to find.”

5. Stay Calm and Be Analytical

We all get buzzed on adrenaline and a whole cocktail of other emotions during and after a shot. Deer trackers understand and appreciate this, but urge hunters to do their best to master the emotion and remain as analytical as possible. Where did the arrow strike the deer? What was the buck’s reaction to the shot? Where exactly did he go, and how quickly did he get there? The better we become at answering these questions, the higher the likelihood of formulating a solid plan for recovering the deer.

Butler stressed the importance of this so much that he has started keeping track of the difference between hunters’ accounts of their shots and what he actually discovers when he visits the site. “I do an in-depth interview with every hunter who calls me and write down his description of the shot,” he said. “I did 1,500 of these last fall, and next year I’m going to keep similar records, and I plan create a chart that illustrates the difference between the hunter’s account and what we find, so that we all can learn from it. Look, I’m a bowhunter and I know that excitement, but the better we can get at really analyzing the shot, the more deer we’ll recover, whether the trail requires a dog or not.”

6. Get Acquainted With Your Area’s Deer Tracking Pros

Knowing the deer trackers in your area and making their acquaintance before the season even starts is always a good idea. “The worst time to find out who your local tracker is is right after you shoot a deer,” Butler says. “Seriously, most of us are happy to take calls ahead of the season and get to know you and where you hunt. We get a lot of calls in the course of a hunting season, and if my phone buzzes and I know the hunter calling, he’ll get preference if I’m busy.”

Tenney agreed. “I’ve actually had just as many successful recoveries by just talking through the what-do-I-do-now? process on the phone as I have bringing my dog in,” he said. “Take a picture of your arrow, and maybe the first blood you find, then send it to me. Just based on that, I can probably determine if you can find the deer on your own, or whether I need to bring my dog. And here’s the thing: I want you to find your deer either way, whether I’m in there with my dog or not.”

7. Remember That Blood Isn’t Everything In Deer Tracking

Another classic way hunters get fooled is by overestimating how much a deer is bleeding. “What hunters think is a lot of blood often isn’t. So don’t get fooled; most deer die from organ failure, not blood loss.”

Furthermore, tracking dogs can trail a wounded deer without much of a blood trail. “We train our dogs to follow interdigital scent, which is secreted from a gland between the hooves,” Butler said. “When a deer is stressed from a wound, that waxy substance will have a different scent that’s produced from the adrenaline. That’s good news for the hunter, because that waxy scent will hold up in even a light rain that would wash blood away.”

8. Don’t Give Up

The number of times both of these deer tracking pros have recovered animals when it seemed all hope was gone is testament that you should not give up too quickly, especially if you believe you a made a good hit. “You see some pretty crazy things,” Butler said. “We were tracking a buck that a guy had hit, and we lost blood and the dog was tracking solely on interdigital scent. Even that seemed to be fading and the dog was struggling; I was ready to pack it in. But I know my dog, and I could tell it was still looking hard. Suddenly the dog got very alert and went toward this brush pile and up jumped the buck. The hunter had his bow and was able get a finishing arrow in him. When we dressed the buck we found the first broadhead, a two-blade, had somehow slipped between one lung and the heart without severely cutting either. Here the guy had made a seemingly perfect shot; the buck should have been dead within 100 yards. Instead it had lived overnight, covered hundreds of yards and had almost gone unrecovered.” Moral of the story. Stick with it, and you may drag home a trophy you thought was lost.

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