It all happened so quickly. You had an opportunity, took your shot and the deer ran off.

Now what? Go right after it? Wait? Get help? Deer are often lost or found depending on the steps taken in following a blood trail. While every situation is unique, requiring a different approach, there are some general guidelines that apply to most situations and could significantly increase your chances of recovering the animal.

Often the most critical point in following a track is at the beginning. You’re excited. You can’t wait to recover your deer, but this is when the most mistakes are made. Stop, collect yourselves and take your time. Don’t go charging ahead thinking you’ll just walk up on the fallen animal. You might, but if you don’t you’ve already reduced your chances.

Start at the point of impact, even if you have a good idea where the deer went, which you should. This is especially important for bowhunters. Look for clues like hair, blood on the arrow, bone chips or scuff marks, anything that might help determine where the deer was hit and in which direction it went.

For example, if it’s gut-shot, you need to back out immediately and wait at least four hours, six is better and 12 is not too long. Yes, if you leave a deer overnight it’s possible the coyotes will find it. But if you track a paunched deer too soon you will jump it and in all likelihood never recover it.

One person should take the lead, and it should be the most experienced tracker. That means they’re in charge and they go first. Nobody else goes ahead of the lead tracker. Blundering ahead can obliterate potentially valuable clues. Even the lead tracker should follow the trail off to one side rather than walking directly on it, in case you have to double back.

The second person follows the lead tracker and remains at the last blood until instructed to move forward. This helps to keep the track should you temporarily run out of blood and have to explore. Again, only the lead tracker moves forward.

You should also mark the track with something – the job of the second person if there is one. This saves valuable time in picking up the track again if you decide to back out and return later. It also gives you a better sense of the deer’s direction of travel. I find toilet tissue works best. It’s cheap, shows up well and it’s biodegradable so you don’t have to go back and recover it, which you will have to do with flagging tape or other markers. Lay a square down at every blood spot, and hang a few on twigs for better visibility from a distance.

Lights are invaluable for night tracking. In my 40-plus years of tracking I’ve found nothing works better than a Coleman lantern. Most folks don’t carry one in their field pack so a good flashlight is often your best option. And because you don’t know how long you’ll be on the track, you should carry a spare and some extra batteries. I always carry a headlamp and small handheld light, both powered by lithium batteries. They weigh only a few ounces but will light up the night.

While the lead tracker is looking intensely down at the forest floor for blood, others can be looking ahead for obvious blood or even the deer. Just remember you’re looking, not walking ahead. Also, you should be moving quietly. This may allow you to get close enough for a follow-up shot, if during the day; or to locate the deer without running it off.

If you run out of blood, don’t panic. Look around and try to predict which way the deer went. Looking back down your marked trail will help. Crouch down to a deer’s eye level – about four feet – to see what they saw. They will often, though not always, follow a trail. If you’ve been on the track for any distance you will have probably recognized whether they are or not. Also look for other signs of the deer like fresh tracks, kicked-over moss, freshly broken branches.

With a little practice you can often dry-track a deer for some distance before picking up blood again. While doing so, remember to stay off to one side of the track.

Beyond deciding when to pick up the track, your toughest decision will be when to give up. Hopefully you find the deer quickly, or exhausted all efforts trying to. If you still come up empty there’s one more option. Maine has a network of licensed handlers with trained tracking dogs. I’ve had a chance to work with them on several occasions and they are dedicated folks with skilled dogs. They’re also experienced so let them do their thing, offering advice, assistance and information as requested.

As noted, the above tips are general guidelines intended to help you recovery wounded game. Situations vary but patience and common sense can also go a long way toward a successful recover. Ultimately, the most important tactic is prevention. Practice, become proficient and confident with your firearm and only take good shots and the rest should come much more easily.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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