Head up, antler tips gleaming, his shining black nose had caught my early morning scent.
The stag came bursting out of his bed beneath the wattles. There was no time to get a shot as he went bounding away through the multi-coloured bushes, even though I’d gotten to within 30 metres of him before a stray puff of wind betrayed me.
But I got my chance when he trotted into a clearing below the vivid green regrowth where the timber thinned out.
Swinging the reticle in the scope out ahead of his nose, I pressed the trigger, saw him flinch, and start go running flat-out. Soon he was out of sight, obscured by brush. Although I’d seen no sign of a hit, there was a good reason to look for him, since I’d been able to call my shot as being a hit. Too many deer are lost because hunters fail to recognise and follow up the result of their shooting.
That change of pace from a trot to a flat-out run was a dead giveaway, and a good indication that the stag had taken a solid hit. When a big-game animal breaks from a walk into a trot or breaks from a trot into a run, it generally means you’ve scored a solid hit.
Sometimes a deer will take a hit without breaking stride and the only sign that you’ve connected might be a slight humping up, as it keeps running. But usually there’ll be a break of pace or a flag lowering may occur.
These are signs that the hunter can see, and he should be aware that big game doesn’t always go down when it is hit, even though the shot may soon prove fatal.
Before setting out to trail wounded game always start by examining the ground where the game was at the time of the shot. Look for any evidence of a hit. Wounds often don’t bleed immediately, particularly if the bullet fails to make exit, and a lack of blood at this point is not a positive sign that you missed and the deer escaped unscathed.
Look for hoof marks where the toes dug deeply into the soil and tufts of hair on the ground. Frequently, the bullet will clip off a bit of hair and leave it clinging to brush or scattered on the ground.
I found droplets of blood spotting the leaves when I’d gone scarcely another 20 metres along the escape trail. At first there were only a few small drops of bright-coloured blood on one side of the trail. Then a bit farther along I found bright foam- flecked blood.
This sign told me two things. First the deer had been solidly hit through the lungs and that I’d find him lying dead on the trail ahead. Sure enough, that’s how things turned out.
The colour of blood on the trail gives a sure indication of the seriousness of the wound, and where the bullet hit. Bright blood indicates a hit in the shoulders, hind quarters or legs, the exact location being pin-pointed in reference to the trail. Light, frothy blood always indicates a lung shot. Dark discoloured blood is a sure sign of a gut shot. Some times a paunch hit is confirmed by bits of stomach content in the blood.
A broken leg is shown by the tracks, telling which leg is broken, and the amount of blood smear on the trailside brush reveals the likely location of the wound. If the blood smear is high, it could be a broken shoulder, assuming tracks show the game is carrying a front leg. By the same token, if a hind leg is favoured, you can be sure the animal has a broken hip.
A careful evaluation of the blood trail lets you know how long you should sit and wait before attempting to catch up to your wounded deer.
Where bright frothy blood is left on the ground, hurry to follow his trail. The deer will be able to keep going long enough for its lungs to fill with blood before dropping – usually only a matter of minutes.
With dark-coloured blood from a gut shot, give your game at least twenty minutes or so before starting on its trail.
Bright blood, without any indication of a lung hit, also calls for a wait of twenty minutes to half an hour which allows the animal enough time to slow down and lie up before you begin tracking.
But there are several factors governing this waiting period. First in importance is the weather. Second is time of day when the shooting took place. Your best tracking sign is found as soon as possible after game has been hit.
Blood spots will stand out in contrast to snow or ground litter. Tracks and blood have a fresh appearance which they rapidly lose, and a rain shower or snow will rapidly wash them out.
It also a problem when the shooting takes place during late afternoon or evening, which limits the time for tracking. Then, you are obliged to get on the trail at once, before it becomes too dark to see the sign. You can’t afford to spend too much time waiting, since it gives the game time to find a hiding place and you are unlikely to find it in the dark.
Following a blood trail left by wounded game is not an easy task. But one should always remember a few things that make all the difference between success and failure.
Big game animals are more wary, more on the alert, after being wounded than before the shot. They flush easily unless they have received a mortal wound. It is always best to assume that game is not severely hit, and to use extreme caution in trailing. Use the same slow pace still-hunters use – no faster than the slow, meandering movements of unwounded game.
It also means using pathways, however, obscure they may be, over which the game, wounded or unwounded, invariably travels until they turn aside, either to a bedding or feeding area.
These trails are never too well defined or apparent, unless they happen to be a well-travelled, but big game cover is criss- crossed with them. And regardless of the spot where you wounded your game, it’s not likely to be far from an established game trail.
Main trails are bushland highways over which there is a constant movement of game, from bedding to feeding grounds, and from feeding back to bedding. Noise along game trails. if it is that of a slow, cautious stalker, is seldom alarming to game because some noise is always expected. Normally, they won’t spook unless they see movement or catch your scent.
Off-trail noise will alert any game in the vicinity. And cross-country trailing a wounded deer is a dead giveaway. When you see sign that wounded game has turned away from the main trail, you can be sure it will be to bed down in some secure thicket and wait and see what happens. If his wound hasn’t stiffened up, you should be doubly cautious because you will only get to deliver a finishing shot if you approach carefully.
Tracks of deer and other hoofed animals are as individual as fingerprints. No two ever look alike to a careful hunter. Their size and depth should be carefully noted before you start trailing. With all the details carefully committed to mind, a deer’s tracks can be singled out of a number of other imprints.
No matter the type of gound he travelled over, some identifying sign will be left to follow. Over rocky ground you may find only an occasional drop of blood or the fresh markings of hooves in the moss. In the soft, litter-covered loam under the trees, tracks will often be perfectly outlined and easy to follow, while another time only
a fresh turning of leaf litter will show where the animal has passed.
Taken one step at a time, each bit of bushcraft used in tracking and recovering wounded game is well within the ability of any hunter who has gone to the trouble of studying sign left by game.
There is, however, nothing in game sign apparent to the most skilled bushman which is hidden from a less experienced hunter. The only difference is to bring to the trailing a keen sense of observation, carefully fitting each bit of the puzzle of tracks and blood sign into that of game behaviour.
This article was originally published in the Sporting Shooter March 2014 issue.