Essential Blood Trailing Tips
September 13, 2023 by Leigh Hauck
That moment that you have dreamed of all year, and worked so hard for has just happened. You made your shot, and in the blink of an eye your animal is out of sight. You think you made a good shot, but it all happened so fast. Maybe it was a little far back? Not sure.
As a bowhunter, this is one of the most crucial moments you will face. What you do next can make or break your success on this hunt. An overwhelming influx of emotions hits you. You think your shot was good, but you aren’t positive. Maybe you didn’t hear him crash like you would have hoped. But you can’t wait, you need to know what happened now. You know what the right move is, but impulse takes over.
I will never forget a black bear that I lost because of pursuing a blood trail too quickly. He was a great beast, surely would have been pushing 20” and had a gorgeous white patch. I still have all my trail camera pictures of him on my phone and find myself looking at them more often than I care to admit. I had been chasing this bear for two months, I finally made my shot on a warm June evening on some private land here in southern Alberta. The shot felt a bit far forward, but I was cautiously optimistic about it.
On a deer, it would have been a no-questions-asked kill shot, but a bear's vitals are further back in the chest than a deer. I quietly got out of my stand and went back to my truck which was parked a few hundred yards away to collect my thoughts. I called my best friend. He told me to come home, we would go out together in the morning to look.
I don’t know what came over me, but I couldn’t do it. I had convinced myself that the shot was good enough, and that waiting an hour for him to drive out to me would be enough time for that bear to die if it had been a marginal shot. I ignored his advice and as the great friend that he is, I waited for him to drive out to me at 10pm on a weeknight to help me find this bear.
We found a decent blood trail, but it clearly wasn’t a double lung shot. At some point maybe 120 or so yards into trailing, we found a great pool of blood with the back half of my arrow in it. The bear appeared to have laid down shortly after my shot and ripped the arrow out of his shoulder. We pursued it some more, and the blood trail got thinner and thinner until it eventually disappeared. Coming back in the morning, I went back to the last spot of blood that we had found and that was it. The end of the trail. Devastation, embarrassment, grief.
Had I have followed my friend's advice and gone home that night instead of forcing a search, I believe that bear would have died in that initial bed he made 120 yards away from the shot site. We pushed him, it was as simple as that. My impulsive and selfish decision made me lose what would have been the biggest bear I had ever shot. That doesn’t even matter though, it could have been any animal. I wounded and lost an incredibly precious and valuable animal, and I will never forget that.
In my years of global bowhunting, I have learnt a few things about blood trailing and patience that I want every bowhunter to know. If sharing this advice prevents even one animal from going unrecovered, it will be worth my time spent in writing this. Here are five tips for better blood trailing:
How to understand blood when hunting
There is a general guideline that you will often hear in bowhunting to always wait at least an hour after a shot before pursuing a blood trail no matter what. I call BS on that. There have been countless times where I will go find my arrow which has passed through, and I can clearly see that it has been flushed with lung blood and the blood trail opens almost immediately. When you see your arrow impact in the right spot, and you find all the right signs, you can start your pursuit almost right away.
Generally, I play it on the safe side and take my time though. I will quietly go find my arrow, take pictures as it laid, take pictures of the initial blood trail. I will sometimes send a text to a few friends just to stall another few minutes. I don’t want to go running down the blood trail just because all the signs are positive, but I don’t need to go sit in my blind and wait for another hour either. The key here, however, is to know your blood. Just because your arrow looks like it was dipped in a bucket of blood does not mean that you have a dead animal waiting for you. Lung blood and liver blood will both flush an arrow but have very different meanings.
What does a lung bowhunting shot look like
Lung and heart shots will coat your arrow in blood, almost like it was dipped in a bucket of it. Lung blood is very thin, and often aerated. It may have small bubbles in it and will have a pinkish color to it. This is what you want to see. Keep in mind however, that the type of hair on the animal you shot can significantly impact the appearance of blood. A muskox cape will scrape away any bubbles in the blood for example, so don’t let the lack of bubbly blood fool you! If you find this type of blood on your arrow or on the ground, smell it. It shouldn’t have any foul smell to it at all. You should see a blood trail open up within a few yards of impact. If you are confident in your shot placement, and all these signs are aligning, you won’t need to wait long before pursuing that trail.
An arrow from an elk I shot a few years ago. Pink, bubbly, and fully coated. This was undoubtedly a lung shot, and the bull was lying dead 30 or so yards away.
How do I know if it was a liver shot
Liver shots are lethal, but not ideal. An arrow found after a liver shot will often fool bowhunters into thinking they made a great shot because the arrow will be totally coated in blood much like with a lung shot. The blood is different though. It is much darker, almost purple. It has a slightly foul smell to it both due to the high iron content in the liver and the fact that it would likely have gone through some other unpleasantly smelling organs in the animal.
In general, a liver shot will be lethal but it takes some time. Depending on the hit, a liver shot can be lethal quite quickly. You need to play it safe though. Most bowhunters believe that 3-4 hours is enough time to wait, and I agree in most cases. If you made your shot at last light, go home for the night. Be back at your spot as the sun comes up, and then pursue the trail. If your shot happened in the morning, head into town for lunch and take your sweet time.
If you see the indications of a liver shot, don’t take another step past that arrow. Be as silent as you can, and get out of the woods. Hurt animals don’t want to run far, and they won’t unless they are pushed. Don’t do what I did on that black bear hunt. Get out of the woods, and come back.
What happens if it was a gut shot
You will probably know if you have made a gut shot before finding your arrow. Arrows will almost always pass through the guts because there isn’t much resistance in there. Your arrow will not have much - if any – blood on it. It will have some form of brownish green material on it, often half-digested chunks of grass. Take a sniff, you will know it immediately.
Now you are playing a waiting game. Get out as quietly as possible and give it until the next day. If you shot late at night, give it until the next afternoon. A gut shot animal may or may not decide to run a long way after the shot. If you are lucky, they won’t go far and they will bed down. If you push them out of their bed, they could run miles. Your only safe course of action here is to wait a lot longer than you would like to.
How do I know if I shot an animal in muscle
A muscle shot is one that pretty much goes right though flesh and meat but never hits anything vital. On your arrow you may see streaks of red, but no significant blood. Your arrow will smell like meat. You need to follow the same course of action that you would with a gut shot.
This isn’t good, and you need to give it time. The animal may not even die from this wound, but there is no way to know. Give it lots of time, and do your best when you come back. You owe it to that animal to spend a great deal of time searching, just make sure you give it plenty of time (even up to 24 hours) before searching.
“Nobody has ever lost an animal by waiting too long” - Frank Noska
Years ago, when hunting Coues Deer in Mexico with the great double Archery Super Slammer (almost triple Super Slammer now) Frank Noska, he gave me some great advice.
I shot a good buck on day 6 of that hunt and thought I had made a good shot, but those little deer move so fast that I wasn’t sure. I went to look for my arrow, and couldn’t find it in the immediate shot area so I went back to my blind. I read my book for exactly one hour and went out. I was pretty confident in the shot. The water hole was in a bit of a divot, with a small hill on all sides of it only maybe 30 feet in elevation and 40 yards from the waters edge – like a crater in the earth. I saw that deer go over the edge of the hill but was out of sight past that point. With an arrow nocked, I went to the last spot I had seen him. Sure enough, I saw him laying dead under a tree only 30 or so yards past where I had last seen him.
Yes! I began the oh-so-exciting walk up to that buck, and at about 5 yards from him, he lifted his head and looked at me. I immediately fumbled around trying to get my release on my D-loop, but in less than a second he was gone. I watched him run out about 40 yards from me and stop. I ranged him. 38 yards. He was dead broadside.
As I started to draw my bow for a follow up shot, he started to do the death wobble and fell down, chest first. He was surely down now. That last sprint must have taken the last bit of gas out of him, but I would chock this experience up to sheer luck. I didn’t wait long enough, and had my shot been an inch forward or backward of where it had been, me spooking him as he was nearing death in his bed could have sent him on a 3 mile run.
I loaded the buck into the truck (they are very small, you can lift them un-gutted by yourself) and drove back. Frank was waiting for me at camp with an ice cold Tecate, and I told him the story. He laughed, and simply told me “Nobody has ever lost an animal by waiting too long”. Those are words that I have never forgotten.
The Coues deer which taught me an incredible lesson on post shot tracking in Mexico
Things that you can do to prepare to understand blood trails
You might notice that all my blood trailing tips to this point involve finding your arrow, looking at it, and sniffing it. That’s because without a pass through and an arrow available to tell you a story, it is extremely difficult to determine the lethality of your shot and what to do next.
Pass throughs are crucial for providing a good blood trail. Sure, I have seen great blood from shots where my arrow sticks in the animal and only makes one hole. But without fail, I see better and bigger blood trails from pass throughs. Getting a pass through also means that you will have an arrow to read after your shot, and that can tell you a lot.
You want to design your archery setup in such a way that you have the best chance of getting a pass through. This often means, shooting a smaller broadhead. People are too hung up on cut diameter in bowhunting, the number of times that I hear “a 1” broadhead is too small for bowhunting” is insanity. Our 1” broadheads are actually our best sellers!
Think of it this way. If you shoot a smaller broadhead, you increase the penetration potential of your arrow due to their being less surface area to cause friction and slow your arrow down as it works its way through the animal. If you shoot a 1” broadhead, and it goes all the way through an animal, you have done more cutting than a larger broadhead that only went 2/3 of the way through. The cutting just happened on a different axis, AND you will have gotten a pass through. There is no downside there.
If you have the power in your setup, go for a larger head and get the best of both worlds. That is why we make our XL series, and they work great! But don’t get hung up on cut diameter. Focus on penetration, and accuracy first.
The other thing you can do to prepare for tracking animals after a shot is use white vanes. I shoot a white wrap and 4 white vanes on all my arrows for this reason exactly. Yes, I have lost some arrows in the snow, but a bright orange or green nock helps with that a lot. When I pick up an arrow after my shot, it is extremely easy to read the blood (or lack thereof) on my arrow and make a smart decision on what to do next. The white vanes and wrap also make it very easy to see my impact on most animals. When hunting Dall sheep and mountain goats, I was absolutely not able to see my impact! On any animal that is not pure white, this tip will help a lot!
If you have any questions or would like to discuss the topic further, please feel free to reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
We are always more than happy to talk arrows and broadheads with fellow bowhunters!
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