One recent cold, damp January morning, as I sat in my ground blind watching and hoping for a mature late-season buck, my cell phone in the pocket of my coat vibrated.
I thought that it was my son Jason, who was on a stand a few hundred yards away, contacting me by text to report on what he was seeing. Instead the text was from another family member who was deer hunting with a friend on a nearby tract of land about a 10-minute drive away.
The gist of the message was that a big buck with a large rack had just been shot. I quickly texted back a congratulatory reply and asked for a few basic details.
The buck was standing perfectly still and broadside, and although the shot was long, it was taken from a steady rest with a good trigger squeeze.
At the shot, the buck had appeared to jump and then run with its tail tucked straight ahead into the wood line with that classic “death run.”
Everything sounded good, but a quick check of my weather radar app showed a line of moderately heavy rain on the way, so I texted back a caution to quietly climb down and get to the spot where the deer was standing when the shot was taken to check for blood sign before the rain hit.
It wasn’t long before I began to hear the tattoo of rain drops on the top of my blind.
The deer were not moving much on that particular morning where Jason and I were hunting, so when the rain tapered off we both decided to hike on out and head over to assist in the search for the buck.
With the unexpected rainfall, unless it was a squarely mortal hit, any blood trail might have been washed out and obliterated. To further complicate the search, the area into which the buck ran is very thick and brushy; in spots, you could easily walk within a few yards of a deer and not even see it.
If a blood trail is scant or has washed out, the more eyes looking the better. A successful recovery often requires a lot of time and patience to find the deer.
We were given directions to drive to a particular woods road, where we found the hunters’ truck parked at the edge of a long, skinny ridge-top food plot.
Upon joining them inside the wood line, we found out that as soon as the buck exited the food plot he began to leave a good blood trail.
The blood sign continued down slope and into a thicket that was laced with deer trails.
One key clue was that the blood was dark red, which indicated a likely liver or paunch hit.
The more blood sign we found the more we became convinced that it was a liver wound and had nothing to do with the paunch, as there was absolutely no stomach matter or tissue to be found.
After all, the buck had been standing perfectly broadside when hit.
A deer’s liver is actually quite large, about 10 by 6 inches when viewed from the front, but with the liver anatomically tucked in right behind the diaphragm, it sits somewhat vertically, which presents a very thin target when viewed from the side.
Liver hits, I believe, prove to be fatal almost all the time, with the wounded quarry succumbing within one to four hours, depending on just how severely damaged the liver is.
By the time my son and I arrived it had been a good three hours since the deer was hit, so we were confident that if we were patient and used the proper techniques, the buck would be recovered.
A good rule-of-thumb when trailing a liver-shot whitetail is to wait at least two hours, which would usually allow plenty of time for a deer to bed down.
The blood trail from a liver-shot deer is usually fair, but it can become difficult to follow. As was the case here, the trail starts with periodic drops of blood and increases with time and travel distance.
A solid liver hit produces much more internal blood loss than that seen externally. Quite often, before the deer beds down or expires, external blood loss will subside and become very hard to follow.
At this point a liver-shot deer will have almost bled out internally, and death will be imminent.
This is almost exactly how our blood trail was playing out.
The blood sign became more profuse as we entered the before-mentioned thicket; the line of travel became more sinuous and meandering, with occasional small pools of dark blood where the deer had most likely stood for a few moments.
The trail then culminated in a large, wallowed-out bed in a thick clump of brush that was covered with blood sign,
We slowly and quietly circled out from the bed, but could not find so much as another drop of blood. Our deduction was that the buck was near death in the bed and, upon seeing us in the distance, got up and staggered straight away, probably expiring within a short distance.
At this point it had been at least four hours since the deer was shot, so we were very confident that a slow and deliberate visual search would locate it.
To make a long story short, the four of us performed a meticulous back-and-forth search for another several hours, scouring the entire area — even fanning out for quite a distance on the back-trail, just in case the buck had circled back on us.
And then it started raining again.
We never found more sign of the buck. We all left for home that afternoon puzzled and perplexed, but confident that we had done everything within our power to find the buck under the prevailing conditions.
Now, here comes the real lesson in all of this.
Our friend was hunting on the property about a week later and was on stand about 600 or 700 yards away from where we lost the blood trail. It was during the late portion of the rut and, after being on stand a while, he heard crashing and grunting as a buck and an estrus doe serpentined back and forth through the brushy area he was watching.
When the deer came into full view, he immediately identified the buck as a mature shooter and lowered the boom on it.
The buck dropped at the shot, and the hunter climbed down from his stand to go and check the deer out.
Upon closer examination, he realized that the buck was a known shooter of which he had trail camera photos, but strangely the buck in the trail cam photos was the one that we had blood trailed the previous week.
The hunter immediately began to look the buck over closely and was startled by what he found.
The buck had a fresh scabby wound on his chest skin right behind his front legs.
The previous week’s shot by my family member had been perfect windage wise, but it was about 6 inches or so low due the long range of the shot and the apparent failure to apply elevation to the aim point.
The bullet clipped the buck’s chest as if the skin had been sliced with a sharp knife, but it had inflicted only minor muscle damage, having barely left a furrow in the exposed wound.
Such a wound should have dropped some white chest hair at the point of contact, but we never found any — so we were totally fooled and confused during the search.
He said the buck was chasing the estrus doe hard, with no visible indication of any difficulty from the old wound.
Lessons were learned, and the wounded buck was ultimately recovered.
Every blood-trailing job is unique, with its own set of circumstances and difficulties. Unravelling a blood trail is a science unto itself, and no matter what your level of experience is we would all do well to bone up on deer anatomy.