Despite hunters' best efforts and countless hours of practice at the range, the fact of hunting is wounding of game sometimes happens. Even with a good shot, animals can, and do, run off. And keep in mind, elk are large animals and they can be tough to take down.
As we've discussed in previous lessons, an important goal is to make a clean harvest. It's why we practice year-round before the hunt. None of us want to see an animal suffer needlessly or have meat go to waste . In this lesson, we’ll talk about the proper steps to take to help you find your animal this fall after the shot.
After the Shot
The seconds after you take your shot are critical to successfully finding the animal. A lot happens in those first few moments, and it’s an exciting time. The first thing to do is watch the animal’s reaction after the shot. An animal’s reaction can tell a great deal about where the shot hit the animal.
Animals that are shot in the paunch – stomach or intestines – will typically run a short distance, then stop or start walking slowly. They will also have their head down and it will appear as though their bodies are hunched. Rarely will they run far before laying down. On this type of hit, it is best to be patient. Although the animal is hit, and hurt, it can get up and run off at the sound of approaching hunters.
Shots to the liver will result in reactions similar to a paunch shot, but the animal will most likely run out of sight instead of stopping after a short distance and walking off. Liver shots are lethal, but again, be patient. If not pushed too soon after the shot, the animal should be found dead close to where it was shot.
A shot in the vitals – the heart & lungs – is very lethal and will result in an animal that runs off until it expires. Animals the size of elk may not elicit much reaction to a heart or lung shot, but look for anything out of the ordinary. An animal that sags in its front end as it runs off usually indicates a hit in the front portion of the animal.
A shot to the spinal cord will knock the animal down, and if the spinal cord is severed, will paralyze the animal in that location. There won’t be much tracking to do, but a follow up shot is necessary.
Hits to large bone structures can break the bone and knock the animal down, in the case of rifles. Arrows typically do not penetrate much past the broadhead when hitting a large bone. If a leg is broken, or a major bone is broken, the animal will show difficulty using that leg or part of their body.
Taking up the Trail
It is very important to remember the location where the animal was when the shot was taken and the direction the animal ran after the shot. It’s best to mark the location of the animal with something visible that is easy to see after starting out on the trail. Orange tape works well, just remember to take it down after the animal is found. Toilet paper also works well and will disintegrate in rain or snow.
It is also a good idea to mark the locations of any subsequent sign. The trail will be easy to follow and returning to the last location of found sign will be simple.
The most common type of sign is blood, but also look for hair, bone or other bodily fluids. But remember, an animal may not bleed right away if it is hit. Bullets and arrows don’t always pass the entire way through an animal. Also, hits high on the body of the animal may take time to bleed while the animal “fills up.”
If no sign is visible at the initial location, begin following the trail of the animal. The beginning should be apparent by the presence of turned soil and tracks. Be careful not to walk directly on the animal’s trail to avoid disturbing any sign. The sign will still be present should there be a need to double-back on the trail.
Blood that is bright colored means a hit in the vital area. The blood may also have tiny bubbles in it and look frothy. The blood trail should be easy to follow for this type of hit and the trail will get better the longer it goes.
Wounds to the liver generally bleed well, so there should be ample blood to follow. The blood from this type of hit will be dark-colored.
A hit to the stomach, or paunch, will also result in dark-colored blood. The blood trail will be much more sparse than that of a liver shot. A good indication of a stomach hit is bits of food, or stomach and intestinal fluids, in the location of the hit or along the trail.
How Long Should I Wait?
It is important to leave enough time for an animal to expire before taking up the trail and tracking it. Even with lethal shots, the animal needs enough time to bleed out and expire. Without bumping, or pushing, an animal will lie down and expire on its own.
The generally accepted amount of time to wait after a lethal hit, such as a shot in the vitals, is 30 minutes. Although an animal hit in the vitals will continue to run until it does expire, 30 minutes will generally provide enough time for the animal to bleed out if the hit to the vitals was marginal (such as a single lung hit).
A liver hit requires more time for the animal to expire, so allow at least four hours. It’s often better to wait up to six hours for these types of hits. Although a hit to the liver is lethal, and the liver is made up of a lot of blood vessels, it takes a lot of time to bleed out. Starting the trail too early could bump the animal and make recovery more difficult.
Up to 10 hours should be allotted for an animal hit in the paunch. If an animal is hit in the paunch late in the afternoon, mark the spot and determine the direction of travel, then return the following morning to take up the trail. The animal will most likely lie down shortly after the shot. It may get up several times before expiring, but will run at the sound of hunters approaching too soon after the shot. With sparse blood trails on these types of hits, it’s best to wait.
I Can’t Find Any More Blood?
Depending on the type of hit, how the animal is traveling and the length of the trail, there are times when the blood is sparse, or the animal appears to stop bleeding. If you mark the locations of previous sign, you can go back to that last location and begin looking again. Once blood dries, it is harder to pick out. Don’t be afraid to turn over leaves, look on the back sides of plants or logs.
If you’ve searched the trail for additional sign and it appears the blood trail stops altogether, there are several methods to search for additional sign. One involves concentric circles, and another a grid pattern, in the vicinity of the last spot of sign. Start at that location, then begin working outward looking for additional sign, or the animal itself. Hopefully this will yield results and you can continue tracking.
Or conversely, if either of these methods doesn’t work the next step is to go to most likely areas where an animal would go. It might also be time to pull out your topo maps and think of likely areas, or travel routes to these areas.
Remember that there are times when the above rules can be broken. One important factor is the weather. Rain may necessitate taking up a blood trail sooner after the shot because the rain can wash away any likely sign. On the other hand, snow makes tracking an animal much easier. But melting snow can erase the blood trail completely.
There are no hard and fast rules about tracking games animals; however, there are a lot of variables. It is important to watch the animal as long as you can to try and determine if, and where, the animal was hit and what direction the animal is heading. Any abnormal behavior is a good indication that the animal was hit. For example, an animal that starts to veer off from the herd is probably hit.
Tracking is full of anticipation as the animal may be found at any time. It is important to keep an eye on the surrounding landscape and be prepared for a follow up shot. If you take your time and interpret the sign left by the animal, you have a better chance of finding your animal this fall.