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Gut-Shot Deer: What you should do next

A gut-shot deer is a really bad deal. Here’s what you can do to find your deer, plus about three thousand other words.

Key points of this piece:

Twelve hours might be long enough to wait before tracking a gut-shot deer, but don’t expect to find a dead one. My smallish, two and-a-half year-old buck was alive and mobile, but in shock more than 48 hours after the shot.

Successful retrieval of poorly hit deer is part skill, part luck, and all determination. You can learn the skills, and the more determined you are, the luckier you will get.

A lot of hits you think are good are not, and a lot of hits your think are not good, actually are. But you can screw those up, too.

Great job, bro. You just shot a deer in the STOMACH. Way to compound the negative public perception of our sport — our heritage — by adding “incompetent” to the long list of words like “savage,” and “heartless,” ascribed by average non-hunters. That doesn’t include what the anti-hunters will call us, now. But there’s no time to get emotional. Read this, then wait a few days until the second part comes out, then read THAT to find out what you can do to make the most of a bad situation, a situation that will DEFINITELY get you yelled at by your wife and/or boss for being somewhere late. But hey, it’s your fault that thing’s walking around out there with a stomach ache, wondering why all the water he drinks keeps shooting out his side . . .

There’s plenty of advice online about the best things to do after you’ve made a bad bow shot on a deer. In general though, hunters don’t want to even bring it up, because they think bringing the reality of wounded deer to light will cast a dark shadow over the game, the sport, the ancient skill many of us hold sacred. But I don’t speak for “the sport of bowhunting,” I write about the most ethical way to handle what can quickly go from a fun time to an emotional lowland for anyone with a shred of conscience.

Until last night, I’d never recovered a gut-shot deer. I think I’ve only shot two others in the stomach, and I lost them both. I’ve lost more deer after shooting them in the neck, butt, shoulder. I lost one hit near the spine, angled down, almost directly below my tree stand. The mechanical broadhead I was using opened asymmetrically, causing the arrow to change direction and lose energy. Even so, it penetrated eight inches on the small deer, down through his backstrap toward the lungs, and I figured he was a goner. Never found that deer, even after waiting a long time to track. My last bad memory was from 2010, when I hit a big mule deer buck a little high and a little forward at 19 yards, hunting from the ground. He bled like crazy. I tracked him too soon, bumped him from under a pine tree, and never saw him again. But I did see a lion on the blood trail!

It’s great to say I have a ton of experience tracking wounded animals. But it’s unsettling to disclose exactly why I have so much experience at it. Almost as shameful — embarrassing is a better word — as claiming the title of The Guy Who’s Better at Getting Close to Big Bucks Than Anyone. Because if you look at my trophy wall I might as well be telling you I won fifteen NASCAR races, last season. I just don’t have much to show for it. I’ve said it before; I’d be a great guide, because if I was with someone who could actually shoot I probably would have made a lot of clients very happy.

I know a lot of guys who have better-looking trophy rooms than me, but a few of them wouldn’t really know what to do if they got into a tough tracking situation. Sure, that’s a testament to their shooting ability, and their general knack for closing the deal, but I bet even they’d agree that adversity (read failure) makes for a well-rounded woodsman. Maybe I’m just a slow learner, but I am learning, so I still believe my best years of bowhunting are still ahead of me. I’m 38, and I’ve shot well over 20 deer and elk with my bow. Fred Bear didn’t even kill his first deer with a bow until he was 33!

OK, so you’ve drawn back on that big buck. He steps into position, you pick your spot and release. In the air it looks like that perfect six iron hit to the par three that’s all over the flag, until it lands in the bunker short of the green. The deer doesn’t kick like you see in all the videos. And he doesn’t take off recklessly through the brush at max speed like they do with a good lung shot. He sort of trots away, stops, arches his back a little, maybe licks his side, then continues walking or trotting. Your arrow has no blood on it, just stinky green slime and some hair. There’s a few drops of blood ten feet away, then a few more drops. Then, where he stopped for a second, there’s enough blood to get your heart racing. Maybe you caught part of the lung. The liver? This deer’s hurt bad! For a moment you enjoy what must be age-old predator biology; At the sight of wet, bright blood against freshly fallen snow, your neurotransmitters are instantly awash in endorphins, dopamine or something making you high. But in your heart you know it’s a bad hit. The evidence is right there on the arrow.

When this happened to me, last Friday, I did some internet searches about how to track gut-shot deer. I figured I had the best-case scenario going for me; A recent ice storm had also brought snow, and the 48-hour forecast was clear. I pretty much already knew the stuff I discovered online, that the deer would probably not go far, but maybe go toward water. Eventually, as septic shock shut his organs down due to the introduction of digestive tract contents to the bloodstream, the deer would lay down and die. There was no clear consensus on how long this would take. No one seemed to know exactly how “septic shock” would make the deer behave. Most people said to wait at least twelve hours to start tracking.

In general, the fact that snow was on the ground did help me understand that the deer was still alive after two days, but it wasn’t the snow that allowed me to actually find him. The reason I knew where to look was simply because I knew where a deer would feel secure, especially a sick deer. I don’t advise, though, randomly blazing trail through the thickest stuff trying to find him. At least, not at first!

More important was my firm belief that deer don’t go nearly as far as one might think they go after they’re hit. This goes for deer hit pretty much anywhere in the body. Even if the deer or elk has not gone into shock — which also means it might not be a fatal hit anyway — they will generally only go as far as they can before finding something thick to stop and/or lay down in. This might be twenty yards in a cedar swamp, or a hundred yards to the nearest treeline. They might only stop to assess the wound and lick it clean before continuing on. If it’s a fatal hit to any big artery including those in the hips or legs or the liver, they might never get up. The reason they lick the wound and maybe bite the arrow off is because they know coyotes or lions will be following the blood.

When the paunch or belly area is hit, there are some vascular structures toward the outside that are ruptured, but they aren’t as life-threatening as some of the bigger stuff getting punctured internally. Whatever big blood vessels getting hit inside won’t necessarily bleed through the entrance/exit holes and, as I’ll explain, the real damage isn’t done through bleeding, anyway.

The “good blood” you’re seeing, at first, is just the hemorrhaging of those smaller vessels toward the outside, or maybe from the diaphragm. After a gut-shot deer licks the wound and lays down in dirt a few times, the bleeding from those holes pretty much stops.You might find drops of green/brown digestive fluid, so watch out for that. There might be blood or weird stuff in poop. When snow is on the ground, don’t forget that some trees or the lichens on them may drip a brownish color that often looks like deer pee and it’s not. Various berries can stain the snow a color cruelly close to that of blood.

Even if a wound was licked clean there’s always the chance you’ll find some from down low that he missed — a drop from his belly that smears against the snow or grass as he climbs up a steep incline. These random shreds of evidence, these longshot smears of blood might not seem very likely, but if you find something like that it can really brighten up your day. On the other hand, if you bring a negative attitude to the situation and refuse to use your imagination, then the chances you might have to spot that unlikely smear of blood will never present itself. And if you’re looking close enough on the ground to find individual deer hairs, like I often do, and if you track enough deer, at some point you’ll also wish you had a microscope and the prerequisite education in biology to analyze certain specks you suspect may be blood. Reading certain clues correctly in the woods and not speculating or always sticking to you “gut feeling,” will determine whether you turn left and waste hours on the wrong trail, or turn to follow the correct set of tracks! Obviously, there’s also a right time to go with your hunches.

The “septic” part of septic shock is exactly what it sounds like. Poisoning by poop. And since a deer has four stomachs, there’s plenty of poop to be poisoned by. Problem is, it takes a long time and the deer is a tough animal, which means it takes even longer.

I can’t say for sure your deer will behave the same as mine did, but I also know that most guys who’ve gut-shot a deer haven’t stayed with him for three days like I just did, so I know I’ve learned some things worth passing on. Maybe it will help you find a gut-shot deer in the future. And maybe it won’t take you three days!

As is usually the case, my deer headed downhill after the shot. He bedded down about eighty yards away. I can’t be sure, however, he laid down there right after the shot, or the next morning, because I busted a fork-horn out of a bed near the one with blood in it. And although the six-point I shot hangs out with that fork-horn, at the time I was thinking I’d actually shot an eight-point, not the six.

The weather that morning was problematic because even though it didn’t snow, temps warmed above freezing to release the ice that had encapsulated the forest for seven days. During that period, whenever the wind blew it sounded like a stadium of people shaking fistfuls of Twizzlers still in their wrappers. The weight of the ice had stressed massive hardwoods and pines to the point that branches randomly exploded around me as I sat in my silent trance. Now, even before sunrise the woods had become a noisy danger zone of falling logs and ice. Within ten minutes we’d bumped the fork-horn and found the bloody bed, but the quick thaw had covered most of the buck’s tracks that went anywhere under trees. Usually it’s the opposite; The sun melts tracks in exposed areas, while shaded spots under the trees hold prints longer.

Before long the buck’s tracks had mingled with those of several other deer, although they continued downhill, all probably only a hundred yards from the first spot he laid down. Now I was basically following tracks, none of which I could be sure was my buck, all in the hopes I’d find a drop of blood or maybe a deer. It was obvious the deer, themselves, had become a little confused by the devastation rendered by the ice storm. Their normal runs had become dead-end alleyways of severed treetops, and I could tell they always paused to consider leaping the whole mess before spinning back to duck under or walk around the freshly splintered lumber. I found more places my buck had bedded down, and at one point he led me in a huge, comical circle before I lost his track for the final time that day.

Part Two

Next day I went back with my wife and two kids and our dog, a chocolate lab, named Bill Stevenson. I’d read online that a good lab can track a deer, and Billy didn’t get any time in the duck marsh this year so I figured I owed him some kind of hunting. I would find out later that Billy was probably within fifty yards of my buck and he never saw/smelled him. At least he’s a pretty good duck dog.

I waited that night, crouched in the snow for two hours, under the canopy of a small tree that was still iced-over. It was a spot I thought he might come back through, if he was still alive. It was very cold and I didn’t see anything.

At 7:30 am, on day three, I climbed a pine tree about thirty yards from the pine tree from which I shot the buck. As before, I was using just a safety harness I bought about fifteen years ago. Once situated, which can be challenging, it’s very comfortable and allows for a wide range of silent motion. And pine trees don’t require steps or ladders, since they usually have limbs almost down to the ground. Like the night before, it was very cold and I didn’t see anything. I lasted only two hours before carefully descending while I still had some feeling in my toes.

That was it, for me. End of the hunt, end of my season. I had a family party to go to, so I packed up my car and pulled out of Denny’s driveway. My season had started out sweet with a longbow doe kill from the ground, my son by my side, then went to bittersweet with the gut-shot buck. As I drove down the snow-covered road all I could taste was bitter.

Then I remembered the crows. One thing I had not seen the entire weekend was a set of coyote tracks. So it was no surprise I hadn’t heard any yipping or howling, even if my deer was already dead. But if that was the case, I might hear some crows or see some turkey vultures. I had not yet really scoured the area where the crows were because I hadn’t found any deer tracks over there. But I knew it was a low, wet area, and the noisy crows would logically be pissed-off about coyotes having not yet showed up to tear open the dead deer. Perhaps the patience of the feathered scavengers was already wearing thin. It was worth a look, at least.

The first deer I hit with an arrow, at age 14, was during a midday tree-stand-repair mission. I was the only one among my buddies who’d brought a bow. Ever since then I’ve never left my bow in the car or at camp when going into the woods, for any reason, during bow season. But today I’d be looking for a dead deer. It would be a quick walk, anyway, and I wanted to go through some thick stuff without getting all my gear hung up. I parked on the north end of Denny’s neighborhood, in the driveway of a vacant home and, leaving my bow and pack in the car, headed toward where I thought I’d heard the crows.

There was a section of pines I wanted to go through because the deer in the area seemed to like them for bedding areas. Like most coniferous stands they’re void of ground-level foliage, and these particular trees were planted all at once, about fifty years ago, resulting in a uniform understory ceiling height of about two feet. It’s the perfect scenario for a resting deer, whose eyes are designed to work better in low-light; total concealment with a view that’s almost completely unobstructed. Mule deer in the mountains bed down in the pine trees for the exact same reasons, but you have to use different strategies for each situation. Out West you can climb a mountain and look down into the pines, but in Michigan you gotta get into the pines and crouch down to find the deer.

The corner of the rectangular pine stand I entered was a mere twenty yards from where I’d picnicked the day before, with my family and dog. As tightly together as these trees were planted, I noticed not a single snowflake had made it to the ground, once I’d pushed my way between the bows of two pines. I was not being quiet. As my eyes adjusted from the blinding brightness of the snow, to the darkness of the pines, I bent down to get a quick waist-level view of the area. Didn’t see anything, so I took one or two more steps past the next pine tree. Instead of just bending down this time, though, I dropped to my knees and put my chin to the pine needles. My deer was laying right in front of me, not ten yards away! He got to his feet pretty quickly, but as he tried to flee I could tell he was sick. He took a few steps and seemed to almost get stuck between the boughs of two pines, then he looked straight back at me. Like I said, these trees were planted in rows, so I was looking straight down a clear alley at him. Had my bow been in my hand I already could have loosed at least one arrow straight into his femoral artery. It was obvious he didn’t have the strength to take off at full speed to get away from me, so I figured my odds were good of finding him in the same area again, so I high-tailed it back to my car. Instead of just grabbing my bow though, I drove over to my friend, Dave’s house, because my iPhone batter had died and if I ended up quartering the deer in the woods I’d never have any good field photos.

When I returned with Dave about forty minutes later we could not find the deer. And we had a hard time picking his tracks from those of other deer that had exited the pines, earlier. Dave helped me search another hour before he had to go home, and I was already about to be late for my own prior commitment so, after searching every last thicket and pine bough cave created by the ice storm, I decided to pack it in. But before heading back up to the car, I figured I should at least take one more look around the edges of the cattail marsh I’d found his blood in two days prior. Dave and I had parted ways within site of this marsh, but I just had a hunch . . .

I got closer to the marsh, and within 30 yards of a clump of tall grass next to a single pine tree; the last bit of cover located near a likely spot a gut-shot deer would go to die. Between the tall grass and the tree was a big rock, and I knew there were no rocks down there. The binos came to my eyes as I dropped to my knees in the snow. Many times I’ve felt my heart race the moment the grey-brown grain of a bark-less log or stump turns into the relaxed body of buck at rest in bed, but never have I felt such tremendous relief as when it happened, this time. But it wasn’t over. My deer had made it about a hundred yards since the last place I’d seen him, and if he goes another hundred yards in the same direction, he’ll cross the road onto private property and an area I’ve never been. I had to close the deal, and I couldn’t afford to risk getting any closer on the crunchy snow.

I ranged him at 28 yards, with a pretty stiff wind quartering into me from the left. My first arrow was a clean miss, a little high. My second arrow was more like a wild pitch. Not sure if I hit some grass or what, but it planed out to the right and clattered among some pines. Now I was in trouble. I had two arrows left, but only one broadhead between them. My next shot had to count! I took five cautious steps closer, ranged him again, drew back and released. My hit was good, right in the lungs, but the deer, oddly, did not react at all. His head and ears had been up the whole time. My initial reaction was Oh, good, he’s so close to death that he can’t feel pain. But then the whole scene just seemed really sad to me — the fact that he’d been in shock for so long, probably days. And maybe animals and people go into shock as some kind of natural barrier against the various kinds of pain that accompany the process of dying, but there was something very strange about it. When an animal reacts very violently to a shot, out of pain or fear, there’s obviously an adrenaline thing that happens within the hunter. And when a hunter has to put another arrow or bullet into an animal at close range, the animal’s reactions and final involuntary spasms are signs to the hunter that this is all about to be over. An animal in shock, however, offers no visceral feedback of the sort, and being a witness to a deer in this condition makes one aware of their toughness, but also the biological complexity of large mammals. At least, that’s what was going through my mind, at the time . . .

Dave showed up, we took some photos, and got the deer back to his farmhouse, where we hung it up and where it’s still hanging right now. Turns out I’d shot the six-pointer and not the eight-pointer I was thinking, all along, and the deer I’d been been chasing. I’d seen the bigger deer several times, but he was always with does who’d busted me. Once he was with this six-pointer and, a different time just a few weeks earlier the six had come to within five yards of my ground blind while my longbow was in my hand. I really wanted the eight-pointer but I made the decision to shoot this deer. The trophy hunter in me was pushed aside, partly by adrenaline and partly because I asked myself when’s the next time you’ll get a five-yard shot? I was ready to draw my bow when his head/eye passed the big tree I was behind, but suddenly he changed direction and fed over to my right side. Slowly, my body and bow rotated in a single unit atop my Tama drummer’s stool (made extra-silent using teflon tape). The buck was now at a perfect quartering-away angle as I drew he stuck his butt in my face as my bow clicked against a little branch, which sent the buck flying. It was OK. I’d done the same thing on a spike a few few weeks before that. Same situation, and I’d decided to kill that small buck for the same reason and was glad I screwed it up for the same reason — that maybe I’d get a chance at the BIG BOY.

Sitting up in my spider harness the night I shot the six-point, he looked nothing like the buck I’d seen at five yards. I didn’t get a long look at him but I was confident he was the eight-pointer. Just goes to show you what a little perspective change can do. I’m glad I never gave up on that buck, and I would have stuck with that gut-shot deer just as long whether I thought it was the eight-point or a yearling doe. Everything goes in the freezer.