After the shot, half of the hunt is trailing the deer
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With a muted "thwack" the arrow is released, and following a lot of practice and with a little luck it hits the mark.
But don't think your hunt is over.
Sometimes a deer will drop following the impact of a well-placed broadhead, but more often it runs -- sometimes at great speed and distance -- before succumbing. When a special archery season for antlerless deer opens Saturday in the areas around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, hunters will enter a lush, green environment far different than the stark and potentially snow-covered landscapes firearm hunters will face Nov. 26.
What will not have changed is the hunter's responsibility to recover the harvest, and the legal, ethical and social considerations surrounding that recovery.
Good archers know that successful blood tracking starts at the store. New compound bows are faster, capable of releasing the arrow at 300 feet per second with enhanced striking power. The razors of wider broadheads are more efficient, but can be more affected by crosswinds resulting in inaccurate shots. Mechanical tips are better at navigating the wind but can spin off target or deliver a nonlethal wound if a blade opens too soon or not at all. Brightly colored nocks can help a hunter to locate the point of entry at the moment of impact.
Where to hunt is equally important. An archer observing the 50-yard safety zone is legally within his rights, but the suburban landscape of Wildlife Management Unit 2B presents additional social considerations. If the deer runs 100 yards and collapses in someone's yard, the hunter has one legal way to collect the harvest -- knock on the front door and ask for permission to drag it out. In some neighborhoods that's not a problem. In others the decision to legally hunt too close to residents' comfort zone could result in an ugly scene at the door, the answer could be "no" and next year the whole valley could be a sea of "No Hunting" signs. Happens all the time -- it's a common reason landowners give for posting their properties.
In hunting situations, the definition of a good shot is more than one that simply hits the mark.
"It's not just hitting the target in practice," said Phil Durr of Phil's Archery Supplies in McKees Rocks. "You want to know your equipment will deliver a lethal kill."
A practiced target shooter may hit the bulls-eye at 50 yards or more, but a seasoned hunter knows that a long shot could arrive with insufficient energy to drive through tough skin and muscle and damage organs and blood vessels.
After the shot, resist the adrenalin-driven desire to pursue. Wait 15, 20 minutes or more before climbing out of the tree stand.
"If you don't you could be pushing the deer and making the tracking take longer," said Durr.
That's less of a problem on private property. On public lands and other frequently hunted areas, a arrow-shot deer may pass other archers before falling. How close to follow is a judgement call.
If it's a pass-through shot, examine the shaft. Pink, foamy blood generally indicates a lung shot. Lots of dark blood likely means you hit an organ or blood vessel. Little blood on the shaft could be the first indication that you have a long tough trail ahead of you.
"Low volume is more likely a superficial shot," said Durr, "and I've followed blood trails so thick you wonder how the deer can keep on running."
Don't step on the trail. If you lose it you may have to circle back to find it again. Arrow-shot deer often run a short distance and stop. Issuing a grunt or snort soon after the shot could encourage it to hesitate. The crack of a gunshot can spook a deer more than the impact, but after the relative silence of an arrow shot deer often circle back to where they came from, believing the area is safe. And it's common for injured deer to circle into the wind in an attempt to smell danger that may be ahead.
Blotches of dark blood can indicate a wound to the heart, liver or blood vessel. Sometimes a deer shot in the gut or chest cavity bleeds profusely, but it pools internally. Examine the brush a couple of feet off the ground -- sprayed blood is proof positive of a severed artery. It's a good sign -- sit down and wait.
"If it's droplets underneath the deer, it's walking slowly," said Durr. "The faster it's running the more leaves are turned over by the hooves. If you find a big smear where it was laying down, it means you pushed too hard and it got up and left. Slow down."
Remember while following a blood trail that your goal is not to find blood, it's to find the deer. Keep an eye on what's ahead. If you see the deer bedded in the distance, stop. Give it time for the inevitable. If it's bedded within range and looks like it's about to get up, shoot again to quickly dispatch the deer.
The rule books states that a hunter must "make a reasonable effort to retrieve any killed or injured game or wildlife." But there's more to it than that.
"Just keep trailing as long as you can. You owe the deer that much," said Durr. "The ethical thing to do is to make a positive search. If you lose the trail, circle back and try again. You might sit down and wait a while, and call some buddies to help you search. The more eyes on it the better."
First Published September 9, 2012 12:00 am