If you bow hunt long enough there will come a time that you put a bad shot on a whitetail. Weather it’s a shoulder hit, or a gut shot it happens and after the shot it can leave you feeling hopeless and lost. On a recent bow hunt during the rut here in Ohio, I did just that, put a bad shot on a nice 8-point buck. I watched this buck follow a trail that a doe had just passed by me on at 15 yards. As I watched him cruise down the trail nose to the ground my heartbeat started to pick up and the excitement started to build. Once he got within 60 yards, I knew he was a buck I wanted to harvest so I slowly got my bow up and prepared for the shot.
As he approached the 40-yard mark he was facing me head on, not a shot I wanted to take with a bow, he stops throws his head in the air licks his nose and scent checks the whole area. He then slowly turns around and heads back the way he came offering me no shot. As I watch him, he circles down wind of me and starts to head back my way only this time in a spot I had no shooting lane.
I went from bummed I didn’t get a shot to full blown excitement in a matter of seconds, I was going to get another shot opportunity. As he slowly got closer, I ranged an opening at 35 yards and decided this is where my shot was going to be. I set my pin on the opening and as soon as I seen his vitals, I let the arrow fly down range, thwack, I watched him kick hard and run back the direction he came.
The use of drones with thermal optics is becoming a fast non-intrusive way to locate a deer after the shot. Credit- Les Bowen
I set there for the next 30 minutes replaying what had happened and tried to get myself to calm down. I called my buddy and told him what had happened and decided to get down and go find my arrow.
When I got to the opening, I was disappointed I seen no blood and no arrow. After some searching, we found half of my blooded arrow, I knew then I did indeed hit him, but it may not have been the shot placement I thought I did. As we grid searched the area, we slowly started to find blood just drops here and there and it only went on for about 50 yards, then nothing. We searched that area for a day and a half and never come up with any more blood or signs of an injured deer. I was crushed internally. The last thing I ever want to do is injure an animal I am so passionate about chasing. After some research I concluded that I must have hit him in the shoulder and that he had clotted up and would live to see another day. To my relief a few days later I picked him back up on trial camera and it confirmed what I thought. A shoulder hit that appeared to have no negative impacts to him, at least not his walking.
Keep in mind when shooting a whitetail with a bow you’re aiming at a small window on their body for a fast lethal kill. There are so many things that can go wrong when taken that shot like clipping a branch, the deer ducking the arrow or jumping the string, or even problems with your broadhead. All of this leaves plenty of room for bad shots. There are several new tools to help with deer recovery after one of these shots, I don’t think any of these are a substitute for good basic woodsmanship, but they are all beneficial if needed.
Let’s go over some of the modern ways to assist in recovering whitetails from phone apps to drones and everything in between. But before we do that, I want to touch on what to do after the shot is released. The most important thing you can do as soon as you watch your arrow pierce threw a whitetail is relax. I know it’s a hard thing to do, and I don’t mean to relax as far as emotions go, but rather relax in your stand or blind. Give the animal time to expire before climbing down and taking off after it. When I was learning to hunt several years ago the first thing I was told about deer recover was unless you see the deer go down, wait a minimum of 30 minutes before looking for your arrow or the deer itself.
Depending on where you hit the deer with the shot, what kind of penetration you have with your broadhead, and even what broadhead you shoot all matter when it comes to deer recovery. While I won’t argue one side or the other for broadheads I will say that I think expandable broadheads have a lot better recovery rate than fixed blades. I say this because just this last week while the rut is in full swing here in Ohio, I have been on 3 recoveries to help friends out. Of the 3 recovery’s we located all 3 deer. The one shot with an expandable broadhead only went about 50 yards leaving us a great blood trial. The other 2 we had to track for some time before finding the deer, and they were both with a fixed blade.
Let’s start with phone applications and how they can assist with modern day deer recovery. There are a few big benefits to using a phone application when pursuing a wounded whitetail. The first is the Durry Outdoors Deer Cast applications Deer tracker feature. With this small feature on the app, you can visualize a 3d form of a whitetail and select where your arrow hit the animal. You can then watch videos of whitetails being hit in the same spot and how they react. They will give you what organs more than likely were impacted by your shot. They will give you expert opinions on what to look for and do. Lastly, they will give you a timeline of how long to wait before pursuing your animal. I think this feature alone is enough to make you want to download the app.
Next up is apps like OnX, Spartan Forage, and Huntstand. They have several features built into their apps that a lot of people don’t consider when pursuing a wounded whitetail. From the breadcrumb like tracking to property owner details and blood markers they can be well worth it in the long run. On a recent track job, I assisted my good friends on in a location I had never been, I found myself with OnX brought up on my phone most of the track. I was using it to mark any blood we found as well as tracking us, so we didn’t cover the same area twice. As we continued to follow blood it led us on to a neighboring property. I used to have to know everyone that owned land around us, but as family farms change hands it’s hard to keep up. Thanks to OnX we had the property owner’s information at the tip of our fingers in seconds, which led to permission to enter their property and locate the down deer.
Thermal Optics and Drones
One of the fastest growing ways to locate a downed deer is the use of a drone with thermal optics. It sounded crazy to me at first that someone would use a drone to locate a down or wounded deer, but the first time I saw one used I realized this is a great way to locate wounded deer. Within a matter of minutes, the drone was able to pick a up heat signature in the middle of the timber and hover down close enough to be able to clearly see that it was a downed whitetail.
There is a fine line when using a drone that can be crossed as well so it’s a double edge sword. As fast as it can locate that down or wounded deer after a shot it could also be used to scout for whitetail. I know in some states this is a very controversial topic and may even be illegal, so make sure you check all your local and state regulations before using one. Imagine being able to scan a field from 300 yards away locating exactly where the deer are bedded. With this information and minimal scouting, you should be able to put yourself right where you need to be to tag any deer in the area. But then again how much technology is to much technology.
There are some drawbacks to using a drone to locate a deer after a shot though. I can remember a hunt this year in the early season where a good friend called to help locate a buck, he had shot that morning. It was hot and muggy the bugs were terrible, and I couldn’t wait to find this deer. The shot looked great on camera but that was about it. As we started tracking, we would find minimal blood and the deer kept the arrow lodged deep inside him. We assumed this was plugging the whole preventing blood from spilling out. The shot looked like a good liver and lung shot so we decided to back out and get a new plan. We called a local drone guy seeing if he was available to locate the deer. He told us he was willing to try but with the canopy as thick as it was on the trees and the heat from the sun, it was going to be a challenge. Shortly after our conversation he called back advising he wasn’t going to make the trip because he was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to help until dark. With that said drones may only be the answer once leaves are off and they work a lot better after the sun goes down.
When it comes to thermal optics like thermal binoculars, I think they can be a tool well worth the money for the toolbox, especially if you are a predator hunter as well. They can be pricy, but they are well worth it when trying to locate a down deer. They really shine when scanning cut agricultural fields and CRP fields. We have found several deer this way. They are also great for scanning areas when heading into and exiting your tree stand. This allows you to know if there are any deer close by before you bump them coming or going to your stand. Just keep in mind with anything it only takes a couple bad apples to ruin it for all of us so if you plan to use either of these methods, please do it in a legal fashion, don’t ruin a good thing for the rest of us.
There is only one thing I know that has a nose that comes close to that of a whitetail. That is a dog, not only can they be a great family pet they can also be a deer tracking machine. I have seen dogs taken to the moment of impact with minimal blood locate a deer 300 yards away. They are another great asset to use when trying to locate a down or wounded deer. Most guys with any kind of experience with dog tracking will ask a series of questions when you call them. They do this because they will be able to give you a realistic timeline of when to start tracking and if you have a dead or wounded deer. They have seen enough to know. There are two big downfalls to using a dog to track deer. The first is that if you are going to do it yourself it takes lots of patience, practice, and time to train a good tracking dog. Most guys don’t have the time or patience for that. The second downfall is that they can end up bumping and pushing wounded deer farther than you would like when tracking.
With all the options available to help track deer now more whitetails should be able to be recovered after the shot. I think all these options are great in the right scenario. And I have used every one of these options myself with success. With that said I still don’t think any of these options should be a subsite for poor woodsman ship skills. Make sure you learn the basics of tracking and be proficient with your weapon of choice. I don’t think any of these should be used as an excuse for a bad shot. Practice with you bow often, learn how to read a blood trail, learn how a deer reacts after the shot, and most importantly give the deer some time before getting down. I think those 4 things will help your tracks a lot more than any of the above methods.