You’ve spent countless hours scouting the land, practicing with your bow, and developing an attack plan. The deer you’ve dreamed of suddenly appears, heading your way. Your heart races as you settle your sight-pin on the vitals and release your arrow. Thwack! You’ve done it. You just shot your first deer with a bow!
OK. Now what?
Watch and Listen
Opportunities to arrow deer at close range are exciting and emotional. Your adrenaline spikes, dreams become reality, and the realities of taking an animal’s life sink in. Whether your impulse is to cry, cheer, or whoop and holler, try to keep cool a few moments after shooting. In those hectic seconds between your arrow’s impact and the animal dashing out of sight, watch for important cues that can help you quickly find your kill.
Well-placed arrows sometimes drop animals quickly, causing the deer to fall within sight in open or lightly wooded areas. However, animals more often run 40 to 100 yards before dying, making blood-trailing necessary. Study the deer as it flees, and note landmarks along its path. When the deer disappears, grab your binoculars and scan where the animal disappeared. Good optics often reveal clues and movements you’d never see with the naked eye.
Listening closely after a shot also reveals valuable information. The sounds of breaking sticks and rustling leaves help pinpoint deer moving through cover, and you’ll often hear your deer collapse and create a loud commotion in its final seconds.
Take a Moment
Once the woods fall silent and nothing is moving, gather your thoughts and review what just happened. Visualize your shot and try to remember where your arrow struck. Recall the wound’s location on the deer’s body as it fled, assuming you saw it. Also, pinpoint landmarks along the deer’s flight path so you can quickly find the blood trail. Breathe deeply and sit down in your treestand or ground blind to relax.
If you’re confident your shot was well-placed, it’s still wise to wait at least 30 minutes before starting your search. If you think your shot was slightly off-target, wait one to two hours. If you think your shot was poor, consider waiting several hours.
If you haven’t yet bowhunted, and you’re unsure where to aim for lethal shots on whitetails, check out these additional resources.
Locate the Arrow
If you find your arrow after the hit, it can tell you lots about your shot. The type of blood visible on the arrow and its vanes can indicate where it struck. Bright red blood generally means a hit in the vitals. Small bubbles in the blood indicate your arrow sliced through lungs, and the blood trail will be short. If the blood is dark, it’s likely you hit the deer farther back and pierced its liver. This hit is lethal, but it can take a few hours. If you find traces of meat or stomach matter on the arrow, wait several hours before tracking the animal. That might mean waiting overnight.
If your arrow didn’t pass through the deer or you simply can’t find it, stop and think. Base your wait before tracking on hard evidence. Where was the deer’s wound? What type of blood did you find at the impact site?
Once you begin tracking your animal, proceed slowly. If possible, find a friend or family member to help you track. It’s always great to have another pair of eyes searching. Once you find blood, note landmarks you identified as the deer fled, which helps you start in the right direction.
As you follow the blood trail, stay just off the trail so you don’t disturb any evidence. Also, mark each blood-drop with tissue or plastic ribbon before searching for the next droplet. Markers pinpoint the last blood spot if you lose the trail, and help show which direction the animal went.
Following blood trails is much easier during daylight, but bowhunters must often track at night if they arrowed the animal at dusk. The job is easier with a bright lantern, flashlight, or headlamp.
End of the Trail
Once you find your deer, celebrate and take photos. Also fill out and attach your tag to comply with local and state game laws. The animal is now yours, and lots of lean meat awaits. The real work begins at the end of each blood trail.
Field care of a deer affects the venison’s quality. The sooner you open its body cavity, remove its organs and let the carcass cool, the better. To learn more about field dressing deer, check out this step-by-step guide.
Pack Out. Process. Preserve.
Once you finish field dressing your deer, it’s time to haul it out. This can be done several ways, depending on the location and your strength. If you’re alone, call someone to help. That can save lots of work. If the deer fell within a couple-hundred yards of your vehicle or you can easily reach it with your vehicle, leave the carcass whole.
If you’re farther away and the terrain allows, you might use a game cart, which has large wheels and a low center of gravity to makes the job easier. But if you’re a long way from your vehicle, and the terrain and cover prevent easier methods, you might need to cut your deer into quarters and backpack it out. This is often the best option when bowhunting deep in public lands where vehicles are seldom allowed.
With your deer loaded and the hard work over, it’s time to select a processer to handle the venison. You might also need a taxidermist if you plan to preserve the memories from your hunt by mounting your deer. To learn more about choosing good service providers, check out this guide or visit an archery pro shop for advice and recommendations.