A lot of work and planning lead up to making a shot on an animal. Bowhunters put in hours of shooting, scouting, training and assembling gear, all in hopes of getting a shot opportunity. But the preparation doesn’t stop once the arrow flies. It’s important to plan for what happens next. How you react and how well you’re prepared can mean the difference between coming home heavy or empty-handed.
Watch the Arrow Fly
Finally letting that arrow loose is exciting. Even though your body is bursting with adrenaline, it’s important to stay calm and sit still. Follow through with your shot and watch where the arrow hits the animal. This will not only ensure a better shot, but it will give you critical information about what comes next. Knowing if it was a vital, gut or other hit helps craft the recovery plan.
A hit or miss, either one, will usually send the animal running. Watch which direction it goes. Note any identifiable landmarks like rocks, trees or terrain features. This will help you find the blood trail. Before you get up from where you shot, use your rangefinder to figure out the distance of your shot (do this even if you ranged the animal). Next, mark your location on your GPS or with some flagging tape or toilet paper. This will come in handy if you have a hard time finding a blood trail because it will allow you to retrace your steps.
Listen to What Happens Next
Hunting requires the use of all your senses. Listening to what happens after the shot can tell you a lot about where the animal went. A large crashing sound followed by silence might indicate the animal fell and hasn’t gotten up, and that it’s not too far away.
Wait to Search, Find the Arrow
Every aspect of bowhunting requires patience, but perhaps the most agonizing test of it is waiting to look for an animal after a hit. However, you want to avoid jumping a wounded animal. The wait time depends on where the animal was hit. So, while you’re waiting, look for your arrow. This will help you determine the shot placement.
An arrow with bright red blood or bubbles usually means a vital hit like lungs or heart. You’re usually safe to begin looking for the animal after 30 minutes. Dark red blood indicates a liver shot, which is fatal but takes longer. You will want to wait at least three hours before searching. Blood mixed with a green or brown liquid indicates a gut shot. This is a tough scenario to wait out, but it’s important to wait several hours before searching. Waiting can be hard, but the alternative can be worse. Wounded animals will bed down before dying. If you try to find them too soon, you’ll risk jumping them and driving them farther away, which can make recovery even more difficult.
Follow the Blood Trail
Sometimes bowhunters get lucky and the animal dies within eyesight. Other times the animal will bolt through thick vegetation or travel several hundred yards. When it’s time to search, follow the blood trail. Carry toilet paper or flagging tape to mark each spot of blood. Turn on the tracking option on your GPS to create a trail. Snowy conditions can make following a blood trail easy. Rainy weather can make things incredibly difficult by washing away the trail. In some states, the use of blood tracking dogs is legal. If the blood trail runs dry, use the grid search method. Recruiting family and friends can help the search go faster.
Notch Your Tag
Once you’ve recovered the animal, your first move is to validate your tag according to your state’s requirements. That might mean cutting out the month and date on which it was shot, or writing it in. In most states you must then attach the tag to the animal. Electrical tape or zip ties are the most popular methods for attaching cancelled tags to animals. Be sure to know your state regulations for tagging because some states, areas and/or specific game animals require reporting, which might mean checking in online, calling or even bringing the carcass to a check station.
Be Prepared to Field-Dress
The way you handle the meat makes a big difference in its quality. It’s important to field-dress the animal properly to ensure the meat doesn’t spoil. You also need to do it safely. Rushing the process might cause you to cut yourself.
There are different methods to field-dressing an animal, like gutting and quartering. There are several resources online to help. The articles “How-To: Field Dress a Deer in 10 Steps” and “Beginners Guide to Butchering Deer” are very helpful. If it’s your first time field-dressing, plan to have someone more experienced around to help. This is particularly important when the weather is hot or if it’s a large-bodied animal that requires more than one person to move around.
While hunting, always carry a field-dressing kit that should include:
- Knife sharpener or extra blades
- Bone saw
- Game bags
- Contractor garbage bags
- Latex gloves
Transport the Meat
There’s a saying among many hunters that once an animal is down, the real works begins. Field-dressing an animal and transporting it out of the field are a lot of work. If you get an animal down, you need to have a plan to get all the meat home. This can happen in many different ways. Some people carry rope to drag, while others use specialized game carts or sleds. Sometimes animals are killed in an area where you can drive an ATV, side-by-side or truck right up to it.
But in some areas, the only means of getting the meat out is by packing it in a frame pack. Depending on the length of the hike and the weight of the meat, sometimes this is a job for more than one person. It’s important to know this before an animal is down, so you can make arrangements with a hunting buddy or phone a friend.
You should always check the local regulations about transporting meat. In some areas, you’re required to leave the meat on the bone, and in others you can transport it boneless. Know what to do with the guts, bones and hide. In most locations, you can either leave them in the field or treat them like household garbage and dispose of them in a dump in a contractor bag. If you live in an area with chronic wasting disease, check your local laws concerning the disposal of deer carcasses. It might be illegal to transport certain parts to different areas, and you may need to take the carcass to a designated area for disposal.
Make a Plan to Butcher and Store the Meat
You can either take the meat to a butcher shop or do it yourself. If you’d like to have it done professionally, ask friends for recommendations. Call ahead to see if the shop is taking orders. The butcher will likely ask you how you’d like it cut up. Some people prefer to have a lot of burger meat; others choose specialty items like brats and sausage.
Butchering the meat yourself can be a lot of work, but it’s incredibly rewarding. It’s the true field-to-fork experience. The first step is to separate the meat into large pieces. The next step is to turn these larger sections into smaller cuts for cooking. Cut the meat away from the bone and remove the muscles by following the natural lines of connective tissue. If this is your first time butchering, there are lots of helpful charts available online that show diagrams of all the cuts.
Use a vacuum sealer or freezer paper to prepare the cuts for storage. Air can cause freezer burn, which ruins the meat. Seal the meat tight with little air and handle the packages gently. Be sure to label each cut and include the date. Properly stored wild game should remain good for at least a year.
Sending an arrow might seem like the end of the prep work, but it’s only the beginning of the recovery process. But all the effort that goes into the successful harvest is certainly worth all the work that happens afterward. Having a game plan in place can make for a successful recovery and delicious table fare for months.