While it’s heartbreaking to hit an animal and not recover it, there are often lessons to be learned. Photo Credit: John Hafner

What Happens If I Shoot a Deer and Can’t Find It?

  Jackie Holbrook   BowhuntingFeatured   October 19, 2021

Bowhunting brings amazing moments. But along with the highs are the occasional lows. One of the most difficult moments is not being able to find an animal after it’s been shot. This can happen for a number of reasons like a bad shot, thick cover or poor weather conditions that make blood trailing difficult.

Releasing an arrow at an animal is making a commitment to following through with whatever happens. But sometimes even after all the right recovery moves are made, the animal is never found. This can leave you wondering: What happens if I can’t find my deer?

Take the Proper Steps


Every bowhunter hopes for a quick, clean kill. That’s why practice is important. But even with preparation, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes animals die within eyesight, but that’s not always the case. Mortally wounded deer can cover 100 yards or more in seconds.

Having a post-shot game plan is essential to success. Reacting the right way after releasing an arrow significantly increases the odds of finding the animal. Watch where the arrow hits and notice how the deer reacts. Take note of which direction it goes. Find the arrow if at all possible because analyzing the blood tells an important story. Based on shot placement, wait the appropriate amount of time before searching. Waiting is tough, but you don’t want to jump a wounded animal.

Slowly follow the blood trail. Mark each spot of blood with tape or toilet paper but be sure to pick it up after you’re done. You can also mark the blood on a GPS mapping system. Marking the trail makes it easy to follow. If you can’t find any blood on the ground, look up higher. Wounds might leave blood on branches, bushes and leaves.

Bring in Help

If the blood trail becomes hard to pick up, don’t lose hope because there are some tricks. Spray hydrogen peroxide, and it will bubble when it contacts blood residue. Or start making concentric circles from the last known blood location. Watch for blood and additional signs like tracks, broken branches and disturbed ground.

Always call for backup. Having extra pairs of eyes increases your odds. You can also begin to perform a grid search to look for the deer. For example, spread out about 20 yards apart and walk the same line. Turn on the tracking feature on your GPS to keep tabs on the ground you’ve covered.

Find a Four-Legged Friend


You might also be able to call on a tracking dog for help. In some states it’s legal to use a game recovery dog to find an animal. United Blood Trackers is a resource dedicated to promoting resource conservation through the use of trained tracking dogs in the ethical recovery of big game. The organization has a map on its websiteof the states where it’s legal to use dogs. The group also lists members who have dogs available to hire for tracking services. UBT recommends calling in a dog before doing a grid search, as tromping through the area might add additional scent that makes it harder for the dog to pick up the scent of the lost deer.

Deer Are Resilient

If you can’t find anything, it might be because the deer isn’t there. Deer and other wild animals are incredibly resilient. Whether it’s from a predator, accident, hunter, disease or birth defect, some animals live for years with injuries. An arrow hit will probably scare them out of the area, or at least into hiding until they heal. Unfortunately, when this happens you might never know the outcome, and that’s a heartbreaking and frustrating end. However, it’s a reality that hunters face.

When Meat Goes Bad

As the search goes on, one of the most difficult realities becomes the question of the meat and at what point it will spoil. That’s determined by multiple factors including weather conditions and when the animal expires. Cool weather, especially temperatures that dip below freezing, will slow the spoiling process. Hot or rainy weather will accelerate it. Take all of this into account before going hunting and after you’ve hit an animal.

If you find the dead deer, separate the guts from the meat as soon as possible. Get the meat cool by putting it on ice. If you’re unsure if the meat is still good, there are a few ways to tell. First, spoiled meat will often let off a pungent smell. It will also begin to turn from dark red to greenish-brown. If you think the meat is spoiled, don’t risk eating it.

Rotting meat is one way hunters find lost animals. While it’s a sad ending, it always provides answers and lessons. Returning to the area a few days after the animal was lost allows you to search with your nose. You may be able to pick up the scent of the rotten meat and recover the antlers of a buck. Other animals will also pick up on the smell. Scavenging birds like vultures and magpies might lead you right to it. If there’s snow, look for tracks because predators will often find the animal first and have a feast.

The Deer Never Found

Losing a deer is a heartbreaking end to a hunt. It can shake up confidence and make hunters wary of going afield again. In some cases, there are important lessons to be learned. Perhaps the shot was rushed, the angle questionable or the range a bit too far.

Difficult as it can be to accept, learning is your responsibility. Remember, every veteran bowhunter has had to learn these lessons the hard way, too.    


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