Quite frankly, I was a bit surprised to see the six-point bull elk leave an aspen stand and start making its way across a forest clearing on this cold November day. I knew the bull was in the area which is why I stayed on stand, in the hopes that it might expose itself. Within seconds, I’d extended the legs on my rifle’s bipod, shouldered the rifle and found the bull in my scope. I settled the crosshairs just behind his shoulders, panning the elk as he quartered away from me in a northerly direction. It was basically a chip shot, at a range of about 150 yards. I waited until he stopped, presumably deciding whether to go forward, then I squeezed the trigger. At the sound of the shot the bull collapsed onto its chest. I chambered another round. The bull staggered to its feet, unsteady on its legs, facing away from me with no real shot opportunity. It was hard to believe but it cantered about 125 yards before turning broadside to look back in my direction. It was all the time I needed. I fired off another round from my .300 WSM sending a 180g bullet into its shoulder. Down it went, thrashing its legs in the air, as though in its death throes. To my consternation however, it regained its feet again and headed back towards the aspen stand. Within seconds it had disappeared. Yikes! What the devil happened, I wondered? Two good shoots, either one of which should have anchored the elk, yet it was gone! All this happened within the space of less than 30 seconds. There was a deafening silence in the woods. I shook my head, disappointed the elk was gone.
I’ve learned from experience that you must remain calm under these circumstances. You have to stay calm. Sit tight for a while, and then take up the chase. After waiting 15 minutes I went to look for the trail of the bull. It wasn’t long before I found the spot where it had been hit the first time. Shortly afterwards, I found the place where it went down the second time, on its back, thrashing its legs in the air. It was fairly easy to follow the bull’s trail after it regained its footing each time and then headed towards the bush. It was like a crime scene. Splatters of blood were easy to find in the snow, as well as splayed tracks where it slipped, even though there were tracks from other elk in the area. Then there was a rather large patch of blood on an aspen tree where it left the field, almost like a signpost. About 50 feet inside the stand of aspen it lay dead. The first shot had gone through its lungs, the second shot through the shoulder, yet it had still travelled about 350 yards (altogether) after being hit the first time. This is a textbook story of tracking wounded big game. Fortunately, it had a happy ending. Not all stories end this way.
Using this scenario, let’s examine what a hunter should do to ensure similar situations end the same positive way – regarding the art and science on tracking wounded big game animals. It’s only a matter of time before every hunter has to own up to this eventuality-it happens to even the best of marksmen.
Actually, on some occasions it’s the “perfect” heart or lung shot that’s behind wounded big game gone astray! Go figure! While this may be hard to believe, it’s true and has happened to me on several occasions on pronghorn antelope, elk, moose, mule deer and white-tailed deer after my quarry seemingly vanished, even though they’d been fatally shot. What you do and don’t do during the aftermath of a shot is crucial, and may well have a bearing on whether you find a wounded animal, either dead or on its deathbed. This is a time for cool heads, thoughtful follow up tactics and contingency plans in case things go awry.
After the Shooting Stops
After you stop shooting, keep your eye on the prize and mentally mark the location where you think an animal was hit. If it doesn’t fall dead in its tracks, but runs away instead, you then have a waypoint to start your search. Note any key landmarks in the back of your mind. Try to recall whether there was a characteristic “thud” of a bullet from a high powered rifle hitting a big game animal, or just the crack of a rifle fired at a paper target. Did the animal fall on its chest or side; did it stagger; did it run downhill; did it hunch over before taking off? If it hunched over, it was probably gut shot, or perhaps shot through the liver, just back of the lungs. Gut shot animals are the worst to track because there’s seldom much of a blood trail; furthermore, the animals can be quite mobile because they don’t necessarily go into shock. Animals shot through the liver can sometimes travel several hundred yards before dying, and may not leave much of a blood trail either. Focus on what actually happened once the shooting stops and re-construct the events until they’re clear in your mind, before you begin your search for a wounded animal. Then wait 10-15 minutes before taking up the search.
Always follow up by going to where the animal was standing when you took your first shot and look for evidence of whether it was hit – try to find blood splatters, hair dislodged by a bullet, splayed tracks that characterize an animal losing its footing from the shock of the bullet. If you do find any of these signs, mark the spot by making a cross in the snow, make a landmark with branches or rocks on the ground if there’s no snow. This is of key importance when you begin searching for a wounded animal. Try to think of this like you’re investigating a crime scene; you don’t want to destroy any evidence so be very careful and systematic.
You’ll know the general direction a wounded animal headed if you were paying attention, so look for clues as you take up the search from the spot where the animal was shot, assuming you found this spot. Walk slowly. If you’re hunting with a partner or partners be quiet. Don’t talk unless you have to. Use hand signals to communicate. Be prepared for a follow-up shot. Have a round in the chamber of your rifle. Turn the power down on variable scopes in case you have to make a hasty follow-up shot so it will be easier to pick it up in the scope. Listen for the sound of a falling animal, of an animal crashing through the bush. In other words, be on high alert. You don’t want to screw up what might be a one-time critical, killing shot opportunity under tough circumstances.
If there’s snow on the ground don’t walk in the footprints of the animal you’re trailing. Walk off to the side of its trail so you don’t destroy any forensic signs in your search. Wounded animals watch their back tracks; they’re wired after being hit. You’ll be surprised how often a wounded animal will jump sideways to throw a hunter off their trail, especially deer. You may have to backtrack yourself, if you lose the trail to find where an animal jumped sideways. If there’s no snow on the ground go very slowly, keeping an eye on the ground, and in front of you, and peripherally watch out of the corner of your eye for signs of your quarry. There will not be a steady trail of blood, rather it will be spotty and may be on grass, shrubs and trees, so pay attention at all times, and don’t take anything for granted.
If the animal only has a flesh wound, the loss of blood will be even and slow, and the blood will be a bright red colour; there probably won’t be a lot of blood on the trail. If it was hit in a vein there will be a steady, slow flow of dark red coloured blood. If it was hit in an artery there will be signs of spurting blood, a pulsating flow, bright red in colour, generally lots of blood to follow. If an animal heads downhill it was likely hit hard, but not always. I once shot a six-point bull elk as it was walking uphill through a logged area at a range of about 150 yards. The bullet went through both lungs. It didn’t show any sign whatsoever of being hit. It didn’t fall, stagger or break its stride and travelled another 100 yards before falling dead. There was no blood trail; only by systematically searching in grids did I eventually find the elk, by its smell no less. Elk, in particular, have a pungent smell during the rut so keep this in mind during your days afield. If an animal has been mortally wounded it will likely bed down within a few hundred yards of being hit. This is why it’s critical to go slowly, always look ahead, and try to spot a bedded animal so you’re ready for a shot. If you have hunting partners, work out a plan so they flank you as you go forward in case they have to help make the killing shot. Deer, in particular, will usually head for the thickest bush in their home range which will act like a magnet – they’ll go where they feel safe.
Why wait to take up the Search?
If you indeed hit a big game animal in a vital area it will bleed to death in short order. However, you won’t necessarily know the circumstances under which the animal has disappeared so you have to hedge your bets, assume it’s been mortally wounded, and not rush the chase, frighten it when it’s on its death bed and in an adrenalin rush take off again and perhaps disappear forever. The hemorrhaging keeps the brain, heart, liver, lungs, and kidneys from receiving the flow of blood they need to function. If it’s a hemorrhage, the animal will bleed out after loosing consciousness. It will be disoriented and not have full cognitive capacity under these circumstances, and consequently will not necessarily recognize danger when you catch up with it. This is where camouflage clothing really pays big dividends. It’s hard enough for big game to spot a hunter in camouflage clothing when it’s fully alert and much harder when it is in a state of shock, arising from loss of blood. The animal will likely be lethargic, confused and unresponsive. If an artery was severed, bleeding will usually occur quickly although in some cases it might spasm and close down partially. Typically, in the case of an injured artery, the blood would squirt out with each pump of the heart. Venous bleeding is usually slower, described as “oozing.” Either way, loss of too much blood eventually causes cardiac arrhythmia which leads to a heart attack and the animal dies, often within a few minutes at most.
Those “Perfect” Shots
If an animal is shot through either the heart or lungs it will often travel 75 to over a hundred yards before dying. It’s these “perfect” shots that are often the cause of consternation but they’re a fact of life for hunters. I recall another elk hunt where I surprised a five-point bull feeding in a forest clearing at sunrise. As soon as I saw the elk, it bolted, charging towards the forest. I knew I’d only have time for one shot. I estimated the range, led the animal and fired. It was running broadside and as it later turned out it was 230 yards distant when the bullet went through its heart and on through the far shoulder. It didn’t so much as falter after being shot, disappeared in the bush where I found it dead after it travelled about 75 yards after being hit. I was confident in my shooting ability, familiar with my rifle (and how to make a running shot) so I couldn’t see how I could have missed this shot. It took me a while to find signs of a hit, take up the trail and locate the dead elk but sure enough it turned out to be a clean kill, as I initially suspected.
Cardinal Rules of Shooting
Try to follow the cardinal rules of shooting when hunting big game. For example, “always hold on hair” for your first shot, don’t shoot over their backs. Make your first shot count, it’s usually the best opportunity you’ll have so make the most of it. Use a rest or a bipod to ensure a minimum of shake. Get your breathing under control before you squeeze the trigger. Practice at the range before you go hunting so you’re confident in your shooting ability. Use the proper caliber for the game your hunting so you’re not under gunned. But most importantly, always follow-up on your shots and don’t take anything for granted.