Tracking Wounded Game: Why it’s Such an Important Skill

Black Elk had been on the trail of his wounded buck now for over 6 hrs. The last blood sign was more than a mile back. But, he was confident, there would be venison to eat tonight.

The life in the land of the big bear and the peaks that touched the clouds was a harsh life. Arrows and especially arrow heads were always in short supply. So every shot had to hit its mark precisely. If it didn’t, Black Elk knew he had to track down his quarry and kill it in order to recover and recycle the arrow head the buck now carried. And besides tracking wounded game, although a tough job, was often easier than trying to locate new game.

He had learned his tracking skills out of necessity. He had learned his skills well. His father taught him hunger was far tougher than tracking down and bringing the venison home. His father also taught him, if the almighty Spirit was going to provide the opportunity to abate the hunger and suffering that goes with it, then he had to make sure that no animal suffered unduly as well.

The bucks trail led to a small creek. He knew the buck would be bedded just on the other side. He knew this because the blood sign told him the buck was hit in the entrails and the sun was high and hot now. The deer would be in dyer need of water, cool shade, and rest.

Checking the wind direction to make sure the mid day thermals weren’t overriding the cool down slopping winds near the creek, he proceeded to climb straight up the creek bottom to get above the likely bedding spot of the buck. The noise of the creek would hide any noise that he might make while climbing. When he felt he was high enough to be above the buck’s likely location, he left the stream.

Stepping out onto the hillside where the warm thermals would carry his scent up-slope away from the bedded buck, he inched his way back down the slope, sometimes crawling, sometimes crouching, but always moving so slowly it was hardly noticeable.

Buck Near Water

He moved in for the final stalk. There in the dense shade of the grand fir thicket, the tip of the buck’s antler was barely visible in a slice of rare sunshine between the branches of the old gnarled fir. Black Elk, with his tongue between his teeth, began to make subtle sounds of the pine squirrel chattering in the brush. This he new would arouse the bucks curiosity enough to get him to stand, with out sending him into a headlong rush down the hill, providing a clean final shot to the chest.

Tracking and Observation

Tracking, especially the tracking of wounded game, is a skill that every hunter should master. To call yourself a hunter and not know how to track, is like calling yourself a conservationist and then going out to poach for the fun of it. Everyone who picks up a gun, a bow, or even a shotgun should be well skilled with his chosen weapon as well as an expert tracker. These are skills that can be easily obtained from reading and then practice, practice, practice. A very good book on the subject of tracking is “Tom Browns Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking”, by Tom Brown Jr., with Brandt Morgan.

As the title of this book suggests, before one can learn tracking skills, you first must learn to be observant. A good way of doing this is to go to your favorite place in the mountains, a meadow, a stream, and a favorite grove of trees perhaps. Then once such a place is located, just sit down. Plan on staying in this one position for as long as possible, even all day is not to long. Bring proper clothing and make yourself as comfortable as possible. Sit with your back to a tree or a log and remain still and quiet. Take along a notepad and write down each and everything you notice.

You’ll be surprised at how much there is to observe in just a single spot in the woods. And don’t forget to listen as well. Listening is just as important to observing as seeing is. In fact take turns concentrating on each of the senses in turn and then try combining the senses to take in the whole picture of your surroundings.

Once you’ve learned to be observant, its time to learn to be a tracker. Tracking wounded game is complex and difficult to learn. But once mastered, no longer will that buck you know you hit, but didn’t drop, will get away from you and fewer tags will go unfilled.

Buck 1

Learning to track wounded game

Tracking wounded game begins the second you pull the trigger or release that arrow. First you observe the departure of the animal from the scene. Make a mental note of the place the animal was standing when you fired, and the place you last had him in view. Note a rock, a stump, or a certain tree that the animal passed by as he disappeared from site. Remain at the place where you fired from and replay in your mind everything you saw up to the point where he disappeared.

Do this over and over. After about a half-hour, mark your firing position with ribbon or toilet paper and move up to where the buck stood when you shot him. Mark this spot as well. Then move up to the first sign of blood, without walking on the animal’s tracks. Mark this spot and observe the blood.

Determine shot placement

Is the blood bright red, a heart or artery hit perhaps? Is the blood pink and frothy, full of air bubbles, a lung hit? Is the blood a dark dull red, a muscle shot? Or is it full of a green substance and very odorous, a gut shot? Once the type of hit is determined, you then base your next move on this information. An obvious lung shot can probably be followed up after a half-hour. A Heart shot as well. But a gut shot, or a muscle shot animal should be given several hours to stiffen up and bed down somewhere.

Once my nephew shot a 4-point bull in the entrails. We began tracking the trail too soon. We spotted what looked like the elk we were after in the brush about 40 yards down slope from our position. But we weren’t sure. Impatience prevailed and we spooked that elk into an all day tracking endeavor that we almost gave up on.

Persistence and hard work finally bagged my nephew’s second branch antlered bull in as many years bow hunting. It took over seven hours to track him down. We would have been a lot less tired when it came time to pack the meat out if we would have went back to camp for an afternoon nap and given him time to die on his own.

Begin tracking – the tracking stick

Once the type of hit is determined, and the waiting is over, its time to begin tracking. A solid lung or heart shot will usually be easy to follow. Other types of hits on the other hand can and usually are very difficult. If you have a partner, one of you should be looking ahead for any sign of the animal himself. This second person can remain at the last sign you located. If you are alone mark the location of all sign found with ribbon or paper. The marking of this sign can be used as a point to start over again if you can’t find any more sign up ahead.

Should this happen, begin making ever widening circles, 360 deg. around the last known sign until you pick up the next spot of blood. Don’t forget to be observant. Keep the probable location of the tracks between yourself and the sun. This will heighten the contrast and make them more visible. If they become too hard to see, feel for them. Use an open hand, gently feeling the ground for hidden depressions indicating a possible track. Look on the underside of brush for blood as well as the topside.

Study the tracks of the animal. Is it dragging a leg? Is it still running, or is it walking in a meandering manner? Perhaps it’s looking to bed down. Observe the vegetation. Is it broken or bent? In what direction? This may be a clue.

Deer Tracks

A trick Tom Brown Jr. talks about, when tracking, is to take a stick and measure the length of the animals track. Mark this with your knife. Also measure its stride and mark this. Use this stick to find the next track when conditions are poor. Pay attention to the shape, size, and any peculiarities, that exist.

While tracking the bull I mentioned earlier, I became so familiar with this particular animal’s track, that I was able to track it even when there was no blood for several hundred yards. I could even tell it from other elk tracks in the area. This I am convinced, was the most important ability that led to the eventual recovering of the animal. Observation was the key to success on this day.

Finally Tracked it After 7 Hours

Special tracking situations

Tracking wounded game at night adds a new dimension. Basically everything is done the same. However a Coleman lantern instead of a flash light really makes the blood stand out.

Another thing to consider is, will it rain soon? In this case you might have to begin tracking sooner than you would other wise.

Hunter ethics

In order to becomes a complete hunter, and not just a shooter of wildlife, every one of us should strive to perfect the art of tracking wounded game. It is not only the ethical thing to do, but it is the only just thing to do. We as hunters owe it to the wildlife we pursue, to become as efficient and dedicated to the proper and humane treatment of all the animals we hunt. Anything less borders on barbarianisms.

Want more information on tracking wounded game?

I strongly recommend Tom Brown’s book “Tom Browns Field Guide to Nature Observation and Tracking”. You also might try “Tracking Wounded Deer” by John G. Neihardt. For some interesting reading on a great holy man of the Oglala Sioux, Try “Black Elk Speaks”. Black Elk Speaks is not about tracking, but is still a good read. Read them now!

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