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How to Keep smilin’ after the Shot

By Jason Haley
They returned to camp grinning ear to ear. I had a hunch what that meant and was hoping for the best -- a short trail, happy hunter and me in my tent before midnight. I knew better. As we gathered packs, bags, and extra batteries, the details started to emerge. I didn’t want to rain on the parade, but a cautious optimism was all I could muster. We lost that bull, and our smiles, the next afternoon.

ODFW’s management practices do not account for wounding and there are no official estimates or assumptions with regard to rates. Studies, estimates and published data exist from other regions, but the methods and results vary. There are also no regulations addressing the effort that must be made to recover big game animals.

slightly bloody area where an animal was wonded by arher's arrow
A good start doesn’t always equate to good finish. Photo by the author

Suffice it to say that wounding happens, and it happens too much. A portion of these animals survive and others don’t. Some incidents are an unavoidable byproduct of the sport, as bad shots happen and sometimes seemingly perfect shots don’t end well, either. Many are avoidable, though, and there are things we can do to reduce these negative outcomes.

Discipline and shot selection are foremost. Once that arrow is gone, choices and options narrow. Quartering-away and broadside shots are best. Everything else is trouble. Distance makes a difference, too, no matter what you hear. Modern bows can shoot impressive groups at 70 or even 100 yards, at targets. This doesn’t necessarily mean you should shoot game at that distance. Hitting is one thing; killing is another, as is recovery.

An arrow went clear through the animal target and lays on the ground
This arrow was a clean pass-through but didn’t contain an ounce of blood – not a good sign. Photo by the author

If you can get a follow-up shot, do it! Don’t worry about damage to meat or angles once you’ve connected; you’ve already injured the animal. A pin cushion is better than a wasted buck, so don’t assume it’s over until it actually is. Keep those quivers on, regardless of what’s on TV. It’s hard to get a second shot with a detached quiver.

Marking out is huge. This can be hard to remember in the moment. Watch him until he’s out of sight. Note distance and direction from the nearest feature and keep your eye on that spot. Everything looks different two steps left or right, so don’t move. If you’re able, have a friend stand in the spot before moving. If you’re alone, take your time and think, then march straight to the spot, never taking your eyes off. Mark it with ribbon. A single piece is fine. One friend had the entire hillside covered in pink ribbon when I got there and I was quickly as confused as he was.

Get help first, if there’s time. You’re likely to need help packing and should wait awhile, anyway, before blood trailing, particularly in the morning when you’ve got all day. Avoid pushing. If you’re losing light or it’s about to rain, that’s different. Mark first blood fast and start-in. However, tandem tracking is best, where one hunter stays with the last blood.

A man in Camo stoops over and searches the area for signs of animals and their tracks
Study the trail carefully, not just rocks but also small twigs, leaves and pine needles. The discovery of the tiniest drop confirms your direction. Photo by the author

Don’t stomp out the trail; you may have to reexamine. Move slowly to avoid missing sudden changes in direction or forks in the trail. Assume nothing. Wounded animals are unpredictable and often take unlikely paths, up-and-over brush piles or across rock faces. Jumping ahead can spell trouble, so go step-for-step, drop-for-drop, even if you’re confident in the shot. As noted, a good start doesn’t always equate to a good finish. If you lose blood, foot-track if possible and note the details of his track. Animals tend to merge with others at some point during the trail and staying on yours can get difficult.

A man using the scent of a pine needle to help spot an animals tracks
Be ready to go on hands and knees or to use your nose. Sometimes a tiny pine needle or clump of dust will contain scent that can move you forward. Photo by the author

Keep trying! A bad trail can turn good with a tiny breakthrough and it’s our responsibility to exhaust all efforts. There are few things worse than a hunter who’s eager to sling more arrows rather than look for his cripple, so sit the next day out and earn the respect of everyone in camp. If your animal is dead, find him, using scavengers if you must. If the meat is lost, tag the horns and call it a season. If he’s not dead, hunt him. At least you know where to start. It took two finishing shots, but we once recovered an antelope the next afternoon.

The sport is growing and we must teach youth and new hunters well if we’re to continue that trend and enjoy our hunting heritage. Share the mistakes you’ve made with others, so they won’t be repeated. Collectively, we can reduce wounding and promote happy trails for all, until we meet again next season.

Page One photo by Sean Draeger

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