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Author: Chuck Adams
The crucial aftermath of the shot lasts a few precious seconds. During the time between arrow impact and when your animal disappears, you must listen and watch with care. This will improve your ability to recover a deer.
As bowhunters, we strive to only take ethical shots at reasonable distances. However sometimes things go awry from the time the arrow leaves the bow until it hits home. Whether things go as planned, or a little skewed, your reaction to the shot may be critical to recovering your animal. Sure, you'll be excited during the moment you shoot at a buck. But chances are, you've already controlled your excitement to set up the shot in the first place. So continue that control after the arrow hits. Remember: Animal reaction and related clues are important.
The best bowhunters can tell you a number of things immediately after an arrow-hit deer runs away. They can describe what sound the arrow made on impact. They can often tell you where the arrow hit, and whether or not it stayed in the animal. They can report the body language of the deer as it left the scene. And they can tell you where they last saw and heard the target animal.
The impact sound of an arrow can tell you a lot. Fringe muscle hits and paunch hits produce almost no sound. Heart/lung hits produce a dull, hollow, watermelon-like plunk. Impact with bone heavier than ribs usually makes a crack like a baseball impacting concrete. When arrows hit heavy bone enclosed by thick muscle, as in the ham, this "crack" is muted to a "crunch". Seasoned bowhunters listen to arrow impact, and know from past experience where the shaft has probably hit, and where it did not.
Such information can be important, because archers do not always see where their shots go. If an arrow zips completely through, you might not get a good look...especially if arrow speed is over 250 feet per second. If light is low, or the animal instantly whirls out of sight, you might not spot the hit. Savvy bowhunters prefer bright, easily-seen fletching. I favor red, because this color is highly visible yet appears medium in tone to color-blind critters. Blue, yellow, orange, pink and white fletching are also easily seen, but these catch a deer's eye when clustered in a quiver.
Contrary to popular belief, you should not watch your arrow fly. This ruins good follow-through and degrades the shot. Instead, lock on where you are aiming so you can see the arrow hit the deer. Try to determine if the shaft remains in the animal, how far it has penetrated, and where it has entered and exited the body. This data can affect how and when you search for your prize.
Animal reactions to arrow hits vary wildly, but basic rules apply.
Deer hit in the vital chest usually run all-out with bodies held low to the ground. The best way to describe this is a mad scramble for safety. Arrows from modern bows most often pass completely through. Wait 30 minutes, and expect the animal to fall inside 200 yards.
Unfortunately, this same buck body language also applies to a hit to "no man's land" - that non-lethal zone directly above the lungs. A high hit, below the spine and directly behind the shoulder, almost never kills a deer, but produces a frantic escape run. Arrows here make a meaty thud. They sometimes pass all the way through and sometimes do not. Seeing such a hit is crucial to knowing whether or not you've killed your animal.
Animals hit near the spine sometimes stumble or actually fall. This means little, because the broadhead might not have caused serious damage. If such a deer does not drop on the spot, you've probably scored a superficial hit. The exception to this is if you shoot sharply downward. At a steep angle, the arrow can discombobulate a deer's spine and pass into lungs, heart, or arteries near the heart for a quick kill.
Paunch and ham hits rarely cause a deer to run away full-tilt. More often, the animal will take a spurt, slow, and continue to walk with body humped up and head slightly down. Wait at least three hours after a butt shot, six hours after a paunch hit. The animal, if unpressured, should die within 400 to 800 yards. Superficial edge hits to brisket, top of the shoulder, neck, legs or ham produce a variety of reactions. The most common is a hard, "bee sting" run...but not the low, headlong rush of a mortally wounded deer.
No matter how your deer exits the scene, you should take careful note of where you last saw and heard the animal. Deer often begin bleeding to the ground 50 or 100 yards from the hit site, and sometimes leave little blood at all. You can shortcut follow-up efforts when sign is skimpy by proceeding directly to the place you last detected your animal.
The final step in pre-follow-up strategy is assessing the data you've observed. Bowhunters who do not pay attention or do not mull over what they know often get the outcome wrong. For example, I was recently in camp with a bowhunter who shot a deer shortly before dark. This guy could not see his superfast carbon arrow fly or hit, but he was certain his vertical aim was right from 32 yards. Because the deer was walking to the right, and because the archer felt he had flinched his shot to the left, he came back and told us he had gut-shot the buck.
As we discussed the situation, the hunter casually mentioned that his arrow had made a sharp crack on impact, and that he had seen the fletching wagging near the butt, halfway up, as the animal ran away. Immediately, more seasoned archers in camp knew it was probably a ham hit. We assured our worried pal that we would probably find the deer. Next morning, before sunrise, we recovered the buck along a good blood trail less than 300 yards from the hit site. The proud archer had his deer, plus newfound knowledge guaranteed to make him analyze more carefully next time he hits a buck.
In bowhunting, you must listen, watch, and think immediately after the shot!
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