Summer is the time to begin preparing for your fall bowhunt. If you wait until the leaves turn color, you’ll have deprived yourself of the opportunity to think through and practice shot selection, game trailing, shooting in dim light, and a variety of other critical factors.
It happens so fast. One second there’s an animal standing broadside, the next an arrow is released. The animal crashes off into the shadows and in the fading light even a seasoned hunter starts to question the shot.
In the silence that follows some difficult questions must be asked. Could the arrow be seen striking its mark? Did the arrow pass through or lodge in the animal? When the animal ran off did it stumble or fall?
The answers to these questions will play a big part in when and how you trail the animal.
Most bowhunters have delivering a shot in the fading light of evening. It’s a situation full of mixed emotions. On the one hand, you can’t deny the feeling of excitement the shot generates. Then there’s the inevitable guilt when a shot is taken in a less than perfect setting. Topping it off, you come to the sinking realization that you may have to trail a wounded animal after dark.
The process of trailing and locating a wounded animal starts long before the shot. Preparations made before the shot can have a huge influence on the final outcome.
Bowhunting has its stressful moments. When the military trains personnel for stressful duty, they use repetition to reinforce important details. Tasks are performed over and over again until they become second nature.
Bowhunters can benefit from this same training regimen. Practice should be conducted in situations that closely match those found in the field. The more realistic these practice sessions become, the better they train you to perform when the stakes are high.
Use 3-D targets to simulate game animals in various positions, shoot from elevated platforms, and practice in low light. Strive to make each shot challenging. Create situations where you must shoot over or under limbs and brush. Team with a buddy and arrange targets so you can take shots at unmarked distances.
Simple equipment modifications can also make low-light hunting easier. It is critically important to watch the arrow in flight. Seeing the arrow impact the animal enables you to determine the location of the hit and judge overall penetration.
This basic information forms a foundation that will later be required to decide if the animal should be trailed immediately or left to stiffen up before the task of trailing begins.
The camouflage arrows used by most hunters are difficult to see in flight even in ideal conditions. Dipping arrows in contrasting or colorful paint is the best way to make them more visible.
Fletch-Lac paint produced by the Bohning Company is formulated especially for aluminum and carbon arrows and is applied by dipping 8 to 10 inches of the shaft into a paint-filled tube.
Arrows with an uni-bushing or another type of nock insert should be plugged using a wooden dowel or tape to prevent paint from getting inside the shaft. It takes two dip coats to achieve uniform coverage.
Paint is available in a wide variety of colors, but standard white is hard to beat for visibility in low light. White works exceptionally well when combined with a brightly colored fletching.
Other colors such as Saturn Yellow show up very well on overcast and gloomy days or in fading light. Saturn Yellow and other brightly colored paints produce best when dipped over a white base coat.
Not only are dipped arrows easier to see in flight, they are also easier to find after the shot. As important as it is to see the arrow hit the animal, it’s equally important to recover the arrow to confirm the location of the hit.
Achieving Pass Through Penetration
All bowhunters should strive for a draw weight, arrow stiffness, and broadhead combination that offers a high certainty of pass-through penetration. A draw weight of 60 pounds is a good starting point for broadside shots ranging from 10 to 30 yards.
Those who can’t pull this much draw weight can compensate to a degree by using stiffer arrow shafts such as carbon or carbon/aluminum composites. Carbon shafts are several times stiffer than comparable aluminum arrows. The increased stiffness of these shafts causes the arrow to flex less upon impact and concentrates the forward force of the arrow at the cutting tip.
Broadheads also have an effect on penetration. Simple physics suggests that the larger the cutting surface and the more blades a broadhead contains, the more friction the tip will be generate when it hits the animal. Broadheads with a cutting diameter larger than 1-1/4 inches may lead to an unnecessary loss of penetration.
Hunters who use large cutting diameter broadheads can compensate by bumping up the draw weight of their bow or by using a stiffer shaft material such as graphite. This guideline is especially true when mechanical broadheads are used.
Modest cutting diameter broadheads that feature two or three blades are the logical compromise. These broadheads should be honed to a razor edge or, in the case of replaceable-blade models, new blades should be installed.
After the Shot
At the moment of release, the hunter’s attention should be focused at the point of aim. Seeing the arrow hit the animal is vital information that will help determine how and when to trail the animal.
Watch closely to determine the location of the hit, the amount of penetration, or if the arrow passed through. An arrow that doesn’t pass through the animal is a strong suggestion that the shaft struck solidly on bone.
If an arrow hits squarely on the forward shoulder, the animal isn’t likely to be fatally wounded. It’s very difficult to drive a broadhead through the shoulder bone and into the lungs. The amount of arrow penetration that occurred is the best evidence as to how seriously the deer is wounded. If the arrow penetrated only a couple inches into the shoulder blade, the animal usually is not seriously hurt.
If the arrow penetrated several inches, the deer is most likely fatally wounded and won’t travel far.
Sometimes the arrow glances off or breaks through the edge of the shoulder blade and drives into the chest cavity. Other times the arrow slips past the forward shoulder, penetrates the lungs, and lodges solidly in the opposite shoulder.
The spine is another common area that doesn’t allow for pass-through penetration. Most spine shots put the animal down immediately, although a follow-up shot is usually required.
It is risky business to immediately trail an animal that runs off with the arrow lodged in it somewhere. Because you don’t have the arrow in hand, there’s no way to confirm the location of the hit or the penetration. Even if a good blood trail is present, it’s still best to wait a few hours before starting the trailing job.
When the arrow passes through the animal and can be recovered, valuable information regarding the location of the hit can be gathered. A recovered arrow that’s dripping wet with bright red blood is a strong indication the animal was struck in the lungs, and sometimes a lung shot is indicated by blood on the arrow and the ground near the impact site that has air bubbles in it.
A deer or other big-game species shot through the lungs can be described as running dead. The animal will suffocate and collapse within a matter of seconds.
When pass-through penetration occurs and all signs point to a double lung hit, there’s no reason to delay the follow-up process. Starting the trailing job immediately takes advantage of any remaining light. Often the animal can be recovered quickly. Rarely does a deer with a double lung hit travel more than 60 yards.
If, however, the arrow is recovered with a small amount of smeared blood or fat on the shaft and a limited or non-existent blood trail, the animal was most likely hit in a large muscle group. Hits high in the back or through the brisket are common. Neither shot is fatal.
On a broadside deer, there’s a narrow spot above the lungs and below the backbone where an arrow can pass through the animal and do very little damage. This shot often appears like a lung shot, but the arrow will have little if any blood on it.
Trailing an animal that’s shot in the muscle of the back or brisket after dark is usually futile. It’s best to return in the morning and begin the trailing job with the benefit of good light. Unfortunately, the blood trial often dries quickly and the stops within 100 yards of the point of impact. The good news is that deer struck in muscle tissue heal quickly and survive.
An arrow that hits behind the diaphragm usually passes cleanly through. If the arrow is covered with blood and soiled with bits of stomach contents, hair, and fat there’s little doubt the shot strayed back too far. Often the arrow will have a sour odor to it and pieces of stomach contents, bile, blood, and other debris usually appear on the ground.
Animals struck behind the diaphragm are fatally wounded. Unfortunately, death doesn’t occur immediately. Pushing the deer too quickly causes needless suffering and greatly increases the chances of losing the animal. The best advice in this situation is to delay the trailing job until the next morning, giving the animal plenty of time to bed down and stiffen up.
When taking up the trail the next morning, keep in mind there’s a chance the animal will still be alive. Follow up the blood trail carefully and remain ready to make a finishing shot if necessary.