Blood Trailing and Tracking Wounded Elk
The 350-yard rifle shot looked incredible. Watching the bullet hit the animal through the binoculars, it appeared to be a heart shot—the classic leap of the animal straight in the air, a U-shaped jump, and the resounding whock of bullet striking bone and flesh. After waiting what seemed like forever, about 30 minutes, it was time to go look at the animal and prepare to pack him out. But we did not just go tromping straight up to the site of the presumably victorious kill, instead putting what was essentially a indirect stalk on the area we thought the bull had gone, just in case the hit wasn’t as good as we thought. Large older male animals of almost any species have a tremendous tenacity for life, and it must be respected.
It is important to remember to keep in mind the direction of the wind, to avoid your scent blowing towards the animal. The last thing you want to do is “jump the animal,” because it smells or sees you coming and takes off running in an adrenalized state should it in fact not be stone-cold dead, everything takes a fast turn for the worse. You should stalk the last seen location or where you think the animal went, and scan the surrounding area for the animal while also checking for blood. In this situation we used the wind and cover of a nearby strip of pines in otherwise very open country to creep over a rise in the terrain where the animal was last seen.
There, we spied him lying under a juniper pine, head up, still alive and alert, as the huge-bodied old bull, clipped through both lungs and with a broken shoulder, clung to life. An animal like that can go forever, and rob you of your dreams. The follow-up shot ended up only 150 yards, a careful, clean neck shot—not rushed—and our quest was ended. A happy ending, but only because we stalked up to his last known location and scanned the entire area hard, before going to where we had shot him. If we had run over the hill in excitement, assuming he died just out of sight like we thought, we would have spooked him right before dark and possibly off the public and onto nearby private land, causing further complications. The animal had one broken shoulder and was capable of running many miles. At the least, it would have meant a long, cold night of tracking.
STAY CALM: AND SHOOT YOUR WOUNDED
Blood trailing and tracking wounded animals comes with the territory as a guide and hunter. We have all been there at some point, a place where we didn’t know exactly what to do next. Be ready for a follow up shot, regardless of how well you think the first one was placed! One of the first things to focus on, no matter how good the shot just made seemed to be, is supremely simple: for heaven’s sake, try to remain calm. This can be really hard, knowing that this could be your biggest kill ever. Give the animal some time to expire or lay up, regardless of how well you think you may have hit it. One thing to do that works great is to replay the scenario over and over a few times in your head. For example, where you took the shot and where you lost visual before setting out to recover, try to remember key details such as a tree, bush or a rock in the immediate area. I then utilize the tools I carry with me in my pack. I carry a roll of flagging tape, and my Garmin Rhino. A former Army recon scout, I always drop a GPS waypoint from where I shot and then hit my track back option to manage my location while attempting to find that first bit of blood. Using a GPS has saved our bacon on track jobs in the mountains by looking at the trend of where the track is leading us and where that animal may be heading. I know we have all seen the orange flagging in the woods. I find myself chuckling a bit when on public lands, when I see every single bush has a small orange flag on it. You do want to flag your trail while marking the blood you find, using moderation and common sense. Mark your trail so it can be visible while you’re tracking ahead and can see it on the back trail. Try not to use your whole roll of flagging tape in the first 100 yards. Marking every 50 feet should be plenty, and clean it up when you are done.
As you are tracking blood, make a mental note as to what you’re looking at; is it bright red blood, or does it appear that it was spraying blood? We all make assumptions right off the bat about bright red blood, and that assumption is that he’s not going to go far. Bright red blood is usually the heart shot but also can indicate a leg wound or non-fatal brisket shot. Is the blood a crimson red or is it the lighter pink color and frothy, bubbly? This most likely means lung shot. One of my longest blood trail nightmares was a bull elk shot in the lung and we tracked him for over 2.5 miles. Knowing the direction you’re traveling and also the wind direction can also help paint a mental picture as to where the animal is trying to go. I have heard many folks say that a mortally hit animal will not travel uphill. That is not always the case. We chased that one bull shot in a single lung straight up a mountain. Try not to over-think things when you’re on the blood and don’t forget to visually scan ahead just in case your follow up shot is only a few yards away. If you’re on the blood and start to lose the volume that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. It can simply mean the animal is still on its feet, meaning you should give him more time, or you could have possibly jumped it. If you’re alone, weigh your options. Possibly phone a friend to get some help.
STAY POSITIVE … AND RELOAD
Sometimes blood trailing takes a while and can be both mentally and physically exhausting. No one wants to lose an animal they just shot. It is awful, and even pros have been there, but I use that to fuel my motivation to find that animal and I continue my tracking. In the 2017 muzzle loader elk season, I was hunting an evening limited entry public spot I call the breeding grounds. The distant thunder and light rain storm had the bulls fired up. As I pulled the trigger on a nice six point I had called in by convincing the old herd bull I was a lone errant cow, he flipped over stiff-legged right in his tracks at 20 yards. I had trained for a 200 yard shot, and later found out he bullet I’d chosen would not hold up to high velocity on a monster animal at close range. As I was attempting to reload, I was thinking I really shouldn’t have to reload based on the close shot and reaction of the animal. But Mr. Monster 6-by-6 stood up, shook off the shot, and trotted across the ridge we were on. I remember it like yesterday, the bull stumbling and side-hilling out of an area that he suddenly knew was a threat.
“Incredible,” was my first thought, and my second thought was to calm down and give him some time. I found some really nice bright, red blood right where I thought I was going to be caping him out. I plotted my spot on the Garmin and started to follow the blood trail after about 45 minutes. But their ability to clot up is stupendous. I ran out of blood 200 yards into tracking while following just a few drops every three to four feet mixed in on his tracks. I plotted once again with my GPS the last bit of blood and flagged the spot as well. It was getting dark and my only worry was that rain would wash away any blood, but I simply could not find any more. Instead of spoiling any blood trail in the dark I marked the last blood and left. Talk about a sleepless night. I got hold of a buddy to help me the next day. At daylight I found myself crawling around in small circles, hoping to find more blood. I found tracks, but they eventually ran out and there was no blood. We returned numerous times, circling and scouring the area like crime scene investigators. I was overcome by the worst feeling a hunter can experience in the woods; no animal. At the end of that day, it just hurt, that desperate feeling of losing an animal of the 6-by-6 bull variety. How was I going to come to grips with myself?
I did not pursue any more elk for the next three days while attempting to locate and recover that bull, watching for coyotes and birds. After a week, a guide buddy showed me an incredible video of a 6-by-6 bull herding and breeding cows with a large hematoma on his left shoulder blade. Wow. I saw that it was him and spent frustrated days still trying to figure out how, what, and why he was not in my freezer. But at least he made it, and that is a much better feeling than losing one knowing it died. And we will meet again next archery season on public land. Next year for me, it’s back to bowhunting.
THE LONGEST YARD
If you have help with you on the track, let your buddies know not to follow you directly on the blood trail. There are many times you may think you lost the trail when the animal has simply moved around an object left or right, and if you and your buddies are lined up like cattle on the trail it can mess things up. Keep the trail clean: You may have to drop back at times to pick up the blood trail again. Trackers spanned out to the right or left are much more likely to find new evidence than people walking in your boot tracks.
When is enough, enough? Well that’s the million-dollar question. There are many factors that can weigh in; have you done everything within your power to recover the wounded animal? Did you give it one last go and then one more? There is no real timeline other than the one you can live with as an ethical hunter. I do tend to go overboard, even searching for birds and predators days after losing a blood trail. The meat will most likely be spoiled at that point, but perhaps you can still recover something. Usually by the time you have completed a successful blood trail mission or even an unsuccessful tracking job, you will have built upon your knowledge base for the next time if needed. Think of it as a sort of training opportunity, and stay positive.
Can blood trails differ from archery to muzzleloader, to rifle? Absolutely! Think about the difference in trauma created. Study your shot placement graphics during preseason preparation for your upcoming elk hunt. Knowing where you shot an animal may help tell you what type of blood you’re seeing. Don’t talk yourself into a marginal shot beyond your comfort and skill level. Exceeding your own ability can lead to hours and possibly days of tracking a wounded animal. Heading out with confidence in your chosen weaponry and staying within the limits of a shot you know you can make versus one you hope you can make means the difference between having to track a wounded elk or not.