Recovering a Gut-Shot Animal

Video gut shot on deer
Recovering a Gut-Shot Animal

The rack of the bull called Needle is a lasting memento of a difficult hunt followed by a difficult recovery. This elk is the largest I’ve shot in my home state of Wyoming.

Hunt #1

I was halfway down the long ridge when a bugle erupted to my right. Far below, a 300-inch 6×6 was chasing cows in a timber-dotted draw. I craned my neck to locate the new bull in the dim predawn light. What I saw sent a shiver down my spine.

A wide, massive rack floated above a ridge 400 yards to the south — a rack I thought I would never see again. Days earlier, I had dogged that very bull from dawn till dusk as he pushed three-dozen cows and calves across deep canyons and near-vertical slopes. When the sun finally sank, the large Wyoming six-point was still beyond bow range, surrounded by his harem and posing on a rugged point of rock. He bugled, grunted, and plunged out of sight.

Hard hiking across miles of terrain had failed to show me that elk again. There would be no mistaking his wide-flung antlers with the broken left brow tine. After searching till my eyeballs ached, I figured he was gone for good.

Then, miles away from where I’d chased him, here he was again. A parade of cows and calves trotted across a knob and dipped out of sight. Ears and antlers followed, also sinking below the horizon.

I forgot the smaller bull below me, trotted into a deadfall-littered ravine, and hustled up the other side. I had barely reached the top when cow elk began filing across the main canyon 600 yards below. They joined the bunch with the other bull, creating a massive herd. I stopped counting at 60 elk.

Last in line was the heavy-antlered bull. As I watched through my 10X binoculars, he charged through the milling cows — screaming like a banshee and pacing back and forth. The smaller bull turned and fled. That 300-incher looked like a baby compared to the big guy.

A coulee angled steeply downhill toward the herd, and I ducked into it. Twenty minutes later, I crossed the main canyon and crept uphill through stunted evergreens. Elk were chirping and crunching in a meadow above the trees.

I slipped between two pines and peeked uphill. Cows and calves were feeding in an old burn, and several drifted within 15 yards. I eased an arrow from my hip quiver, nocked the shaft, and waited. The herd bull was nearby, hidden beyond the grassy folds. A stiff morning downdraft blew in my face.

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Minutes passed before the bull bugled again just out of sight. I gripped my bow as cows trotted downhill toward me. Instantly, tall antlers rose above the slope.

The bull swaggered out and stopped barely 30 yards away. One cow nearly stepped on me as she scooted away from the rut-crazy male. I drew as the bull nosed another cow, planted my 30-yard pin behind his shoulder, and released.

The cow squirted ahead, the bull lunged forward…and the G5 Striker V2 broadhead smacked him dead-center with a “plop” no bowhunter wants to hear. Elk scattered in giant clouds of dust. The bull walked 100 yards, bedded, stood again, and trudged over a ridge. I backed away immediately. Gut-shot animals always die, but you should never push them.

The cool, sinking breeze had started swirling as the morning air heated up. I hoped the bull would not smell me and go on high alert. That hope was wrong.

Hunt #2

I’ve never lost a gut-shot animal. This happens to every bowhunter sooner or later, but unless spooked, a paunch-hit critter normally travels less than a half-mile. If you wait several hours before following, the result is usually good.

Midafternoon found me snooping along the likely path my bull had taken. Two spots of dark blood on a log and fresh tracks in the dust confirmed his path down a timber-choked draw. Another spot of body fluid 300 yards farther along proved the bull had continued downhill to the bottom of the ravine. I could not find another speck of blood, and the ground in the bottom was hard as a rock.

By dark, I’d scoured every slope and ravine within a half-mile. An old burn dominated the area, and it was mostly open enough to see a downed animal. Next morning, my friend Tommy Moore and I strapped on our hiking boots and continued the search. By midday, we were certain my bull had traveled farther than a half-mile. I suspected the wounded elk had smelled me on shifting air currents before I was able to leave. Juiced up on adrenaline, it was hard to say which direction he’d gone, or how far.

Deep canyons fanned out to the north, east, and south. Tommy and I canvassed the country within a mile, slowly hiking ravine bottoms and slopes in a grid pattern. It was too early for birds to find the carcass or death odor to set in. A tough situation. The sun set on that first full day of searching.

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Tommy had to work the next day, but my wife, Greta, drove from home to help me. We searched from daylight till dark over the next four days, fanning outward across vast expanses of terrain within one to two miles. An animal can always crawl in a crack or stop in thick cover, where you might walk past and miss it only feet or yards away. But daytime temperatures were climbing into the 80s. Ravens, eagles, and magpies lived in the area, and such scavengers always descend on a carcass within a few days. After five days, the stench of decay should be detectable for several hundred yards.

The key was getting close to where the elk had dropped, and we certainly had not done that. Greta and I began calling my bull “Needle.” The haystack we were searching was incredibly big and rugged.

Day Six dawned warm and clear. Miraculously, Greta spied a dry, matchhead-sized drop of blood on a tree branch nearly one mile from where I had hit the elk. My wife’s eyes are incredible.

The bull had left the ravine and headed south. Two long, narrow, and fairly open canyons sliced the country even farther in that direction than we had looked — two to three miles away and a greater distance than I had ever seen a paunch-hit animal go.

Greta drove our pickup to the top of the first draw and dropped me off. Two hours later, I met her at the bottom. No birds, no coyotes, no smell. The place I’d hit the elk was 1¾ miles to the north.

Greta left me again at the head of the second canyon — 2¾ miles from impact.

“This is crazy,” I muttered, as I dropped into the narrow cut. I was beginning to believe we might never find Needle.

Halfway down the ravine, something white flashed to my right. A lone magpie sailed across a draw 100 yards above me and vanished beyond a ridge. The bird was alone, but it was the only one I’d seen that day. I decided to investigate.

As I crested the ridge, the bird flew from a tree and floated into another draw.

What the heck, I thought. Might as well follow.

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I reached the top just as the bird dove into a clump of densely packed evergreens. As I eased ahead, four magpies erupted from the same spot. The Wyoming breeze fanned my face, carrying the faint smell of decaying carcass. I trotted down the hill as more birds scattered from the thicket. Seconds later, a fat antler tine appeared through the screen of limbs.

Not much later, Greta and I did a happy dance on the upwind side of the elk. Coyotes and birds have to eat, too, so nothing goes to waste in the woods. Selfishly, I was sad about all that ruined meat. But hairy and feathered scavengers had already polished off most of the bull’s rear end, and I knew not one scrap would be left when they were done.

I removed the head with knife and rubber gloves. A generous sprinkling of borax, salt, and baking soda on the de-fleshed skull cut the odor to nearly zero. I had gorgeous antlers to remind me of both hunts — the challenging sneak, and the taxing recovery. My 2021 Wyoming bull later scored a touch over 360 record-book points, in spite of two battle-broken tines on the left side. Intact, he would have scored over 370…one of my best-ever elk.

According to my GPS, Needle traveled just over 2¼ miles before he dropped. Our smartphones confirmed that Greta had walked over 30 miles looking for that bull, and I had walked over 50 miles. If you search hard and long enough for a mortally hit animal, you will almost certainly find it eventually. The double-hunt process might not always be fun, but the conclusion will be thrilling for a number of reasons!

Following Up a Center Hit

An animal hit solidly in the paunch with a sharp broadhead requires patience. It will always expire, but you must wait at least six to eight hours before beginning the search…preferably more if daylight allows. If it is pushed or smells you, it might travel much farther than the normal 400 to 800 yards.

After waiting, you should look for blood, body fluid, and tracks. Try to predict the most likely travel routes, and remember that gut-shot animals sometimes move uphill. Proceed slowly with eyes peeled, in case you need to take a finishing shot.

Beyond 24 hours, you should grid-search terrain, preferably with the help of friends. It is your responsibility to recover the animal, even if you lose the meat. Keep looking — it’s the ethical thing to do — and the critter will almost certainly be yours.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>