You shot a deer. It’s been a long time since your last kill, and you’re out of practice. Or maybe you’ve never been mentored on what to do next.
Common sense would tell you to find the animal, bring it back to your truck, and get it to a butcher. But there are more decisions you’ll need to make in the field to recover that deer and to get that coveted meat to your freezer.
Plenty of hunters hit the woods without expecting to come home with a kill. But why would you go hunting if you didn’t think the hunt could be worth your time? Sounds like full reliance on luck to me. Flexibility and figuring things out as you go isn’t a bad system. But being prepared is the way to go when it comes to tracking and processing.
There is not a two or three-step plan to field care. Many situations are unique to each hunt. But field care is one of the most valuable things you can learn to make your hunt more rewarding. This season, don’t just have an idea of what you might do—plan for a kill and what to do with it when found.
Time Management and Planning
During the early bow season, many hunters hit the woods for an evening hunt after work, maybe even before work for some night-shift workers. But what if you have 5 minutes before leaving for your kid’s soccer practice? Or tomorrow you have to travel on a three-day business trip? I would never dissuade someone from spending time on the stand, but what is your game plan after the arrow leaves your bow?
On an average day at home, when the to-do list is extensive, my wife reminds me, “it will all get done. We just need to plan how to make it work with the time we have.” Of course, hunters deal with various surprises, but we also need to own the shot after it’s taken. Pre-planing the after-shot process creates a smoother outcome for the hunter and the hunted. There’s no debate on the quality of meat produced from a well-devised effort.
Low On Time
My career choice of a registered nurse has worked for a great work-life balance; there are stretches where I work three days in a row. Because those shifts are twelve hours long, it limits my time for meat processing. If I kill a buck at last light the evening before I go to work, that could mean a late night. Careful storage of meat is required until I can make time to cut it up.
A walk-in cooler or an extra fridge to keep your meat cool and dry is the best option for buying time. Coolers and ice can work, but you’ll want the meat to stay dry. Changing ice and draining water is needed to prevent the growth of bacteria that can give your game a foul taste.
Of course, you will use coolers for transport or a processor to ship meat when hunting across state lines. But at home, there are more choices, but if you haven’t pieced apart a deer a few times and you’re working with little time, it’s a good idea to have a local butcher on speed dial.
After the Arrow Leaves the Bow
No matter if the shot was a young doe or a slob of a buck, you own the recovery. Often hunters deal with the phenomenon of a mild “black-out” when their arrow is released. Other problems like poor lighting or things in the way can impact the sight of your shot placement.
Tracking jobs on unknown shots require careful decision-making. A trail with small amounts of blood beyond a 30-yards from where it begins needs more time. Even with a blood-soaked arrow, it’s better to be patient for an hour or two.
If you know you’ve made a lethal hit, 30 minutes is usually a good wait time. A poorly hit deer may need an hour or more for a marginal hit like one lung. But further down the list are shots to the liver or guts requiring 3 to 6 hours (sometimes even a whole night).
It’s easy to follow blood trails that look like a red carpet. But what about trails that become spotty along the way? If you’ve started to track good blood, it’s a heart-sinking feeling when that blood begins to dry up.
Blood trails are delicate and tell a story. With adrenaline in your veins, minor details are easy to miss. For example, that big blotch of blood you found before the trail dried up could have been a place the deer bedded. A lower heart rate and compression could mean a closing wound channel on a poor hit.
Avoid rambling along a trail. If you lose blood, stop, get your bearings, then slowly restart the track. You’ll need to relook at the intel that blood trail offers. The last thing you want to do is disturb it. If you can’t see it or a dog can’t smell it, there’s a much higher chance of a lost animal.
Getting a Deer Out of the Woods
The real work starts when a blood trail ends with a white belly. Whether or not you’re a fan of social media, you will want to seize the moment and your smile. Snap a few good photos and get to work!
There are plenty of ways to move a deer, but these are the three most often used.
Dragging a deer is by far the most common method of getting a deer out of the field. It’s also the most difficult. The process is simple, but it is very demanding.
Remove the deer entrails from the body cavity. Use care not to pop the bladder, stomach, or intestine. Tie a rope around the deer’s neck and front legs, using a stick as a handle on the other end. and start pulling. Does can be towed easier by their back legs, but bucks tend to get their antlers hung up on logs and brush. You may consider the next two methods if cardio workouts aren’t your thing.
A Deer Cart or Sled
Using a device for extracting a deer is something many hunters prefer. A cart on wheels, a sled, or a thick plastic sheet you can tie a deer to are effective ways to move a deer. A deer should still be field-dressed so cooling the meat can begin, but these devices make a drag easier. One thing to note, the bigger the wheels on a cart, the less work it takes to push or pull.
With more hunters in the backcountry, packing out a whitetail is a method that’s growing with full steam. This method requires game bags, a good pack, strong hiking skills, and familiarity with quartering a deer in the field. There are plenty of YouTube videos on how to use the gutless field dressing method, but I recommend using a well-known source.
Though the gutless method can be performed on a whim, following along with a YouTube video isn’t the best idea. If you’re planning to use this method, it’s better to watch these videos beforehand. That way, you will know what you need and what you’re doing to come out of the woods with the best result.
As you gain more experience, you’ll find that being prepared for anything will improve your hunt. The more you know, the more efficient you will become. Is there a better to gain more time than knowing what you’re doing in advance? For example, the gutless method may take 30-45 minutes for a hunter who knows the drill. Or it may take 2-3 hours for someone who lacks the necessary information. That could mean more time to butcher or more time with your family when you get home. Let that sink in for a minute.
Author: Aaron Hepler