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There’s not a worse feeling as a hunter than losing downed game. You have put in all of the time and efforts to pre-scout, scout, track, and shoot your target. Perhaps your shot was just slightly wide. Perhaps the game flinched at the last moment and caused your bullet or arrow to miss its kill shot. In the end, it doesn’t matter. You have already lived through all the anticipation and drama of the hunt and are ready for the satisfaction of the kill.

Now, you have to take an entirely new approach and mindset to the hunt. If you don’t give the next few minutes or hours your full attention and effort, the day could be a total loss. Even worse, you have caused unnecessary misery to a creature that you spent all day admiring. Tracking wounded game requires persistence and patience at a time when the hunter has the least to spare. A good hunter will make the effort, at least. Even if the game is small and the loss insignificant, retrieving the carcass is expected behavior among hunter culture. The process begins when the initial shot is taken. The hunter is already staring at the game when he pulls the trigger. He watches to see if he has missed his target, wounded the game, or killed it cleanly.

The first and last options are usually immediately apparent. A kill shot will drop your game immediately, and a miss will send them scurrying away. An injured animal, however, can behave almost normally or can display erratic movement immediately. For this reason, a good hunter will watch carefully while replaying the shot in his head. When hunting big game, a hunch may be the only thing telling a hunter if he hit his target. If he thinks he hit a vital area, the search will begin immediately. Big game shot in the heart-lung area won’t last long or go far. But if an animal is bleeding from a less critical wound and not pursued, it will look for a place to lie down.

Then, time becomes the hunter’s friend. The animal will become too weak to run in about 30 minutes. As long as there is a blood trail to follow, the hunter can take his time before approaching the helpless game and easily finishing it off. The blood itself may be able to confirm just whether the injury is critical. Frothy, bright red blood is often present when a lung has been critically damaged. Darker blood is the sign of a lesser injury. If the hunter has dogs, the task of tracking becomes considerably easier. Retrievers will just go and get a downed bird or small game. If larger game is in play, the dog will probably circle to pick up the scent and follow it. If the dog can’t find the scent, it will be called back. The handler and dog will go to the spot where they last saw the animal and try to reacquire the scent. If downed game is not easily found, much harder work is required. Hunters will want to begin marking any signs of the animal with flags, scarves, or whatever else is available.

The first marker should be placed where the wounded game was last seen. Nearby landmarks will make this task easier. From the first marker, the hunters will work outward in widening circles. Injury sign can come in the form of hair or blood. The hunter should also notice regular sign such as trampled grass, broken branches, or even scat.

A weakened animal may become increasingly careless and leave behind uncharacteristic clues. If two hunters are available for the search, one can watch the ground while the other scans for movement. It is important to remain quiet during tracking since the wounded game is likely in hiding. If all else fails, the hunter should check possible escape routes. If it is less injured than the hunters believed, the game may have already cleared the area. While an apparently healthy escaped animal would make for a disappointing end to the search, it might be a relief to his conscience.