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Blood In Motion: A Forensic Guide to Tracking

Jerry Allen

It takes a lot of work to set up and execute a hunt, but what happens after the shot will determine if the hunt is truly a success.

You’ve chosen your PH with care and travelled thousands of miles to come hunt in Africa. You’ve sighted in your guns and bows and made sure you have all the gear you need.

It’s expensive, and hunting is hard work, to say the least.

After days of scouting and tracking you find your magnificent trophy and you take your shot.

How long will the trailing process take you? Will you find the animal? Understanding how to track and find blood can make the difference between having meat and a trophy to show for all the hard work that you have put in — or coming home with nothing at all. You make a plan when you hunt to increase your chance of success, but if you track without a plan, your chances of success are greatly reduced.

I sell blood-detection products to law enforcement, and my business has given me a lot of information on what to look for and what a blood trail can tell you about the hit you’ve made on an animal. I am called to many deer trails after all hope seems to be lost, because many people know that I can find blood that cannot be easily seen. Blood trails can be misleading to the hunter —lots of blood does not necessarily indicate a mortal wound, nor does a seeming lack of blood necessarily mean the animal isn’t dead.

The reaction of the animal and the blood pattern will give us a better understanding of how to go about recovering an animal. Normally, animals do not bleed to death, as an animal that weighs 160 pounds must lose 45+ ounces to die from blood loss alone. Animals will die faster from trauma than blood loss, and a combination of both is by far the best.

Most animals can travel very fast when wounded — deer can hit 35 mph, and even if they die quickly after the shot, they can travel a long distance before collapsing. A wounded animal will not go far unless it is pushed or sees movement.

Sit still for at least a half hour, or you will make the tracking more difficult. If you shot a large buck, it is still possible that there is a larger one close behind him. Most animals travel in loose groups; the animals in the rear of the group can help by showing you where the wounded animal traveled.

Spooking these animals will remove helpful clues to the whereabouts of your trophy, and may cause a second opportunity to be wasted.

Pay attention to the reaction of the animal when it is shot, as this is your first clue to helping you know how to find it. The reaction can be deceiving, but it is still important. I have shot deer and had them look at me like nothing happened, only to watch them fall over where they stand. I have had many hunters tell me that they knocked the animal down, only to watch it suddenly jump up and run off, leaving lots of blood.

This is the one that I hate to hear the most. First of all, body shots that do not impact the neck or spine rarely make animal drop, and if the neck or spine is hit, the animal is usually disabled and cannot get up. The clues of the "dropped and got up and left lots of blood" tell me it was most likely a leg or low shoulder hit. The falling down likely means the leg was broken; lots of blood usually indicates a muscle hit. Muscle damage leave lots of blood in the first 100 yards, but then the blood trail fades fast. There will be lots of large spots of blood as the animal stands often and will lean against trees. Even with a broken leg (or two), an animal can run very fast.

I have had a lot of people tell me, "I thought I hit it, but there was no blood." Any time there is a wounded animal, there is blood, even if it cannot be seen. Blood droplets, which are forced out of the body by gunfire, produce a high-velocity-impact splatter pattern. The pattern can be smaller than 1 mm in the beginning of the trail. Shots taken with a bow leave medium-impact blood splatter patterns and will leave droplets around 3 mm in size. Both can be difficult to see, even in the snow, so trust your instinct and follow the trail the deer took. If the deer was hit, the blood will appear soon. If it was a lung hit, it can take time for the body cavity to fill and blood to be forced out. Animals may run in the beginning of the trail; this will cause blood trails to be harder to see, as the blood is spread over a larger distance. If there is no visible blood trail, wait and let the animal lay down — it will not go far and should die quickly.


Another common animal reaction is the hind leg kick. This reaction indicates that the animal was hit farther back, most likely a gut shot. The blood pattern and the color of the blood will be very important. Darker blood is from the stomach or liver. A liver shot is always fatal, but is still a poor shot to take. Green matter or food is from one of the deer’s four stomachs — a fatal shot, but it will most likely take until the next day or later for the deer to die from a stomach shot. Give this animal at least three hours and follow up in the daytime.

The double lung shot is the best-percentage shot to take, as it will cause massive internal bleeding and drowning, causing death within about 150 yards. This pattern will start out with little blood, but it will increase as the animal starts blowing blood out the mouth and nose.

Quartering-away shots always cause the most damage, as the projectile will travel more distance through the body. Shots from a raised area (tree stand) generally give a better blood trail, as the exit hole will be lower and allow blood to leave the body cavity in greater volume.

Shooting for the tail is the worst shot, leaving only a wounded animal or spoiled meat. If the shot hits the back of the thigh, it will bleed well but will not die soon, as the muscle will tighten up and help stop the bleeding. An animal shot in the anus will spread bacteria all over the insides, and the damage will be even worse if the bladder is also hit. This type of shot requires the animal to be cleaned immediately and thoroughly washed out in order to save any of the meat.

Blood trailers spend a lot of time looking on the ground, but little time looking at the brush, where more than half the blood is usually found. Blood on brush can reveal how high or low the shot hit, helping in the recovery plans.

No hunter should be without a gps or compass — use it to get a bearing on the trail taken using a marker like a unique tree to track to. Working in pairs is best; have one tracker circle ahead 75 to 100 yards in case the animal is alive. Then have the second person take the trail. Repeat this until the animal is recovered. Remember to be safe when tracking, because all animals are dangerous when wounded. Proper gun handling and line-of-fire rules must be followed to avoid injury.

Timing is very important. Tracking too soon is the main reason mortally wounded animals travel a long distance and make recovery difficult or impossible. Tracking too slowly will cause the meat to spoil. Reading the clues properly will make the difference in how good the meat tastes, since recovery shortly after death is important. Meat with a gamey taste can be caused by slow recovery, not cleaning properly or hanging in warm weather.

Adrenaline runs high after the shot, and humans have a hard time controlling it. Relax, breathe deeply and take a few moments to reflect about what happened. The beginning of the trail is the most important place to get the facts of what happened and how to proceed.

The first thing we do at a crime scene is cordon off the area to keep people from altering evidence. Then we use only a few people to process the scene, again, to keep from altering or destroying the evidence. Walking on a blood trail will transfer the blood pattern from its original spot to somewhere else, or destroy it completely. Never put more than three people on a trail unless it is hopeless to recover without extra people. Mark the trail as you progress to give you a travel pattern to study for clues.

Unless the animal drops within sight, no trail should be taken within 30 minutes. The animal you just shot will be looking at the spot where it was wounded to see what happened. It will lay down soon and try to lick or heal the wound, usually with in 40 yards if there is cover. Do you want to turn a 40-yard trail into a 400-yard trail?

Many times I am asked to follow a blood trail that had a small amount of blood that suddenly had twice as much blood, then nothing. This usually means the animal has turned 180 degrees and walked over the same trail twice, then cut off at a 45- or 90-degree angle after it decided the trail it was following was not safe.

The blood left on the ground or brush is important, as it can tell much about the wound. Bright red or pink indicates an artery or lung shot. Many animal trails I have followed were from shots that hit low in the shoulder or leg, leaving large amounts of blood. The blood is slightly darker with a very narrow trail 4 to 8 inches in width. This animal will likely need a second shot. Make plans to get a person ahead to dispatch the animal. Trails of blood more than 2 feet wide are complete pass-through shots and increase the chances of recovery greatly. Blood trails that have squirts of blood on the side of the trail 2 feet or more indicate arterial shots in the neck, heart or other major artery.

Give the animal time to bleed out before you start tracking. Brown or greenish blood, or blood with green or brown matter, is always a gut or liver shot — in both cases, the animal will need extra time to die before you attempt to recover it. The liver shot will kill faster, but may still take two hours or more.

Blood with green matter is a five- or six-hour wait to track. The tracker should attempt to put a shooter ahead to dispatch the animal if it is still alive.

Many visual blood trails disappear when the animal’s heart stops and the blood pressure drops, as the blood is no longer being forced out of the body. Most animals can still travel 30 to 45 seconds and cover 65 yards or more before dropping, and the blood trail will be almost impossible to see without blood-tracking aids. A reagent will come in handy, as the animal will be close by but may not be seen because of terrain or brush.

Many times I have found animals within 40 to 50 yards of the stand, where they died after having run 250 to 300 yards in a long arching circle, trying to get back to the spot they were safe in before the shot. Knowing the bedding areas helps a lot if you cannot find an animal.

There are tools we can use in tracking. Dogs are now legal in many states, and are a great tool if there is no rain or snow. However, most people do not have dogs or have the time to train them, nor do they have the money to pay a dog tracker. Dog tracker fees vary but usually end up around $150. Lights made for finding blood do not work very well, as blood absorbs light. Regardless of what you see on TV, law enforcement officials do not use lights to find blood.

There are a few reagents (Tink’s® and Bluestar®, notably) that make blood glow in the dark. I prefer Bluestar® because it was first made for forensic use. The inventor, Dr. Loďc J. BLUM, with a Ph.D. in chemiluminescence, has perfected the mixture, making it the easiest and strongest blood finder in the world. It is used in more than 70 countries by law enforcement and hunters alike.

These reagents pick up hemoglobin, which transports oxygen to the cells. Hemoglobin contains iron, which is a basic element of earth and is nearly impossible to destroy without fire.

Much time was spent to produce a product that the investigator would need little or no training to use and that could tell the difference between blood and other items containing iron.

Sold in tablets that you add to water, these reagents are easy to carry and inexpensive. You can usually cover 100 yards in 10 minutes or less, and the time saved will be worth the money spent. It will also work well in evergreens and moss, because the reaction with blood is so much different from "false positives" that anyone can tell the difference. Luminol-based products were made for law enforcement to find blood amounts so small the DNA profile cannot be done. Even in the crime scene, clothing or items that have been cleaned over and over will still glow bright blue were blood was present.

Many times the hunter cannot find the beginning of the trail. Before you leave the stand, use a waypoint to know where the animal was standing when the shot was taken. A compass is perfect for this, using a marker such as a tree to find the spot.

Many times I use a reagent only to find the start of the blood trail. To do this, I spray while walking across the trail as soon as I find the blood. I look to see if I can follow it with my eyes; if not, I continue to use the reagent. I often use it to regain a trail when an animal changes terrain, going from leaf litter to grass fields, for example. The best of these products will even work in the rain.

You will learn a lot about trailing when using a reagent, since you will see the whole trail every time you use it and can key in on the evidence the blood trail leaves. Since it glows bright blue in the dark, even people who are colorblind or whose eyes are "not as good as they used to be" can follow the trail without any help. No glasses or lights are needed, just water and a spray bottle. Water can be taken from streams, lakes and ponds along with any tap or bottled water. In extreme cold, you can use window washer solvent. Total darkness is not needed, just low light after shooting hours end.

The tablets are mixed in a sprayer with water and sprayed on the ground where the animal was standing, and if the animal was hit, there will be a bright blue glow. Blood is easily transferred from one place to another, so stay off the trail or you will leave footprints of blood all over the woods. There will be an unbroken trail of blood where the animal went. If you just find blood spots here and there, these are transfer patterns made by people and animals walking on the blood trail.

Blood will be trackable for a very long time. There has been a forensic study on Civil War sniper holes at the Shriver House museum in Gettysburg, Pa., and blood was found more 143 years after it was shed. Blood will last in the woods for months, but there is a big difference in the brightness between old trails and new ones. Blood on the hands of a hunter after gutting an animal without gloves will remain for weeks, no matter how well the hunter washes. This is used frequently in murder cases.

Last but not least, use trail markers. This will help if you need to leave the trail for any reason and will help anyone who is trying to join later on to find the trackers. This also gives a pattern of travel, which most likely will be an arch traveling back to the bedding area downwind of the stand. Bedding areas are thick with a good view and take advantage of wind direction, and they provide a perfect area for a wounded animal to try and recover.

So no matter what happens before or after the shot, there are tools that cost very little and will save lots of time, and help us remain ethically responsible by recovering game quickly and efficiently.

• Africa’s Cunning Killer •
• Track better-hunt better •
• Die Another Day •
• After the Shot •
• Reading Vultures •
• Learning from Snipers •
• Using a scouting camera •
• Blind to Blood •
• Training for the paw •
• A question of ethics •
• What your PH does not know •
• What is a trophy? •
• B'aka net hunting •
• The Razor's Edge •

•  •

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