You Shot a Deer. Here's How to Find It.

(From the editor: This Retro Realtree article was originally published in November of 2013)


The buck you want is broadside, 20 yards away. You’re at full draw, trying to anchor and aim. I can count on Captain Hook’s left hand the number of things that excite me more than this moment. But nothing will turn that excitement into anxiety faster than releasing the arrow and not knowing exactly where it went. And that very thing happens to every bowhunter in the woods at some point in time.

But there are cues to watch following the shot. The deer’s initial reaction, the arrow’s appearance, and the blood trail quality are all important to considering not only where the deer is hit, but how long you should wait before taking up the trail.


heart-shot lung-shot shoulder-shot spine-shot liver-shot gut-shot ham-shot head-shot neck-shot leg-shot leg-shot brisket-shot brisket-shot

Heart Shot

The initial reaction will likely be the infamous “mule kick,” and with a clear line of sight, you’ll see the deer crash. Even if you don’t, a deer hit through the heart will be running low to the ground at a frantic pace.

Your arrow will be covered with crimson red blood. There could be small bubbles in the blood, as it’s rare to hit the heart without at least clipping the lungs as well. The blood trail will similarly be bright red and heavy.

No need to wait long if you’re sure of a heart shot. If you see the deer fall, pursue immediately. Otherwise, wait a half hour or a little longer. The deer shouldn’t go any farther than 100 to 150 yards.

Hint: If the whitetail makes it out of sight before falling, take careful note of a landmark where you last saw it. This will help once you’re on the ground searching for blood, and is a good tip regardless of where you think you hit a deer.

Lung Shot

In contrast to a heart shot, the initial reaction for a double-lung hit is more subtle. If the arrow goes between ribs, a lung-shot deer might simply walk away. But more often, the deer dashes a short distance before stopping and tipping over.

Your arrow will be soaked with pinkish-red blood. It will also have air bubbles within the blood. The blood trail may not begin for a few yards, but when it does, it will be heavy and often bubbly.

The wait is short when you’re sure of a double-lung hit. Follow up immediately if you see the deer fall. Give it a half hour to an hour otherwise. A double-lunged whitetail will rarely run farther than 150 yards.

Hint: Much of the blood from this hit will not come from the entry or exit wounds, but from the mouth and nostrils of the deer.

Liver Shot

The initial reaction will be similar to that of a lung-shot deer, but the whitetail will likely slow to a walk after running a short distance. This deer may travel a quarter mile before bedding down, although 200 yards is more common.

Your arrow will be soaked with dark red blood. There will be a decent blood trail initially, but it will typically decline in quality as the trail goes on. Blood will be a deep red, and will be found in droplets, rather than spray.

Wait three to five hours before taking up the trail, and don’t give up if the blood gets sparse. This is to be expected with a liver shot, but a deer hit here will not survive.

Hint: It’s paramount not to push a liver-hit deer. It is much easier to find a whitetail in its first bed than its second or third.

Gut Shot

The initial reaction is obvious. The deer will typically run a few yards, arch its back, tightly tuck its tail and walk or slowly trot away. You might see the deer bed down. If there is an opportunity for another shot from where you’re sitting, take it. If the deer beds down within sight but out of range, wait as long as possible before moving.

Your arrow will have a little brownish red blood on it, and much more greenish stomach matter. It will have a rank odor from passing through the stomach. Expect a sparse blood trail, with as much stomach matter left behind as actual blood.

Wait at least 10 hours before pursuing. A deer hit through the guts generally won’t run far before bedding down, but the harsh truth is it takes a long time to succumb to this hit. You can expect to find your deer in this initial bed unless it’s jumped. If that happens, odds of recovery plummet.

Hint: If you lose the blood trail, look near water sources. Mortally wounded and injured whitetails usually seek out water.


The initial reaction will seem promising. As long as you hit low and far enough back, you’ll get the vitals. If you hit high, in the scapula, all bets are off. The scapula is meant for one thing — to protect the vitals. Penetrating it with even a heavy bow can be difficult.

Your arrow will likely be broken if it squarely hits the shoulder. Blood on the remainder of the shaft will be a bright red color. Decent blood may be present at the site of the hit and a little way beyond, but it will fade fast.

If hit low enough to penetrate the vitals, the wait is short. But if the animal is hit high in the shoulder with minimal penetration, follow up immediately. This is a superficial wound, and your best chance at recovery is with a second arrow.

Hint: You can often tell as much about a shoulder shot from what you hear as from what you see. The slap of an arrow hitting the scapula is quite loud.


The initial reaction will be similar to that of a gut-shot deer. If the shot is forward, the arrow will slide through the ham and paunch. If the hit is back, you’ll hit heavy muscle and maybe bone.

Your arrow will probably be covered with blood and will often break if it centers the ham. The blood trail will typically be substantial, and even profuse if you struck a major artery. Keep your fingers crossed.

Wait two to three hours and hope you hit one of those arteries.

Hint: The carotid artery branches into the femoral artery on either side of the deer’s hind leg. If you sever this, you will probably see blood spraying from the deer as it runs away. Although no one aims for the butt, this shot actually has high odds of easy recovery.


The initial reaction will be obvious. A whitetail that is spine shot will drop in its tracks. But it usually requires a follow-up shot.

Your arrow will likely lodge in heavy bone and break.

Wait only the amount of time it takes to make a follow up shot. Keep your cool and don’t hesitate. Get an arrow into the deer’s chest cavity from any available angle. And if it takes two more arrows, do it.

Hint: Your arrow will break off, leaving the broadhead lodged in heavy bone in all but the rarest of instances. If you value your fingers, don’t forget about that broadhead when removing the deer’s backstraps.

X Head Shot

Hit a deer in the head with an arrow, and the odds are overwhelmingly high that it will escape with a severe wound. Most bows simply do not have the energy to reliably penetrate the skull. And even if they did, a deer’s brain is a tiny target. If you purposely try to shoot a deer in the head with a bow, you don’t belong in the woods.

X Neck Shot

A hit to the neck can obviously be deadly, as this area is full of major blood vessels and, of course, the spine. But it’s also surrounded by thick muscle, and if your arrow strikes along the edge of that, your hit will result in a superficial wound. Typically, a deer hit fatally in the neck will either fall in its tracks, or die within 50 yards after a profuse blood trail. If not, it will probably escape. All things considered, this is a terrible shot to take with a bow. So don’t.

X Brisket Shot

This shot happens by mistake more often than you’d think. Your arrow will usually zip right through and be covered with minimal blood, fatty tissue and hair. You won’t find much blood on the ground. Deer shot through the brisket typically make a full recovery.

X Leg Hits

Misjudged your yardage, eh? Hit a deer in the leg with a gun and you’ll often be able to kill it with a second shot. The same isn’t true with a bow. Your broadhead could center the bone and break it. If it does, follow up immediately with a second arrow. More often, the heavy bone will simply deflect your arrow, causing a glancing blow, a big cut and one seriously spooked – but not seriously injured – whitetail.