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A mortally struck animal may die in only 10 to 30 seconds. A white-tailed deer, however, can cover a lot of ground in those few seconds and could disappear from view. An animal struck with less than ideal arrow placement may travel an even longer distance before collapsing. With the exception of a spine shot, a wise bowhunter gives the animal time to expire. Bowhunters should be patient and allow the broadhead to do its work before approaching or trailing the animal. Approaching a downed animal or starting the tracking process too soon may cause it to run even farther away, making the recovery more difficult. Usually you will find a well-hit animal within 200 yards. A poorly hit animal may travel considerably farther, but never give up while there is sign to follow.

If it appears that the arrow penetrated deep into the chest, wait 20 to 30 minutes to give the animal a chance to calm down and die. Then follow the trail carefully.

Bowhunter with binoculars

If you find the arrow with signs of a gut hit and the trail is skimpy, back off and wait six to eight hours. If you shoot and believe that you hit the animal in the gut, don't even follow the trail far enough to retrieve the arrow. Wait at least six hours before following the trail, even if rain, snow or darkness threatens to obliterate the trail. It's easier to find a dead deer under six inches of snow within 200 yards of where you shot it than to find one under three inches of snow two miles from where you shot it.

On a poor hit outside the chest or body cavity (neck, leg, rump, or back), the animal may run away quickly and then stop, calm down, and stop bleeding. Often the animal will survive. If you can follow the animal rapidly and aggressively, it will continue to bleed, even from a relatively minor wound. It may lose enough blood to get careless and give you another shot. It may even die from a wound that normally would not be considered fatal. If you're certain you have this type of hit and the conditions are right—open terrain, tracking snow, or a good initial blood trail—it's best to take up the trail immediately and push the animal.

When in doubt about where you hit the animal, it's better to wait 30 to 60 minutes and then carefully start trailing the animal. If you're new to trailing and recovery, it's best to have a more experienced hunter with you.