Topic 1
Recovering Your Elk

Recovering Your Elk

After the shot, your adrenaline is pumping! An elk hunter must understand the recovery processes after the shot to ensure the elk is found. Being knowledgeable and patient are the keys to carrying out success.

Analyzing the Shot- When to Start the Search

Retrieving Your Elk - Depending on where the shot hits and the condition of the elk, you may have to search for a wounded elk. After the shot, give the animal at least 30 minutes before starting your search. If it was a gut shot, give the animal at least 6 hours. During this time sit tight, keep your composure and remain quiet. Noise may startle a down elk and it may run farther away. The initial search begins by “reading” the signs and/or looking for signs where the elk was shot.

While you wait, replay your shot. Did you see where the arrow hit? If so, where? What was the animal’s reaction?

Blood Trailing

Blood trailing can be exciting and frustrating. One should take their time when trying to find the blood trail.

First, locate where the elk was when you shot. One can do this by finding a distinct tree or shrub that the animal was near prior to the shot. Also note what position the elk was facing. This can help determine what direction the elk traveled after the shot. If you used a range finder before the shot, remember the number of yards it read. This will aid in helping to find the site of impact. Having a landmark will help to start the search of the down or wounded elk.

After the hit, watch the elk leave the area. Again, pick out a second landmark of where the elk disappears out of your sight. Hear the elk walk and remember the direction in which the sound is coming from if it stops.

Now you will have the approximate site for the beginning of the blood trail.

Significant Trail of Blood

Don’t just look at the ground for blood! Look on low tree limbs, shrubs and rocks at the site of the hit. One can also look for hair with blood on it. Looking all around the area will open your search zone and give you greater success in finding your elk. The trail of blood may be inconsistent. A trail may start with a few droplets here and there. Other times there could be a small or large puddle of blood followed by no sign at all which could span over a great distance.

Once blood is found, one should use toilet paper or marking tape (surveyor’s tape) to mark where the trail is located. Markers should be placed at eye level. Toilet paper will breakdown, but marking tape would have to be picked up after the elk is located. Please don’t leave litter in the woods.

If you are hunting with somebody they can help you track. This will aid in having another set of eyes in finding the blood trail. Blood may look darker red or even a purple shade depending on the shot placement.

If bow/crossbow hunting the shaft can reveal where the arrow/bolt hit:

Coloration Shot Placement
Pink, frothy Lung
Dark red Muscle or Liver
Bright Red Oxygen-rich artery
Green/brown (with bad smell) Gut Shot
Blood Trail
Image Source: Ryan Kirby (commissioned by Realtree).

If the blood has a greenish or brownish tint with a foul smell it would be a gut shot. Give an elk at least six to 12 hours before tracking a gut shot elk. It takes a longer duration of time for an elk that has been shot in the intestines to bleed out and more time before the animal can be approached.

Blood Trail
Image Source: Joe Lacefield
Blood Trail Arrow
Image Source: Joe Lacefield

Significant Trail of Blood

If there is no blood, it does not mean that the animal has not been hit. It is normal for an elk NOT to drop right after the shot … even if it is a good shot.

There are ways to track elk other than just looking for blood. Be alert for signs like hoof prints, trampled grass, and hair tuffs. Overturned and flattened leaves would also indicate an animal has passed through. If the blood trail weakens and blood becomes difficult to find, the wound may be plugged with fat or other matter. It is possible that the wound has stopped bleeding. If the blood on the trail increases significantly, it may indicate that the animal is just up ahead. Heavy blood loss can cause the animal to expire or bed down.

If you can’t find the animal and the blood trail has stopped, one should begin a larger search. A circle search starts at the last sign marked, and expands from the center. The individuals will begin to expand the circumference of the circle and become wider. This could be a one to three person effort. GPS can be helpful when trailing wounded elk. Hunters can mark spots along the blood trail as waypoints. It is helpful to add a waypoint of where your vehicle is parked or where camp is located, making it easier to find a route back when you do find your elk. If you see the blood trailing onto land you do not have permission to hunt on, contact the landowner to ask permission before going onto his or her land.

Once you find your elk, approach it from above and behind the head. Wait a short distance away to watch for any rise and fall of the chest cavity. Notice if the eyes are closed or not. Eyes of a dead animal are usually open. Take a stick and touch the animal. If the eye doesn’t blink the animal is dead.