Elk NetworkBlood-trailing Elk 101

Hunting | May 7, 2019

1) Use a powerful setup, large broadhead, and make a broadside shot 2) Arrow-hit elk often walk or run uphill before they drop 3) Flag the spot where you shot, and then any drops of blood 4) Follow to one side of the blood trail 5) Trail slowly

A sharp, well-directed arrow is deadly on elk. But that arrow is worthless if you can’t recover the animal after the hit. 

Elk recovery can be as easy as watching an elk tip over minutes after an arrow slices an artery. Or it can be a gut-wrenching lesson in tenacity as you crawl on hands and knees looking for a speck of blood. Consider the following two episodes in the same year at the same waterhole.

Several days into the hunt, I was waiting with another bowhunter when a giant 6×6 followed his cows to the pond. It was my turn to shoot. The bull finally dropped his head for a drink, and I shot him through both lungs from 40 yards. The beast whirled as the arrow zipped out the far side, galloped less than 75 yards, and collapsed in full view of the blind. Blood gushed from both sides as the elk ran, but there was no need to follow the bright red trail. My bull never twitched once he hit the ground, and we trotted out to butcher him after a few minutes.

A few days later, my pal got his chance. Another six-point elk approached the water just before dark. He stood suspiciously beyond the pond and started to walk away. The bull stopped—a huge mistake given my friend’s excellent skill with his bow. The arrow plunged through the ribs at 50 yards and sliced forward into the far shoulder. The animal raced out of sight as if goosed with a cattle prod. We looked for blood until dark, and continued to look with our flashlights for another hour. We did not find one drop, and tracks were non-existent in the knee-deep grass.

Early next morning, we were back at the waterhole. We looked briefly for blood, and then fanned out to grid-search the area where the bull had disappeared. About an hour later, I spotted an antler tip above a clump of brush. The bull was dead as a wedge, 425 yards from the hit site. He had bled inside and died fast. Fortunately, weather was cool and the meat and cape were still good.

In my experience, most elk recovery is somewhere between these two extremes. You might not see your animal drop, but you will usually have at least a little sign to follow. But no matter what, you can always find a mortally hit elk with a few time-tested procedures.

Body angle, bow power, and broadhead size all play a part in how fast an elk drops and how much blood is left on the ground.

The best shooting angle is dead broadside, because this gives you an optimum chance of driving your broadhead completely through the elk. Two holes in the hide mean more blood on the ground—often a lot more. A quartering-away shot is also deadly, but if the arrow jams in the far shoulder or leg, the elk might lose most or all of its blood inside the chest.

Bow power and broadhead size can also make a difference in recovery. I shot my bull with a 75-pound Hoyt compound bow, heavy energy-retaining Easton arrow, and huge-cutting Rage broadhead. My setup drove that two-inch head completely through and left a blood trail a bat could have followed.

By comparison, my friend was shooting a lower-poundage bow with a light carbon arrow and a broadhead barely wider than the legal minimum of 7/8-inch. Combined with his quartering-away shot, this setup sliced the lungs but failed to exit. The small broadhead damaged less tissue, and a single hole in the hide kept blood loss inside the chest.

We recovered both elk, but time, energy, and stress levels were totally different. If you opt for a powerful setup, large broadhead, and broadside shot, most elk recoveries will be a whole lot easier.

No matter where you hit your elk, you should always watch where the animal goes and listen for thudding hooves and crackling branches after the creature disappears. If the blood trail is sparse, you might need these clues to help you search in the right area.

Elk are occasionally taken by archers with bizarre or less-than-perfect hits. A liver shot, gut shot or butt shot will usually drop an elk within half a mile unless you follow immediately and scare the animal into overdrive. But these are big, tough animals. Your best fallback if you muff the hit is to have a powerful bow and big-cutting broadhead. The more tissue damage you can inflict the better.

One friend of mine shot at a Colorado bull as it quartered away. He badly misjudged the distance, and hit nearly two feet higher than he wanted to. The sharp broadhead slammed that elk in the back of the head where the spine connects. That bull went down as if hit by a freight train.

But let’s be clear: nobody makes such killing shots on purpose!

If you score a bad hit and know it, you should wait several hours before you follow up. That is, unless you shoot your elk in the head.

With a hit in the heart/lung area, you should wait about 30 minutes and then take up the trail. The only exceptions are fading daylight or heavy rain or snow. If nightfall or blood-destroying precipitation threatens your efforts, you should try to follow slowly at once.

A lot has been written about the color and makeup of blood sign on the arrow and along the trail. Liver and paunch blood tend to be darker, and butt and chest blood tend to be brighter. But in my experience, most bowhunters could not tell the difference in subtle blood colors if their lives depended on it. I have seen hundreds of bloody arrows and blood trails, and even I cannot differentiate blood colors half the time.

Blood spatter and blood consistency are much better indicators of where you hit. You do not need to be an expert in the subtleties of blood hues to tell when blood is spraying to one or both sides of the trail. Spraying blood means a lethal hit in the lungs, heart, or an artery. By comparison, downward drips usually mean slower blood loss and a longer, more arduous trail.

Frothy (bubbly), pinkish blood is a sure sign of a lung hit. This does not always mean an easy recovery, because elk can survive several hours if hit through only one lung. But your animal will drop. Keep searching until you find it.

Elk usually go downhill after a lethal arrow hit. Right?

Not necessarily. As a matter of fact, I have seen more hard-hit elk climb rather than take the easier downhill route. For example, my hunting buddy Doyle shot a tremendous 6×7 bull through the liver early one morning. Doyle’s a great shot, but his arrow ticked an aspen branch and veered just before it hit.

The two of us watched that bull walk away. We waited six hours and followed. Blood was skimpy at first, and then disappeared. There were too many elk tracks to sort out which way the bull had gone.

We searched downhill first, then sidehill. No results. Three hours later, Doyle found his very dead elk in a lodgepole tangle 500 vertical feet above the hit site.

Perhaps it is their instinct to climb above predators that makes wounded elk seek higher ground. But regardless of the reason, arrow-hit elk often walk or run uphill before they drop.

There are three basic but important rules to follow whenever you blood trail an elk.

First, mark the place you shot from with surveyor’s tape, toilet paper or another easily seen object. As you trail, continue to mark each spot of blood you find when blood is spread out or difficult to see. If you do not have a lot of tape, or another kind of marker, you can leap-frog two markers between the last blood found and the next blood found. In a pinch, you can leap-frog your hat and jacket or two arrows stuck in the ground.

Second, stay to one side of a blood trail at all times to avoid disturbing sign. If you trudge directly over your elk’s escape route, you risk smudging blood, flipping over bloody leaves or twigs, etc.

Finally, you should always move slowly along a trail unless blood is abundant. Resist the temptation to charge ahead to where you “think” your elk has gone. Arrow-hit animals have the distressing tendency to change directions without rhyme or reason. Creep along, with eyes peeled for blood on the ground and on grass, bushes and trees up to two or three feet above the ground. A single smudge of blood or a single drop at waist level might be enough to keep you on the right path.

One final note. Blood trails are notoriously inconsistent. Some start strong and finish weak or nonexistent. Others begin 100 yards or more from the hit sight as an elk fills up with blood. A few mortally hit elk run like heck and never leave a single drop to follow. Like my friend at the waterhole found out, only a persistent and thorough search can turn up such animals.

Life member Chuck Adams has written 10 books about bowhunting—including Super Slam, detailing his adventures with all 28 species of North American big game.