Reading the signs

Rudi van Kets presents the ultimate guide to reactions of a shot animal and what that means for the track

So you’ve shot your quarry. How did it react? It doesn’t sound like a difficult question, but with the excitement of a hunt where everything happens so quickly, you’ll find that few hunters will be able to answer this question with absolute certainty.

During the observation of the game we are often tense for several reasons. You’re thinking, can I shoot this animal, is it safe, can I put in a good shot? All these questions in our heads, factors we have to take into account, and adrenalin running through the body mean that we may hardly see the reaction of the animal during or after the firing.

I can make this clearer with an example. A few weeks ago, I went out to follow a track with my friend Benny and his dog Harras, who I’ve featured here before. The hunter had shot a buck in the evening. The buck had crossed a narrow road, halted in the middle of the road, and then paused on the left side of hunter’s field of view at around 120 metres. This was enough to present a shot. After this, the buck ran into a small patch of cover, immediately followed by a female deer.

When the hunter called us, we did not get much information as to how the buck reacted. We were told that the buck had crossed the road and gone into cover. The man was not sure if he had seen or heard the impact. He also told us that he had gone for a look but had not found any shot signs. And that was it.

Benny and Harras prepared to start the search. On the road we found some hoof prints that indicated that the roe deer had gone to the left. We did not find shot signs. Harras took up a trail that quickly put us in the plantation next to the narrow path.

It quickly became clear that Harras had followed the trail of a healthy deer. There was still no sign. Benny decided to go back to the point of the shot and start again. We began to wonder if the hunter had missed the buck. But the hunter said he definitely had hit it. So back to square one for a thorough analysis.

The classic signs of a shot apply in any situation. Look for blood on nearby foliage…

We came to the conclusion that the place where we started was not actually the shot site. The buck had actually been standing a few meters before the prints we had first found – this was not to the left but to the right of the hunter. There, we found some splashes of blood on the grass and a bit of hair. We let Harras do his work here. Harras went to the right in a fast pace. After 150 metres, we found the buck killed with a perfect shot.

This story reminds us that as a hunter we must always remain vigilant and attentive to the reaction of the shot game. If we do not find it in the immediate vicinity, it is important that we remember how the animal reacted. This depends on where the bullet touches the animal and what it’s doing at the time – standing still, or on the move during a driven hunt. Finding the shot, knowing the direction of the deer, finding shot signs – all of this gives us a picture of where the animal has been hit. But just as important is the reaction of the animal during and after the shot.

So what do you look for?

Firstly, not every animal has a reaction to the shot. For example, during a driven hunt, it will be very difficult to observe the reaction of a wild boar. The rule of doing a check and searching for shot signs remains valid in all scenarios. Furthermore, not every animal will show the same reaction. Much depends on the circumstance and condition of the animal.

The most common reaction we have is a shot in the chest. In theory, the animal jumps up. This is a clear sign that the bullet has struck the correct location, usually touching the lungs. The animal will then run away at high speed. In the case of a successful heart-lung shot, the animal jumps up steeply. You can sometimes even watch all four of its legs leave the ground at the same time.

In both cases the animal will have a short run then fall down within our field of vision. A trail will often be the simplest matter. Nevertheless, in this situation it is still beneficial to work the track with a dog who you are training in field work. The dog will build up his confidence on this track.

The most frustrating outcome for you as a hunter is a shot in the spine. With this shot, the animal will collapse as a result of vertebra breaking. The reaction you see is that the animal remains motionless. Hunters often freeze while watching this reaction, waiting for something to happen. Instead, they should really reload and give it a second shot.

…and hair, indicating an exit wound and hopefully a swift follow-up

Then, a shot that is placed too far back. With this shot the heart and lungs remain intact. The animal will flee and seek refuge. Characteristic of this shot is that the animal will not run too fast. A second possible reaction to this shot is that the animal jumps up with a slightly bent back. This indicates that the kidneys may have been hit.

All these impacts are deadly for the animal. As a hunter, we have to build in some caution and not go tracking too quickly. If we search too fast, chances are high that the animal will use the last of its energy to come running at us. Along the same lines, if called out, it is important to use a dog that is capable of stopping or keeping the animal on the spot so the hunter can place a deadly but safe shot.

Some hunters use neck or head shots. The motivation for using this shot is not to damage the meat. It’s not a shot for every situation, but you still need to know how to read the reaction. With this shot the animal will drop on the spot or immediately start running at high speed. At the shot sign we can then find fragments of skull, teeth, tongue or even pieces of the cervical vertebra.

The last thing I want to discuss is a shot in the legs. When a bullet touches one of the legs, the chance of a long, tough track is very high. A shot in the legs is not necessarily fatal. The affected animal may collapse briefly and then flee.

If the bullet has hit one of the front legs, the animal will flee with the leg held up. When both front legs are hit, the animal will flee with its body lowered and the hind legs providing all the force. Here, too, it is important to let the animal go into cover, to wait and to use a tracking dog that is able to stop the animal.

If the animal is caught in the hind leg, it will produce a reverse image to that of the foreleg. The hind leg will not be raised but will hang loose. The method of searching for the animal is the same as with a shot in the foreleg. We all know well that an animal hit in the legs can adapt very quickly and can live perfectly well with this handicap.

The question ‘What was the animal’s reaction?’ is not always an easy one to answer. Good observation remains important in all situations. It will save you a lot of time and work.

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