It’s 15 minutes before last light on the final day of the season. You’re hunting alone and still trying to fill your tag. As your mind pours all its energy into flexing your senses to the max, you notice movement; then an ear; then a head; and finally the full body of your four-legged quarry making its way out of shadow-dappled trees and into your view some 350 yards away.
You confirm your target with binoculars then settle into the appropriate shooting position, aim, and gently, but purposefully, press the trigger. The animal goes 25 yards and drops. You smile, your heart races and you take 10 minutes to collect your thoughts. It’s now rather dark but you’re not concerned. You grab your headlamp and eagerly head to the animal only to discover that you can’t find it. You spend the next hour searching but come up empty handed–not even a drop of blood.
You go back to camp and spend a sleepless night wondering what happened. The next morning you find the animal more than 200 yards away from where you thought you saw it drop. Embarrassed and frustrated, you quickly void your carcass tag, get the animal field dressed and start packing it out. Thank goodness none of the meat has spoiled.
How do you prevent this from ever happening again? Simple. Use a baseplate compass to take a field bearing to the carcass. Or, if you didn’t see the animal drop, take a field bearing to the last place you saw it (before it headed over a ridge or into dense vegetation) in order to pick up the blood trail.
In Colorado, we are fortunate to have vast, open landscapes. This allows us to use high-power rifles to frequently make safe shots at ranges well beyond 200 yards. It goes without saying that if you haven’t practiced making accurate long-range shots before the season, you have no business starting this practice on the opening day of your hunt. However, if you are prepared and made an outstanding shot on a big-game animal you still have a challenge ahead of you–finding the carcass.
Effective blood trailing is a valuable skill. However, even if you saw the animal drop, if it’s several hundred yards away, it becomes easy to misjudge where the animal was standing when it was initially shot. That’s due to Colorado’s rugged topography. Whether in rolling hills and sandy cuts on the Eastern Plains or tight draws, stacked ridgelines and granite cliffs of a high-elevation hunt, you could be gaining and losing several hundred feet between where you shot the animal (point A) and where the animal is lying or last seen (point B).
Every prepared hunter should already be carrying a map and compass. Next time you make a long-distance shot, immediately take your compass from around your neck and from that initial location (point A), follow these steps: (1) aim the direction of travel arrow at the carcass or place where the animal was last seen, (2) turn the azimuth ring to put “fred” the red magnetic needle inside the “shed” (red outline of a needle on the bottom of the compass housing). Then leave some blaze orange at point A to use as reference while you (3), simply keep fred in the shed and follow your direction of travel arrow as you make your way to point B to either intercept the blood trail or carcass. Your compass will take you straight there, day or night, regardless of the distance or whether you lose sight of the downed animal as you traverse draws, trees, hills, or anything else Colorado’s topography throws at you.
I love hearing hunting stories. However, I wouldn’t mind it if I never heard another “wounding loss” story again. It happens every year and leaves hunters (and district wildlife managers) feeling sick to their stomachs. By using your compass as an aide to recover game as well as a land navigation tool you will become a more efficient, confident and successful hunter. Make it a point this hunting season to move across the landscape with purpose and have a great hunt!
Written by Jason Duetsch. Duetsch is a district wildlife manager for CPW and is an avid outdoorsman.