October 29, 2021
Achieving a good shot at a game animal is an applaudable accomplishment and very likely the result of a great deal of time and effort invested in both scouting and hunting. However, unless the animal drops on the spot, more work is required. Typically, the animal must still be tracked.
In Florida, ubiquitous water can complicate the trailing process. Water quickly dilutes and dissolves blood sign and hides hoof prints as well. What is a hunter to do?
Examine Your Surroundings
This difficulty has no simple, ‘magic bullet' style answer, but a few practices may prove helpful. First, where the trail enters the water, the tracker should stop and make note of a few things. Does any vegetation extend above the surface of the pond, creek or other watery environment? Can a landmark be picked in the direction the last hoof prints pointed, especially one on the emergent shoreline? In the absence of true landmarks, a compass bearing can suffice. From the place the animal entered the water, which route looks the easiest and less impeded? Are there bubbles dotting the surface or that have drifted downwind or down current of the spot? Any one of these observations may turn out to be crucial in the recovery so it is best to develop a habit of assessing all from the very start.
Once the tracker enters the water, he or she may introduce water splashes on tree trunks or vegetation and bubbles to the surface.
If bubbles are present, watch for a minute and take note of the speed and direction of their drift. In stagnant water, there may be no drift. In moving water, the bubbles' position, in concert with an estimate of the time the animal passed, should allow a calculation of the course taken. In pooled, non-flowing water, the bubbles may last a long time, even hours. Bubbles from the splashes themselves are mixed in size with some as large in diameter as a quarter. In shallow, stagnant water, rather than big bubbles, the tracker may see clusters of tiny ones.
Apparently, the weight of the animal squeezes these from broken down debris on the bottom and even more so from submerged living plants. You'll also want to look for bubbles along the downstream bank of flowing streams. The current carries them in and a few persist. When they are present, bubbles manifest the game's trail. Extending the trail by careful inspection (even with binoculars if available) is best before the tracker wades in and creates more bubbles.
Where plant stems and leaves extend above the surface of the water, a trail marked by blood on land should continue to do so on the emergent vegetation. For some reason, blood is often not especially visible on grasses and rushes.
On the other hand, some aquatic plants like swamp lilies and lizard tails show blood sign readily. However, if the water has washed the animal's wounds, less blood may be leaked or the blood sign may be less red and more watery. Drooping and dangling branches and fronds also should be inspected for sign.
Wet vegetation, cypress knees and tree trunks offer clues to where the fleeing animal splashed water. Rapid movement through water causes a disturbance and anything above the surface is subjected to waves, splashes, or drips. The slower the rate of travel, the less exaggerated the sign will be, but droplets falling from lifted legs or saturated coats may still point the way. Mud splatters or smears are also often present.
When no evidence from bubbles or wet or bloody emergent vegetation is found, the next option is to extrapolate the animal's course through the water and examine possible exit points. Obviously, the number of places to check increases dramatically with longer expanses of water. Two routes show up often enough to bear recognition — a continuation of straight forward from the last footprint and the least obstructed way. Keep in mind that animals are individuals and will not all act the same so these are definitely not the only possibilities. Even so, a tracker is well advised to check the banks corresponding to those two courses initially. When choosing the least obstructed way, do so from the animal's perspective in regard to height, width and length of legs.
Each possible exit point is examined for any sign of use. Signs include splashed or dripped water, mud, blood, disturbed vegetation, or hoof prints, since often the ground is soft at the edge.
Again, with the wounds freshly washed, blood to confirm the trail may not show up for a distance. Water and mud are the most common indications. This painstaking procedure continues until the animal's exit route is discovered. Meanwhile, the tracker should avoid introducing any splashes, mud, or prints of his or her own that could obfuscate the true trail.
One more possibility must be born in mind. Not all that infrequently, the animal succumbs in the water. Florida waters in the woods are often dark. In these waters, the brown coats of deer, the black coats of hogs and even the feathers of turkeys show little contrast. Fallen animals typically float, but at a nearly submerged level and are not all that easily spotted. When no exit trail can be located, a thorough search of the water is worthwhile. Carcasses may show up as humps near the surface or even with heads wedged between trees.
All Florida trackers eventually face the challenges of following a wounded animal through watery terrain. As daunting as the task initially appears, the above suggestions may help the tracker puzzle out the trail.