To Get More Bucks, Know Your Does

Could one of the keys to killing bigger bucks be knowing more about your local does?

A number of years ago I asked a local gentleman, who had developed quite a reputation for consistently taking quality bucks year after year with some true bruisers mixed in, what his basic game plan was. Did he concentrate on scrapes, rubs, buck trails, funnels, bedding areas, or any other of the host of strategies that trophy hunters follow?

The man's answer surprised me, but in retrospect, it was exceptionally logical and well-conceived. For his strategy from pre-season through the rut was simply to know individually his local does and doe groups and to know the patterns of their movements. Let's take a look at why this game plan makes sense.

MANY DOES ARE HOMEBODIES
Although recent research has shown that some does will wander extensively during the rut, many do not and the average doe has smaller home ranges than bucks do. In fact, many does spend their entire lives in well-defined areas. Yearling bucks, as soon as their mothers force them out of their territories, are "born to run," to quote the old song, and often travel many miles before they come to a new home territory. Even then, males have much larger home areas than does and often travel extensively outside that range during the rut.

Look at the life cycle of a doe fawn, however. Even when her mother is raising her next set of fawns, the now one-year-old doe will remain in her home range. It is not uncommon for us to see groups of five antlerless deer together: an alpha doe and two fawns, plus last year's doe fawn with her first born. And sometimes there may be three or even four generations of does in a herd. Eventually, that doe fawn may well become the alpha female herself with several generations of female offspring as part of her assemblage.

What this means is that the doe groups on your place are much more likely to be continuous residents than bucks are, and that during the time of the year when bucks seek does, your knowledge of the does' patterns can give you a jump on hunting the bucks.

IDENTIFYING DOE FAMILIES AND INDIVIDUALS
For the individual wanting to tag a nice buck in his home area this fall, the above means a great deal. To explain, year round except when I am deer hunting, I take a three-mile walk along a road that runs by fields and forests where I either have permission to hunt or is close by to properties that I do. This daily ramble takes place either at first light or dusk, so I typically am able to view whitetails when they are most active.

The same deer that would no doubt flee if they saw me enter the woods have become quite habituated to my walking about and rarely do more than raise their heads when I pass by. As such, I am able to observe them freely and identify either individuals or individual groups.

For example, not far from where I started the other day, I came across a rather large doe that has a coat that is noticeably lighter than that of other does in the area. Old "White Coat" is a true alpha female and is queen of her realm. She is always seen feeding in the greenest field and her main bedding area is a dense pine copse that is a prime and safe place to rest and sleep.

Next I encountered a doe whose most prominent offspring is a juvenile male my wife Elaine and I have named "Big Button." If button bucks could be said to sport impressive headgear, then Big Button would truly be labeled a trophy for his age group. His nubs are quite noticeable, and he sports an independent streak that often makes him the first to enter a field or woodlot to feed. His mother and sister always come after him.

Then about a mile and a quarter from the house, I observed "Mrs. Gimpy," who has a slight limp. For several years, she has patrolled a rather marginal area in terms of food potential, as all it offers is some fescue-laden lawns and a rather barren forest. Mrs. Gimpy is not a large doe and her fawns never are either.

And finally, I witnessed Big Mama and her gang of seven antlerless deer, no doubt consisting of many generations of offspring. Quite probably cars and hunters over the years have taken their toll on Big Mama's herd and sometimes her group numbers more or less than seven. But relatively speaking, this is a fairly stable group and one that seems to have a very well defined home ground. I would pay to see a skirmish between Big Mama and White Coat, but they have situated themselves at opposite ends of my daily walk, and I doubt that their paths ever cross.

Now, how can all this information translate into our taking bigger bucks? To give several examples, I have a friend who actually bought a five-acre parcel within Big Mama's home range. The guy has never had any intention of building a house there, but he hunts that property every year and has seen and killed some nice bucks that entered into it, no doubt, because Big Mama is such a regular.

Learning to recognize individual does will help you pattern the doe groups on your hunting property, and in turn help you pattern bucks in the rut.

Two other guys I know have permission to hunt the land where White Coat and her group roam. Both men have refused to shoot White Coat (although they could have done so many times) because of her distinctive appearance. But they have patterned her movements and have killed trophy bucks that have come courting White Coat and her doe offspring.

Big Button and his sister and mother often ventured onto my own property this past hunting season and whenever they did during the rut, it seems that they drew a buck or two. I was never able to take advantage of that knowledge, and, of course, this coming hunting season, Big Button will no longer look the same. But there's a strong chance that Big Button's mama will still be around and perhaps I can come to better know her or her next set of offspring.

SPECIFIC CHARACTERISTICS
Now that the importance of knowing our local does has become established, let's take a look at six specific traits that can help us identify them.

  • Some alpha does might be of considerable size. Big Mama is certainly an example of this and over the years I have observed a number of does that were either 3 1/2 years older or more and/or were exceptionally large. This past season my son-in-law killed a doe that was bigger than many 2 1/2-year-old bucks I have seen.
  • Some families might be quit small. Conversely, two years ago, I observed a family group that had the two smallest fawns I hav

    e ever observed. I witnessed their movements over a number of trips and finally decided to kill the smaller of the two with the hope that the larger one might have a better chance to make it through the winter. Even so, I doubt that the late born and/or malnourished fawn did.

  • Some button bucks have highly visible nubs. Big Button certainly sported impressive headgear last year, and more than a few juvenile males do as well. They can be real plusses in helping us identify a deer family. Also keep in mind that button bucks can be described as having a shorter nose than does and a "flat top" appearance when they are looking at us head on. Although very uncommon, some does may have twin buck fawns or doe fawns that survive and this too can further aid in family identification.
  • Color variations among does and fawns. White Coat is one of the most distinctive does I have ever seen, and I have been observing her for over four years now. Often does have variations in size and in the shape of the white neck area. Many of us have probably observed does that display extensive white neck patches while other females have very small ones.
  • Number of deer in a doe family. A doe family can range in size from last year's doe fawn and her sole offspring to a congregation that may reach two figures.
  • Variations in temperament. Even if a doe family does not have distinguishing traits in appearance, the group might contain members that have very different dispositions. A very aggressive buck fawn, for instance, might always lead a family into a field, something I noticed last year with Big Button. Also, some mature does just seem to have an edge to their temperament. On one farm I hunted last year, one female (and she was by no means the largest doe that came into this farm's pasture) would not tolerate any other doe or fawn entering "her space." Any whitetail that foolishly did so, she would charge and threaten to head butt. I can only imagine what her demeanor will be if she survives and grows another year or two.

WHY KNOWING DOE FOOD SOURCES CAN BE CRUCIAL
Besides learning the individual size, appearance, and disposition of your local doe families, if you want to really increase your odds of using this knowledge to kill a big buck this fall, learn the food sources of these doe groups. For although bucks may travel about because of their testosterone, what drives the movement patterns of does is almost always their stomachs.

Throughout this region, whitetails have two constants regarding food -- acorns and fields. Various members of the white and red oak families will produce acorns and various crops will be planted in open areas. As the season progresses, those food sources will change, sometimes not much from day to day but potentially a great deal from week to week and certainly from the beginning of the season to the end.

If you can't seem to pattern the bucks in your area, give up trying to do so -- yes, give up, especially as the rut approaches. The hunter who can pattern his local does and pinpoint their food sources is eventually very likely to see his local (and non-local) bucks venture into those same feeding areas. Think about it: how many bucks are going to avoid encountering does during the pre-rut and rut?

I would never suggest that we deer hunters stop trying to learn more about scrapes, rubs, and other buck sign. But I do believe that learning more about our local doe groups can result in our having better odds at tagging our local and non local bucks.

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