Get Your Virginia Doe -- Guaranteed

Get Your Virginia Doe -- Guaranteed

Okay, nothing in hunting and fishing is guaranteed, but some Virginia counties have high populations of does. Hunting them will grace your table and improve your relationships with landowners. (August 2007)

The author with a Franklin County doe that he killed last November on the opening day of the early muzzleloader season east of the Blue Ridge. A willingness to harvest does as a landowner wants can get you invited back to hunt some nice property.
Photo by Bruce Ingram.

It was during the late muzzleloader season this past December when I dropped by a Franklin County farmer's home to ask him if I could go afield on his spread that day. When I brought up the subject of deer hunting, the gentleman was not happy.

"You are the only hunter that I allowed on my place this year that concentrated on killing does," he bitterly complained. "I let five other guys hunt and they killed a total of four deer, and two of them were bucks. All those guys kept promising me that they would kill some does to help me out, but somehow they never seemed to get around to it.

"The other night my wife drove around to our fields, and she counted 51 deer. Goodness knows how many she didn't see and how many more were back in the woods somewhere. Of course, you can go hunt my place today or anytime. But I'm not so sure I'm going to let those other guys come back if they won't help me out with my deer problem."

The Franklin County farmer in this anecdote did not want his name mentioned, but I can understand his frustration. Indeed, in October of 2005, he called me after reading a magazine article that I had written about the need for sportsmen to harvest more does with the goal being to help landowners and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) better manage the state's herd in counties where reducing the doe contingent would be beneficial not only to the herd itself but also to the habitat in which they dwell.

After that initial call, I eagerly accepted the farmer's invitation to go afield on his property, and on my first visit in 2005, I downed a mature doe on opening day of the early muzzleloader season east of the Blue Ridge. Later, I took two more does during the regular gun season. And on opening day of the early muzzleloader season in 2006, I tagged yet another fine doe on the gentleman's place. The four does killed there over the past two seasons have been an important and nutritional source of food for my family and me. And in a small way, I have helped the farmer better manage his property and in an even smaller way assisted the VDGIF in managing Franklin County's deer herd.

Interestingly, the VDGIF has developed a color-coded map that lists the abundance of deer across the state in every county in five categories: very high, high, moderate, low and very low. In other words, it lists not the total population of deer for a county, but the relative density of that deer population. The premise behind the color codes is sound: Every year newspapers and magazines frequently publish a list of top 10 counties based on the overall harvest. Many hunters have come to look upon those domains as containing the best places to gain permission to private land.

However, those charts can be misleading because the overall kill may just be a reflection of a county having a large size. In the 2006-07 regulations guide, the VDGIF gave the examples of Pittsylvania and Clarke counties, the former is the largest county in the Old Dominion, and the latter is one of the smallest.

Every year, Pittsylvania makes the top 10 lists for bow, muzzleloader and regular gun season harvests, whereas Clarke rarely, if ever, has. The assumption would be that Pittsylvania is overrun with whitetails, while Clarke features a small contingent.

The figures seem to prove those assumptions, as Pittsylvania County has an average harvest of around 4,400, and Clarke usually tallies around 1,740. However, when the deer kill per square mile of habitat is considered, Clarke receives a high ranking, while Pittsylvania receives a moderate grade. Now, which county would you rather go afield in if you had the opportunity to choose and if you wanted a doe for the freezer?

The VDGIF lists four counties in the red, or very high, category concerning deer populations: Loudon, Fairfax, Shenandoah and Bedford. Justifiably, these counties have some of the most liberal harvest regulations in the Old Dominion. Loudon, Fairfax, Prince William, Fauquier, Frederick and the aforementioned Clarke offer antlerless deer hunting during a regular gun season that lasts annually from mid-November to the first Saturday in January.

Fairfax County is even among a list of locales that has an Urban Archery season two weeks before the early bow season. The other locales on that list are cities and towns, and if I were an archer who wanted to get a head start on the upcoming season and lived in or near those communities, I would certainly contact the municipality closest to my home. The communities are scattered across the Commonwealth from Colonial Heights and West Point to Christiansburg and Tazewell.

There is also a late Urban Archery season in those cities and towns. It runs from the second Monday in January through the end of March. If an archer needs one more doe for the freezer, these communities may just be able to oblige.

Shenandoah and Bedford counties are among all or parts of 10 counties that host antlerless deer hunting throughout the two-week regular gun season west of the Blue Ridge. Note that in all these categories, regulations are different for public land, such as the George Washington and Jefferson National Forest and the state wildlife management areas. For complete information, check out the 2007-2008 Hunting & Trapping Regulations.

Counties in blue receive the high ranking, and they consist of Frederick, Clarke, Warren, Fauquier, Warren and Rappahannock in northern Virginia and Giles, Craig and Alleghany along the West Virginia border, and Grayson along the North Carolina state line.

Across the Commonwealth, the vast majority of counties fall under the yellow color code or moderate category. These include a largely unbroken swath of counties in Western Virginia from Page, Madison and Culpepper in the north to Wise, Lee and Scott on the far western tip of the state. The yellow coded counties also include Accomack and Northampton on the Eastern Shore and most Tidewater domains, such as Westmoreland, Richmond and Lancaster in the upper part of the region and Southampton and Suffolk in the far southeast.

Only a dozen or so counties carry the green color or "low" category and obviously, these domains typically have conservative harvest regulations. Interestingly, these counties, too, are scattered statewide with Dickinson, Russell

and Washington being examples in the west and Caroline and Spotsylvania being examples east of the Blue Ridge. Only one county received the white color code or very low rating: Buchanan. As has been the case for many decades, the deer population remains very low in this county along the Kentucky line.

VIRGINIA HUNTERS AS DEER MANAGERS

I told Matt Knox, deer project coordinator for the VDGIF, that fellow biologist Dave Steffen once told me that Old Dominion hunters can be and should be the best deer managers.

"Steffen is absolutely correct," Knox said. "Every time a deer hunter pulls the trigger, he or she is making a deer management decision. When a hunter shoots bucks and does not kill does, they are managing for more deer. If one buck is killed, a single deer has been removed from the deer population. If he had survived for a decade, he would have been only a single deer a decade later. One buck can breed with a number of does, so removing the majority of bucks will have little impact on the number of fawns born.

"But what about shooting a doe? If one doe is killed, a single deer has been removed from the deer population. If she had survived for a decade, she and her offspring could have contributed over 200 deer to the deer population. The lesson here is simple: Shooting bucks will not control deer populations; shooting does will.

"When a hunter shoots young, small, antlered bucks, they are managing against older, bigger deer. If you want to shoot/manage for bigger, older bucks, you have to let young, small bucks walk -- (that's) trigger management. A professional acquaintance of mine from Auburn University, Dr. Keith Causey, was giving a deer presentation years ago and showing pictures of big 4 1/2-year-old bucks and a hunter in the audience asked where all these 4 1/2-year-old deer were, and Dr. Causey said, 'You killed them three years ago'."

Knox said that hopefully the VDGIF will be putting a very similar text about the need to kill does in the regulations digest this fall. Those regulations will also be online at www.dgif.virginia.gov.

THE REASONING BEHIND THE COLOR CODES

Certainly, one of the most useful tools for helping sportsmen determine where to go when they are seeking venison for the freezer is the color-coding system for deer abundance.

"I will take credit for the relative abundance map," Knox said. "When I came here years ago, sportswriters, no offense, used to always have me produce a top 10 deer kill list. I did it, but it means absolutely nothing and is/was, in fact, misleading the average deer hunter. Just because a county kills a lot of deer does not mean it has a lot of deer. The Clarke/Pittsylvania example in the text describes this paradox."

I asked the deer project coordinator if there are some areas/counties that need to have their deer populations decreased. And if so, is progress being made toward doing so?

"There are several areas," Knox continued. "First, northern Virginia, Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William, for example, are probably the most critical. For the past decade, we have been trying to reduce deer herds in this area, and they have increased. Second, a triangle of counties in the southwest Piedmont (Amherst, Bedford, Franklin, Henry, Patrick and Roanoke) is where we have been trying to stabilize deer herds, and they have increased.

"Is progress being made? Yes and no. The bottom line is that doe harvest levels have not been sufficient to reduce deer populations in these areas. Something must be done to increase doe harvest levels in these counties."

During the past hunting regulations process, department staff solicited public input on strategies to increase the kill of female deer.

"One approach, an 'earn a buck' regulation, would have required deer hunters to kill an antlerless deer before their second buck," Knox said. "Although this regulation proposal was not approved, a special late antlerless-only firearms season has been created in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties. However, it is the opinion of the department's deer management staff that hunter and landowner education is more important than regulations in solving deer overabundance in these counties."

Finally, I asked Knox if he had any closing words for deer hunters, with the new season only being a few months away and many archers already practicing with their bows.

"Yes, always the same message -- safety," he said. "I am sure you have heard it all before, but hunting safety cannot be overemphasized. No deer that ever walked across the Commonwealth is worth a serious injury. For example, if you allow hunting from tree stands, consider having a rule requiring a safety harness. Make all your hunters have a valid hunter safety card regardless of their age. We have an excellent hunter safety staff and program, so take advantage of it."

GAME PLAN FOR HARVESTING DOES

This past season, I went deer hunting over 50 times in the Old Dominion, and on only one of those outings did I go afield when I could not legally kill an antlerless deer. That one time was when I went hunting in Craig County on the opening day of the late muzzleloading season. Craig is one of the west of the Blue Ridge domains that only allows antlerless hunting during the late muzzleloader season over the course of the last six days.

The point is that I plan my outings so that I can tag four or five whitetails every season with the majority, or all of them, being antlerless. Yes, I would gladly take a broadbeam, but the truth is that most years a real bruiser does not come across my path. Last year, for instance, I only saw one buck that truly met the criteria of being a so-called shooter. The old boy walked by my stand once during the early bow season and three times during the first Saturday of the regular gun season, but never during those four sightings did he present a shot.

Therefore, my typical game plan is to locate concentrations of does during the early bow season. With any luck, I will be able to take one or two of them in October. With the knowledge of what the deer are feeding on in October, by the time the early muzzleloader season arrives, I hope to be in a position to take another doe or two.

The reason I was afield on the aforementioned Franklin County farm this past opening day of the early muzzleloader season was that a mid-October scouting trip had been extremely fruitful. It was at that time that I had located a creek bottom that connects a clearcut with a stand of Virginia pines. Several well-worn trails indicated that the deer were using the stream zone as their main highway, as the whitetails journeyed from a field into the clearcut, and then followed the stream until they entered the pine grove.

On that mid-October foray, I selected a large pine as a stand site. The pine was on a hump about 25 yards above the creek bottom and about 20 yards to the right from where the clearcut borders the pine grove. At 7:25 a.m. on opening day, I spotted a contingent of four does making their way through the area, and by 7:

30, I was field dressing the lead one.

When the early muzzleloader season opened west of the Blue Ridge, I spent most of my time in Roanoke County, instead of my home county of Botetourt, because the former features doe days every day, while the latter only has one doe day, the first Monday of the early season. On one of those sojourns in Roanoke County, I was able to smoke a very large doe before work one morning.

So many counties offer numerous antlerless days that hunters across the state can use the regulations as I try to do, that is, to harvest four or five does per season. Besides the benefits of lean, healthy, protein-filled venison, there is at least one more potential benefit to an individual who concentrates on does. And I'll let the words of that Franklin County farmer speak for themselves.

"I hope you'll be back on opening day of spring gobbler season," he said to me as I left his home.

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