October 09, 2023
There aren’t many modern-day deer hunters who would argue that the sport isn’t at least somewhat plagued by misconceptions, fads and gimmicks. One that is particularly deep-rooted and well-intended, albeit misinformed, is the fallacy that stockpiling does on your farm will translate to more productive hunting during the rut.
As a wildlife biologist and habitat consultant, I have worked closely with landowners across the whitetail’s range, advising on managing their properties for a healthier deer herd and better hunting success. Of all the property consultations I have conducted since I launched my business, I can count on one hand the number of times I have recommended backing off the antlerless harvest. More often than not, I encourage landowners to harvest more antlerless deer and suggest they do so before the rut kicks off. The assumption that “if all of the does are on my place during the rut, all of the big bucks will show up” is false and counterintuitive to the goal of producing a healthier deer herd with more predictable deer movement.
Of the many factors contributing to how big a buck will grow throughout its life, age, nutrition and genetics steal 98 percent of the headlines devoted to the topic. However, a fourth category, stress, should be added near the top of the list. Effectively reducing stress on an animal will lead to a greater expression of that animal’s genetic potential. So, what is causes stress, and how do we reduce it?
The two most significant stressors for deer are social stress and nutritional stress, and a great way to reduce both is an increased antlerless harvest. As land managers, we spend precious time and money on managing our parcel to make it as inviting as possible to our hooved friends. We plant food plots and orchards for nutrition. We manage our woodlots to increase stem count and woody browse. We delay cutting hay in the spring to avoid fawn mortality. We trap and hunt predators. We even install water sources and implement supplemental feeding programs (where legal) to reduce nutritional stress on these animals.
We do everything we can to increase carrying capacity and recruitment success for these ungulates, then become frustrated when we can’t get a 4-acre soybean field to establish due to browsing pressure. The answer isn’t more soybeans or an electric fence around the food source. The answer is fewer mouths to feed on the landscape.
INCREASE BUCK SIGHTINGS
While an inflated antlerless population may lead to more nighttime trail camera photos of bucks using your farm, I dare you to convince me that this has led to an increase in daylight activity by mature bucks.
When a mature buck locates a doe willing to breed, he will lock down with her until she is ready to breed. Everyone dreads this phase of the rut, as all the target deer huddle up in some brushy thicket inaccessible to hunters. As soon as a buck sows his seed, he is off to find the next suitable mate. If there are four fertile does for every viable male on the property, how hard do you think that buck must work to locate the next receptive doe? It is likely the buck will go from lockdown to lockdown with little seeking or chasing required to fulfill his biological duty. The seeking and chasing activity make rut hunting exciting, as these elusive animals lose their inhibition and expose themselves in desperate search of a mate. Decreasing antlerless numbers before the rut is one surefire way to increase seeking and chasing activity during the rut.
OCTOBER IS FOR SLICKHEADS
Excluding the last week, October is widely regarded as a throw-away month for whitetail hunting. The bucks are weeks removed from shedding their velvet and going hard-horned. Their testosterone levels steadily rise as daylight hours wane, their winter coats thicken and their diet shifts to fatty food sources such as acorns in anticipation of November’s escapades. In short, it is a slow month for targeting bucks.
While buck movement slows, the doe family groups generally continue using the landscape per usual, except for on unseasonably warm days since they are now sporting their new winter coats. By focusing your antlerless harvest in October, especially early in the month, you can create an environment in November that leads to more daylight movement of bucks. Plus, the sooner you remove those antlerless deer from the landscape, the more resources are available to the remaining herd throughout winter.
Another benefit of filling antlerless tags early in the fall is that the distinction between a doe and a fawn is more apparent at that time. You would be surprised how many good hunters I know who have accidentally harvested a lone buck fawn thinking it was a mature doe. Don’t be that guy.
GET OTHERS INVOLVED
Whether you believe or ignore the data, hunters are a dying breed. While recruitment efforts by state agencies have been trending in a positive direction lately, we are still behind the 8-ball on replenishing the hunters who are aging out.
Every year I make an effort to mentor two new hunters. I am an educator at heart, so I relish exposing my peers to the pastime that’s brought so much positivity and perspective into my life. Here we have a couple of problems—too many deer and not enough hunters—with the same remedy: a kind-hearted ecological education in self-sufficiency. Many initiatives, such as the National Deer Association’s Field to Fork program, have capitalized on the locavore movement and standardized a friendly pathway for potential hunters to get involved in the sport.
Many of my clients are fortunate to own enough land to share hunting opportunities with friends and relatives. I always encourage those clients to get their guests involved with the antlerless harvest. A self-imposed “earn a buck” program is a great way to lighten the load of antlerless harvest quotas. If you want to shoot a buck on my farm during rifle season, you better have harvested a doe before placing a buck in your crosshairs.
Consider starting an annual tradition like a doe derby to encourage others to get involved. Use it as an educational opportunity to showcase what proper herd management looks like and educate them on the importance of managing the babymakers of a population. See who can harvest the largest or most mature doe off the farm on a given weekend. Introduce others to the Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry program or your state’s alternative. Recreate the old “buck pole” photos with big, healthy does.
DOE HUNTING STRATEGIES
I won’t pretend that hunter pressure in October has no impact on hunting in November, but the repercussions are far less severe than many are willing to admit. Just be smart about what stands you hunt now. Leaving your favorite pinch-point and bottleneck stands undisturbed until November is a good idea. Stay out of your sanctuary areas as much as possible. Focus your efforts on portions of your farm that won’t receive much pressure during the rut. Whether you erect a few more hang-on stands or prepare trees for saddle hunting, it is easier than ever to hunt new territory. Use these doe patrols as scouting missions to better understand deer movements and patterns on farm portions that don’t receive pressure later in the year. Take note of the travel routes of the doe family groups; this may help you intercept a trailing buck in the weeks to come.
As for which doe to target, it is essential to reflect on your objectives as a land manager. In most instances I recommend that the landowner decreases the herd density on his or her parcel. For this reason, does actively tending to twin fawns in October should be considered for harvest since they have proven their capability to contribute to population growth. A doe that’s been educated about your treestand locations should never receive a free pass. When decreasing herd density, targeting does of prime breeding age, typically the most successful mothers, is essential. If maintaining herd density, consider targeting more geriatric-looking does. If you are trying to grow the whitetail population on your property, don’t harvest any does and start preparing for the rut.
- What’s the ideal buck-to-doe ratio for your property?
I receive more questions about buck-to-doe ratios than the topic deserves, so here is my general rule of thumb: The closer you are to one and a half does per buck, the happier you will be as a hunter and land manager. With a 1:1 ratio, the rut hunting will be exciting, but expect broken tines and main beams and injuries to become more frequent. A 1:2 ratio will decrease injury risk, but will also drastically reduce daylight movement. A 1:1.5 buck-to-doe ratio is generally the sweet spot.
AGING DOES ON THE HOOF
- How to tell a juvenile from a geriatric.
As with bucks and humans, a doe’s body shape and posture changes as it matures. Aging does on the hoof can be tricky, so I classify them in one of three buckets: immature, prime and geriatric.
- Immature: To distinguish an immature doe from a prime doe, pay special attention to the head and general shape of the animal’s silhouette when standing broadside. An immature animal will have a much shorter snout. Think of a short, 12-ounce soda bottle (immature) versus the standard 20-ounce bottle (prime and geriatric). The silhouette of the juvenile deer will more closely resemble a square; a prime or geriatric doe will create a definitive rectangle with hers.
- Prime: Once we determine it is a 20-ounce bottle on the end of her face, and her torso creates a rectangle, it is crucial to decide whether or not she is of prime breeding age or geriatric. A prime doe will have a straight back, much the same as a 3-year-old buck, with little to no sag in the belly.
- Geriatric: If the doe in question has a swayed back and a pot belly, and seems to know where every treestand is, you are looking at a grumpy, geriatric doe.
DOE PATROL TOOLKIT
- Gear to get it done in October.
My toolkit for the October doe patrol consists of a good binocular, a hand saw, and a tree saddle, plus my bow or muzzleloader (depending on the date on the calendar). Again, the trick is to hunt your property without burning out the best hunting locations. On breezy days, I opt for the saddle to get my scent off the ground. On still days, I much prefer to be on the ground. For this reason, I keep a handsaw in my pack to construct brush blinds as needed. Regardless of where I sit, I always have a good binocular in my chest harness so I can distinguish between a lone buck fawn and a lone doe in low-light conditions.