With an increasing number of hunters involved in deer management programs on their properties, a common topic of debate is when during the hunting season to harvest does and how this decision will affect their hunting and management success. In particular, many hunters are concerned that harvesting does prior to the rut will reduce their chances of harvesting a mature buck due to fewer does being present in the area and the increased human disturbance caused by doe harvest. As with most aspects of deer management, there are pros and cons with both strategies.
“Pros” of Early Doe Harvest
Achieve doe harvest goal
Often, hunters wait until late in the season to begin harvesting antlerless deer and, as a result, they fail to meet their harvest goal. Like bucks, does react to hunting pressure by altering their movements, especially during daylight. Also, hunter participation often begins to wane late in the season. The rut is over, the weather is lousy, the holidays are near, and some hunters already have a supply of venison from deer taken earlier in the season.
Reduce harvest of buck fawns
A key benefit of early doe harvest is the reduction in buck fawns mistakenly harvested as does. This is due to the drastic size difference between adult does and fawns early in the season. As the season progresses, fawns, especially buck fawns, begin resembling yearling does in body size and shape. In addition, fawns are usually traveling with their mothers early in the season (versus being separated during the breeding season), which allows for a direct size comparison. In many cases, hunters who wait begin to panic as the season draws near and make poor harvest decisions resulting in more button bucks at the skinning shed.
Reduce harvest of mature bucks with cast antlers
Another benefit of early doe harvest is the near elimination of harvesting mature bucks that have already cast their antlers. Few things cause more disappointment among deer hunters than the harvest of a mature buck that has been passed for several years to fall victim to a case of “mistaken identity” and be harvested as a doe.
Increase nutrition to other deer
Harvesting does early also increases the nutrition available to the remaining animals. For example, since the average deer consumes six to eight pounds of forage per day, simply harvesting 10 does two months earlier than normal would save 4,200 pounds of forage (10 does X 7 lbs/day X 60 days). That’s more than most one-acre food plots produce in a year! This results in more available forage during the critical late-winter stress period.
Improve breeding efficiency and success
Where possible, harvesting does before the rut can positively impact the breeding efficiency and success of a deer herd. In many areas there are significantly more does than bucks. As such, harvesting more does than bucks before the breeding season will help balance the herd’s sex ratio resulting in a higher percentage of does breeding on their first estrous (heat) cycle. This results in a healthier and more consistent fawn crop 195-200 days later. Fewer does during the breeding season also reduces the energy expended by adult bucks. In other words, bucks have fewer does to breed and don’t waste precious energy chasing and breeding does that will only be harvested later. Research also suggests that a more balanced sex ratio actually increases buck movements during the rut. Simply put, fewer does makes bucks work harder to find a mate, which can increase harvest opportunities.
“Cons” of Early Doe Harvest
Potential impacts on fawn survival
A primary consideration regarding timing of doe harvest is the survival of fawns that may be orphaned in the process. Typically, a whitetail fawn is weanable 60 to 90 days after birth. Most hunting seasons are set with this in mind. As such, most fawns (except those born very late) are weanable by the beginning of the hunting season. However, hunters occasionally see small, spotted fawns, especially during archery season.
Two studies have produced seemingly conflicting results regarding survival of orphaned fawns. A University of Georgia study concluded that orphaned male fawns actually had higher survival rates than non-orphaned fawns. The orphaned fawns were less likely to disperse (leave their birth area), which reduced their chances of being injured or killed when compared to the non-orphans which generally traversed several miles into unknown areas in search of a new home. This dispersal process is often triggered by aggression from the buck’s mother, so harvesting her before she forces him to leave the area can actually increase his chances of staying close to home and becoming a mature buck in your hunting area.
In contrast, a Texas study concluded that orphaned fawns had lower survival rates – likely due to increased vulnerability to coyote predation. In addition to differences in predator abundance in these two studies, the average age of fawns at time of orphaning also differed. The fawns in the Texas study were orphaned in November, which meant they were approximately four to five months old. Fawns in the Georgia study were orphaned throughout the hunting season with most being over six months of age.
Impacts on buck movements and harvest
Research has clearly demonstrated that human activity including hunting (with or without deer harvest) can reduce harvest success on mature bucks. As such, many hunters are reluctant to harvest does until after the rut. This strategy can work, especially if the number of does to be harvested can be easily met after the rut. In fact, this is the strategy used on my primary hunting area. We keep the property as quiet as possible until the rut has passed, then we shift from buck hunting to an all-out blitz on does until we meet our goal. This approach has enabled us to harvest many mature bucks, often from permanent stands over food plots, which would be difficult if we had “hammered” does on these areas before the rut. However, we are in an enviable situation because we have a group of hunters with the time, skill and dedication to get the job done. We also have a high quality deer herd and an abundance of food. Many hunters are not as fortunate.
Selecting the Best Approach for Your Situation
Given the above, it’s clear that in most situations harvesting does early is more beneficial than waiting until late in the season. This is especially true in areas with highly unbalanced sex ratios, poor quality habitat, or where meeting the annual doe harvest goal is a challenge due to high deer densities. In these situations, does should be taken whenever and as often as possible.
However, if you are in a situation where only a handful of does need to be taken, or you have a deer herd in balance with its habitat and with an adult sex ratio of two does per buck or better, waiting until late in the season may improve your chances of harvesting a mature buck.
If you are somewhere between these situations, a good approach is to actively harvest does from the beginning of archery season until about two weeks prior to the rut, then to shift to bucks only until after the rut, and then back to does until you meet your goal. Armed with this latest Whitetail Science, you can select the approach which best fits your particular situation.
Brian Murphy is a wildlife biologist and CEO of the Quality Deer Management Association (www.QDMA.com). He also has been an avid bowhunter for more than 30 years.