It’s funny how often the topic of does and when to shoot them comes up in conversations between deer hunters. Funny because, not so long ago, it was common for only bucks to be targeted and harvesting does was considered by many to be taboo, even to go so far as emasculating the sport. Hunting was a quest for a male, a buck. Mano a mano so to speak.
The exception of course was those hunting for sustenance, in which case, any deer was a good deer for putting meat on the table. Ultimately, with countless studies performed and decades of research in the books, most hunters have come around to the notion that does can be, should be, and often need to be harvested annually for the sake of maintaining a healthy herd on the property or region in which they hunt.
Thankfully, a lot of the leg work is done for us by our local/state Department of Natural Resources. They set the annual maximum harvest or bag limits of white-tailed deer by sex based upon many contributing factors including harvests numbers from previous years, biological studies, even deer/automobile collision reports. Liberal bag limits usually reflect high deer populations/densities and a desire to reduce the herds overall numbers; whereas low bag limits usually indicate the opposite. One can even pay a wildlife biologist to conduct a deer survey on your own property and tell you the support capacity, sex ratios, etc. and number of deer by sex that should be harvested to accomplish your goals of trophy bucks, balanced herd, etc. Or you can use a DIY trail cam survey and do your own estimation (just make sure you don’t exceed the legal limit).
All of these things will tell you if and how many does that you may harvest, but when is the best time to do so?
Well, there are a few things to consider before releasing an arrow, or pulling the trigger on a big ol’ flathead:
- Do you need the meat? My family and I rely heavily on venison as a primary meat source. In order for my meat supply to last until the following season, I need to put at least 250-275lbs of venison in the freezer, which equates to about 4-5 deer a year. The whole meat vs trophy hunting aside, I fill as many doe tags as I can, when I can, until I am confident that I will meet my requirement (I also hunt in Maryland Region B which has very liberal bag limits on does). That being said, if I am fortunate enough to take at least 2 does before the last week of October, I usually sustain from taking another until after the rut.
- Holding out for a buck can cost you a few doe harvests. There is some debate amongst deer hunters that shooting does in the early season removes potential attractants (mates) come November and the rut. It can also arguably lay down more human scent and the scent of blood which can alert bucks and make them feel more pressured, bumping them out of the area at least for a while. I would argue that shooting a doe(s) in September or October, especially early October, or during the “lull,” does not significantly disturb buck movement. I have shot a doe in the morning and had a mature buck pass my trail camera at the same location that evening. At worst, the deer return to harvest locations within a few days. Also, by filling my “quota” early, I take the pressure off of myself to fill the freezer and allow myself to focus on harvesting a mature buck in November or late season. Finally, removing potential mates from the herd can increases the competition over
the remaining does which in turn could intensify rut activity. Bucks may become more responsive to calls, scents, battle each other, move more in daylight searching for the next “hot” doe. Bottom line, unless you have a very small doe population where you would be eliminating virtually all potential mates, hunt extremely high pressure animals, or have a very limited amount of time to hunt, early season doe harvests should not decrease your chances at a mature buck.
- Orphaning fawns can be a concern when a doe walks into range with a fawn in tow especially in states with very early deer seasons. However, most fawns are fully weaned by 70 days. This would put fawns dropped in late May to early June weaned by August. Hunters taking to the field in September or October on opening day can rest assured that shooting a doe with fawns will not leave the fawn helpless to survive. Some does do drop their fawns late and some weaned fawns continue to suckle occasionally, so how are you to know when the fawn was birthed? Well, typically, the more pronounced the spots are on a fawn will give some indication to its age. For example, in Maryland, whose season opens in early to mid September, it is not uncommon to see a doe with fawns still sporting fully spotted coats feeding next to fawns with virtually no spots at all. In these situations, I would target the does to which the “spotless” fawns belong if possible. Virginia on the other hand, does not open its season until the first Saturday in October and it is rare for fawns to still be adorning their spots by this time.
- The rut is one of the few times of the year that I hesitate to send a Deer Crossing Arrow through the boiler room of a doe. Should that doe be in season or close to it, she has just become the biggest magnet I have for pulling bucks from all around on to my property and potentially into my sights. I’m not saying I haven’t done it, but to avoid having to shoot one during the rut, is the reason why I like to take at least a couple does in early season.
- Late season is a common time for hunters to start packing the freezer full of meat. Many “brown down” shooters go out with the expectation of making up for lost time and all the steaks, burgers, and backstraps they let walk earlier in the year. Let us not forget that late season is also a great time to smoke an old buck worn down from the rut and looking to replenish his fat reserves before facing the teeth of winter. Standing bean fields and fall food plots are great locations for ambushing a big buck come December. Personally, waiting until December or even January to fill my doe tags and reach my 4-5 deer quota is an awful big gamble, particularly if I was not successful in bagging a buck either. December is a great time to pick up the smoke pole and drop a few does, but remember that nothing is guaranteed and it may be better to think of the late season as a time for “topping off” the freezer instead of filling it.
So, you can decide for yourself when is the best time for you to shoot a doe, but for me its whenever one walks within range.