Choosing which doe to shoot can be more important than buck selection.
These days, everyone with a few acres and a hunting license wants to manage their deer herd. They want to strike the proper balance between the overall population and the habitat while producing more and larger bucks. That’s a good thing. A healthy, balanced deer herd not only benefits the habitat, it’s also good for the image of hunting. If hunters don’t take care of the local deer herd, who will?
Proper management depends not just on shooting deer, but on removing the right deer from the landscape. It doesn’t matter if the goal is to increase the population, decrease it or improve the age structure of bucks. It takes careful consideration each time you flick off the safety or draw your bow.
THE BUCK FACTOR
There’s no question buck management is the primary goal for many hunters, but few can determine if a specific buck should be removed from a property in the name of herd management simply by looking at it. Does a large-bodied buck with small antlers have better potential than a yearling with spikes?
A better question might be: What’s your goal?
For a growing number of hunters, it’s all about improving antler size. A Texas study determined that removing specific bucks led to increased antler size and body mass. Biologists removed young bucks that showed the least potential for growing large antlers. At the end of the 8-year project, the average yearling buck produced antlers 36 inches larger than the control group. The antlers also averaged 3.2 additional points.
The bad news? The study was conducted in a pen and under careful observation by professional biologists. Females that produced smaller-than-average buck fawns were removed and replaced with does that produced fawns that grew into large-antlered bucks.
WHEN IT DOESN’T MATTER
Manipulating genetics in the wild is a completely different game. Mississippi State University professor of wildlife ecology and management Dr. Steve Demaris says it is impossible to influence genetics in a wild deer herd. Further, hunters who assume they are improving the genetic makeup of the local herd by taking out specific inferior bucks are making a statistically insignificant improvement.
“There are too many variables,” he said. “The doe contributes 50 percent of the genetics of every deer born, and there is no way of determining her genetic lineage by looking at her.”
Demaris says even if you practiced intense management and were capable of selecting the ideal bucks to be removed from the population, you might not see results for decades, and those results likely would be negligible.
He and others at MSU conducted computer modeling to determine if selective harvest in a free-range herd would improve antler growth. It did, but not by much.
A 4 1/2-year-old buck with 9 points would have had 9.6 points after 20 years of intensive management. That’s assuming every buck you shot was the “right” buck.
Demaris says the easiest and likely most effective harvest strategy for producing bucks with larger antlers is to follow a basic tenet promoted by biologists everywhere: Let the little ones walk. Age, more than anything, determines antler quality in most situations.
“Ask yourself if it is the right buck for you,” says Demaris. “Since it’s virtually impossible to shoot your way to better genetics, base your buck harvest decisions on your goals. If you want to harvest bucks with larger antlers, allow them to reach their full potential. If you are just after meat, shoot a legal deer.”
However, for many hunters, the bigger issue in buck management isn’t the ability to select the right bucks. It comes down to neighbors.
If you let every little buck pass, but the hunters on surrounding properties don’t, you’ve accomplished nothing. Fortunately, there’s a good chance your neighbors are also letting younger deer walk.
THE DOE FACTOR
Today’s hunters also are more educated about harvesting antlerless deer. Doe harvest is arguably the most important tool in the deer management equation.
Does produce next year’s crop and drive populations. Fewer does equals fewer deer, while more does on your land leads to a higher population of both bucks and does. More deer isn’t always better, though.
That’s why shooting the right doe (or not shooting any) depends entirely on your management goal, says Demaris.
Do you want to boost herd numbers, keep them about the same or reduce them? These days, all three goals are reasonable. Shooting as many does as legally possible is arguably the easiest way to cut down on population. A simple “if it’s brown, it’s down” rule will help you achieve your goals.
However, some regions have an overabundance of whitetails but still have restrictive doe limits. That’s when it’s vital to shoot the right doe. In this case, it’s the one that successfully raises all her fawns.
Does of all breeding ages generally produce the same number of fawns. However, research has found that does 3 1/2 years old and older, are more successful at raising all the fawns they bear. Younger females tend to lose more fawns to predation and poor nutrition, says Quality Deer Management Association Director of Education and Outreach Kip Adams.
“Older does are more experienced at avoiding predators,” he said. “They tend to dominate the best habitat, and they teach their fawns which foods are better and which ones are less nutritious. There is also evidence that older does are better at avoiding hunting pressure, much like older bucks.
“If your goal is to reduce the overall population but you have limited opportunity for antlerless harvest, shoot the older doe when you have the opportunity.”
It can take a concerted effort among you and your fellow hunters to knock down deer numbers if opportunities for antlerless harvest are limited. However, it can be done over time and with careful harvest strategies. Once you achieve your population objective, however, be more selective.
Deer hunters have become fairly skilled about aging bucks before they pull the trigger. Most can tell the difference between a 1 1/2-year-old buck and a 4 1/2-year-old. Aging does is more difficult.
Older does are typically larger than younger ones, particularly if those younger ones are under 2 1/2 years old. After that, age estimation gets tricky. The good news, says Adams, is you don’t have to get too specific.
“If you have the opportunity to watch a group of does for several minutes, look for the one that shows dominance,” he said. “She might not always be the oldest, but dominance is a good rule of thumb for determining age.”
Removing younger does can help boost deer numbers by leaving the most productive females in the population. The more fawns a doe successfully raises, the more deer (and bucks) she’ll ultimately add to the landscape. Of course, if overall populations are unusually low and the habitat can support more deer, it can be a good idea to avoid shooting any antlerless deer. Taking a young doe for the freezer, however, won’t have as much impact as shooting an older one.
THE CULL BUCK MYTH
Some heavily managed ranches in Texas allow hunters to shoot cull bucks for a reduced price. The notion that some bucks are inferior has carried itself into the deer hunting community at large. Don’t get wrapped up in that way of thinking.
In most cases, those ranches are heavily managed and often include a high fence to keep deer in and predators out. Ranch managers and guides are trained to identify the bucks that have potential and those that don’t. Most of us don’t have the skill or experience to identify an inferior buck.
That doesn’t stop some hunters from assuming a buck with an antler deformity, for example, qualifies as a cull buck. An odd antler doesn’t always mean poor genetics.
Injuries and parasites during the velvet stage can ruin a good set of antlers, but odds are such a rack will grow normally the next summer.
Similarly, bucks that sustain injuries later in the fall can grow deformed antlers the following year, with the deformity usually apparent on the side of the deer opposite from the injury. That antler might never grow normally again, but it is not an indication of inferior genetics.
Big-bodied bucks with small antlers often get classified as culls. The same goes for spikes. Shooting them will have little long-term impact on the overall health of your herd or on the long-term quality of your property’s bucks.
If you aren’t sure, don’t shoot. Give a buck another season. You might be surprised what a cull buck can become.
WHAT ABOUT FAWNS?
Fawns should be part of the management equation, too. While some hunters have an ethical issue with shooting fawns, Adams says in most cases there is nothing wrong with shooting a first-year whitetail.
“It can be a good management tool, especially in regions with low fawn recruitment,” says Adams.
That might sound like a contradiction, but Adams explains fawns in northern states often won’t breed until their second year. The browse consumed by a fawn is food that could be better utilized by a mature doe that will produce two or three fawns in the spring.
“Shooting a fawn is a viable option for a hunter who wants the meat but doesn’t want to have a big impact on the deer herd,” Adams said.
Shooting yearlings can be a good strategy in the South, too. Many Southern states allow hunters to take multiple antlerless deer as a way to hold down overall populations. Shooting fawns helps achieve that goal.
Be careful, though. If you’re managing bucks, you don’t want to shoot male fawns. Unfortunately, determining the sex of a fawn can be difficult, particularly at longer ranges. Use good optics and take a long time to study a fawn.
Adams says many hunters are doing just that since fawn buck harvest is right around 16 percent throughout the country. That means hunters have become much more adept at telling buck and doe fawns apart.
“Take your time and make sure before you pull the trigger,” he said. “If you aren’t sure, don’t shoot.”
That’s good advice for every deer hunter. It’s even better advice for those hunters who want to take their deer management to the next level. What you shoot this season will determine the health and quality of your deer herd next year.
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This article was published in the October 2014 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.