Doe Harvesting – Which Antlerless Deer and How Many?

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Which Doe do I Shoot? How to Decide What Does to Harvest During Antlerless Deer Season and How Many

The Importance of Maintaining a Balanced Sex Ratio

If you’re reading this blog article, you already understand the importance of keeping deer numbers in balance with the habitat. Since bucks have so much mortality, we usually don’t need to worry about reducing buck numbers and focus population reduction efforts on does. Unfortunately, we often end up shooting buck fawns, which are the most vulnerable segment of the population since they are not very bright and therefor, not ellusive. During the rut, fawns are often wandering around their home range alone after being chased off by their mother’s suitors. A great way to tell if you are in peak rut time is when you see young deer without the mother. This year during archery season in New York, I ended up shooting one of the poor creatures that was very large and passing one up that had to be one of the smallest deer I have ever seen in the fall. I did not see any bucks around that week, which lead me to believe that bucks were “locked down” with does that were accepting their breeding advances. During the 2 to 3 days that does will breed, fawns will be harrassed and leave the breeding pair to themselves who will stay paired up and not move around much until the doe is properly impregnated, then the buck will try to find another receptive doe and the fawns will eventually link up with the mother to get into winter haunts and habits.

When I was studying wildlife population dynamics in college, they (Game Commission) used to say back then that a buck to service up to 17 does, therefore, we could have this terribly skewed sex ratio and all the females will be impregnated and make more spike bucks for the next round. I remember doing the math in my head. If you want all the does bred within the peak of the rut so that they can put on enough weight by the following winter, lets say two weeks time. And if a buck spends 3 days with each receptive doe, he could then breed 5 does during the two weeks, not 17. But this is the same Game Commission that told us coyotes didn’t have an effect on deer populations, so I decided to think for myself on this one. We need to have then, at the very worst case scenario, 5 adult does to 1 adult buck, 3 would be better. Its important to distinguish adult males to adult females, as fawn sex ratios are roughly 1:1.

As we saw back then, in the 70s, deer can stay alive on some poor habitat and the land can support a lot of deer, but what we want today are healthy deer. Big antlered, twin fawn bearing, fat, happy deer. Bucks back then had to breed does in the second estrous cycle. That was bad for all concerned as bucks are run down, fawns are born late in spring and don’t have enough growing time to put on weight for the winter and predation will be worse in a protracted fawn drop.

Which Doe to Shoot

This blog article is about which does to shoot and how to choose one to take in the field. We had a guest on the New York property that was a first timer. We told him to take a doe but he wanted to wait for a buck first (the biggest problem when it comes to sex ratio management.) Then, on the last day, he agreed to take one, so we put him on a stand that overlooked the food plot you see me talking in in the video section with the soybeans and brassicas. There are about 9 regulars there every afternoon and the wind was right, so it was a sure thing. We were on the radio trying to point out which deer to shoot from a vantage point 400 yds away. I did not realize how hard it is for inexperienced hunters to pick out a doe and put a bullet in it.

There are two ways of looking at what deer is proper to shoot. From a strictly biological standpoint, we should mimic natural predation as if we were wolves or mountain lions. In this case, we don’t care about antlers but just want easy meat. In this scenario, we would want to take a fawn or a yearling, since the meat is good and the matriarch doe will surely replace that deer next year. A yearling is not as reliable a mother as the old matriarch but is bigger and we can tell who she is by using carefull observation. The second scenario is that we want to save young bucks. If we are trying to increase buck numbers for sporting puposes, we want to make sure we don’t kill a buck fawn accidently. During antlerless season in Pennsylvania, it is common for hunters to kill 25% male fawns.

This is unacceptable if we want to increase buck populations and achieve balances sex ratios.

On one hand, you want to see does that are older, successful breeders stay around to produce more deer.

On the other hand, you want to avoid killing any young males. So, the best deer to kill is probably the yearling doe, whether or not she has a fawn. These fawns will stay in the doe group for the winter and follow the old doe around and survive just fine.

But here is another thought: the old does in a population can be real bitches and they are most likely the ones to drive off young males, causing them to disperse off the property and also take the best wintering and bedding areas, also driving bucks we want to see off property.

Now that we are all confused, our friend ended up not shooting since he had a hard time differentiating the 11 deer that showed up that evening and didn’t want to make a mistake.

I feel the best deer to kill is the yearling doe. I find it hard to take out a doe who has reared two nice big fawns. However, we often have to capitalize on the opportunity that presents itself. I ended up killing a doe fawn, albeit a really big one, in bow and a really old matriarch during rifle season. I felt real bad after, mostly because I am getting soft in my old age. The bow shot was a little low and she didn’t die quickly and the old doe’s twin fawns hung around while I gutted her waiting for her to catch up. Yeah, I killed Bambi’s mom. That deer was at least six years old and nice and big.

How to Tell Which Deer is Which

I like having doe season either early or late in the year and here’s why. Deer are in their family groups and the social dynamics of these groups is plain to see. If you are hunting does in rut and you see a lone animal walking through the thick stuff, you will think its an adult doe and shoot a button buck. But when deer are in their family groups, you can watch them for awhile and determine who’s who quite easily. This is why food plots and baited areas are good for taking out does. The deer out front is the old matriarch. She is also the most likely to exhibit agression toward the others with ears laid back, posturing and kicking. She will be the one standing at full attention in the food plot, looking for danger while the others feed docily without a care. If you want an old one, shot that one. If you want the yearling, you have to eliminate all fawns, then the Matriarch then zero in on the full grown doe who doesn’t exhibit the above-mentioned behaviors. She may also look at the old one to decide what to do when they are alerted or catch your scent. Fawns are not wary, look small and blocky with short faces as apposed to the long snout of full grown deer. They generally act dumb and not wary or nervous and are often the first to venture out into a food plot early in the evening while the more wary mother stands back and checks for danger from the woods.

The most important thing is to protect fawns, what I said before about mimicing natural predation nothwithstanding. Theoretically, if we kill all the adult does in a population and kill a few mature bucks, the sex ratio will get very close to a 1:1 adult ratio, keeping in mind that fawns are at that ratio now.

Our neighbor in New York told me he saw 24 deer one night and 30 another night from his stand and only 4 bucks and of those, only 1 was mature. What we should get to is ten bucks with about 6 in the 1 and two year age class and 4 in the 3 and 4 year age class. To get to that we would have to do what?

Thirty deer, 4 are bucks. Twenty six does with 1.2 fawns per adult doe. Lets call it 14 fawns and assume 7 are bucks. Add that to the 4 adult bucks observed and that brings us to 11 bucks next fall. Ideally, we are shooting for a 1:1 sex ratio overall. To get this straightened out then, we would have to remove 8 of the adult does from this population. 26 does – 14 fawns =12 adult does + 7 female fawns = 19 adult does next fall. 7 buck fawns plus the 4 = 11. We need to remove 8 adult does plus one for each buck that gets harvested this season. If the farmer takes that nice one, we need to get 9 does.

Who’s going to eat 9 does? Right. And that’s why to sex ratios stay skewed and we don’t see a lot of bucks running around. Now, me, I’ll eat 9 does, but can’t legally take them. The farmer can get a fist full of depredation permits and easily take that many, but he raises beef. If you have beef, would you eat venison?

What’s wrong with having lots of does? Nothing as long as there are plenty of bedding and feeding sites, lots of room between social groups and individua solitary bucks and plenty of forage to go around for everyone. But this is a fantasy that rarely happens. Does bother bucks and make them leave the area. They take the best feeding and bedding and wintering spots for themselves. Bucks generally won’t tolerate a bunch of does and fawns hanging aroung and they want a lot of space.

So, when its time to take out does and fill the freezer, get serious, shoot the right deer and shoot lots of them. Deer can be like grass – the more you mow them down the faster they come back. Keep the sex ratio at the proper level and with a wide range of buck ages, and you will have exciting hunting.

If you would like a survey done to see what your population problems are and how to fix them, give us a call and we will be happy to help you get this figured out for your property.

Give us a call at 814-360-4510 or email me at

About the Author:

Wildlife habitat manager and consulting forester from Central PA. Studied environmental Agriculture specializing in wildlife management and Forestry. B.S. Agriculture, Masters degree in Forestry. 30 years experience in land investment, forestry and wildlife habitat improvement. Currently working as a Farm Bill Forester for Pheasants Forever on Game Commission and Golden Winged Warbler Initiative.

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