THE PROS AND CONS OF SHOOTING DOES

THE PROS AND CONS OF SHOOTING DOES

This is a very involved topic that really takes a lot of explaining. I will do my best to summarize here, but I am sure I will not cover all the dynamics of this issue.

This blog came about because of a question I received on the Ask Winke part of the site. The deeper I got into the answer, the more I realized this was going to be more like a blog than a short answer. The visitor asked how he could tell if he had too many does, when was the best time to remove them and whether shooting the does would affect the buck hunting on his property.  That opens a big can of worms.

How to Decide if you Have too Many Deer

There are ways to get a very accurate count on the number of bucks and does on your property by using trail cameras.  Here is a link to a method endorsed by the QDMA. We did this on my farm one winter and the results were very similar to what I had guessed from many hours spent hunting the place.

So while the survey is very useful, you can often get close to the same results based on experience if you are on the property enough.  I focused on three things to decide whether I had too many deer.  First was habitat and crop damage. Second was the hunting experience and the third was the buck to doe ratio.  Next, I will cover each of these factors.

Shooting Does

If you see a distinct browse line on the trees and brush along the edges of open fields, you should start to question whether you have too many deer. This is one sign that your numbers may be directly impacting the long-term amount of browse your property can produce. Deer can literally wipe out some species of browse if there are too many of them.

Habitat and Crop Damage: I wanted to be able to improve the habitat on my property, which meant that I couldn’t have the deer eating everything as soon as it poked out of the ground. Browse is not a given.  It is a crop like any other, and if the deer hammer it year after year before it gets a chance to grow and spread its seeds, it will eventually disappear, possibly forever. 

Managing habitat, for this reason, also requires managing the deer themselves. 

I needed time for young oak trees, for example, to get tall enough that the deer weren’t nipping them off every spring. I also wanted the underbrush to flourish in the areas where we did timber stand improvement. I wanted to produce lots of browse back in the timber so the deer didn’t hammer my food plots and ag fields. 

Shooting Does

When you have a hard time growing food plots or suffer heavy damage to commercial ag fields, it may be time to reduce your deer numbers by shooting does.

If you have too many deer, it is hard to change the habitat.  You can see their effect most easily in the form of browse lines that appear along the edges of open fields.

Browse lines are a distinct line where the deer have eaten everything they can reach. It looks like someone came along and cut the branches off about four feet off the ground all the way around the opening. The deer did that. Browse lines are a caution flag that you probably have too many deer.

I also wanted a realistic number of acres of food plots to support the deer through the winter. Winter is when they need help the most for overall health.  If you have too many deer (or too few food plot acres – there is a balance) your food sources will be gone well before the winter ends. I tried to supply as much food as was reasonably possible, but you can only spend so much on food plots before you feel like you are wasting money. 

If that is still not enough food to prevent long term damage to browse and heavy pressure on ag fields, it is time to shave the deer numbers back to fit within that food supply.

Shooting Does

It is possible to have so many deer that it takes some of the thrill out of hunting. I know this may seem an impossible concept for some to imagine, but if you see tons of deer every time you go out, you will soon lose the simple thrill of each encounter.

The Hunting Experience: I want my hunting to be both enjoyable and challenging, which means that I can’t have a deer behind every bush but I do need to see at least some each time I go out.  While most people think it is awesome to see tons of deer, that eventually gets old.  The adrenaline rush goes away and you start to take the deer for granted.  You don’t enjoy each encounter the way you did when you were hunting areas with less deer.

So, it is possible to have too many deer just from the standpoint of maintaining the integrity and challenge of hunting.  This may not seem like a priority to most people, but I have hunted places (like the Black Hills of Wyoming and the Milk River in Montana, for example, and even some spots in the Midwest) where there are so many deer that it doesn’t feel like hunting. It is fun for a change of pace, but I don’t want my properties to be like that.

Plus, if you have too many deer, it can be really tough to get to and from stands without constantly bumping into them and setting off a stampede that all but ends your hope of maintaining the element of surprise.  

Shooting Does

You can definitely change the buck to doe ratio in your hunting area by shooting more does, but it will really start to improve when your neighbors help by doing the same on their properties.

Buck to Doe Ratio:  We are looking at the number of bucks versus the number of does. My goal is always to have as many adult bucks as adult does on the farm.  That may not be realistic in some states – and some neighborhoods – because the other hunters in the area are pounding bucks and not shooting does. In those areas, a better goal might be something like three does for each buck.  The idea is to balance the sex ratio as much as possible.

There are two advantages to a balanced (or nearly balanced) ratio. First, the rut is over in one or two cycles and that results in less stress for the bucks.  If they are still working to breed does into a third cycle, it is hard on them.  The idea is to get the rut over as quickly as possible.  The second benefit of a fast rut is the fact that you will see more buck activity because the bucks have to compete (travel) more to find the next doe.

The Most Important Factor: Of these three elements, the most important one is maintaining the deer numbers within the limits of the food supply.  If there are so many deer that you can’t grow browse and food plots, you have too many deer (or you need to improve the habitat and other food sources).

Shooting Does

My friend, artist Larry Zach, with the does he shot in one evening from a ground blind. Larry was hunting an area with high deer numbers. In settings like this, it is really hard to shoot enough deer to make a difference without taking extreme measures.

How Many to Shoot

It is really hard to shoot enough does to actually bring the population down noticeably if your neighbors aren’t also shooting them. If you decide you have too many deer but you are the only one in the area shooting does, you can shoot as many as possible and not shoot too many.  That is the sobering reality of this challenge.  It can be really hard to single-handedly get ahead of the growth curve.  You will need help from your neighbors to make any real difference unless you own a lot of land.

There is also a more scientific answer to the question of how many to shoot. You need to shoot roughly 25% of your adult does each year to keep the herd from growing.  If you want to bring it down, you need to shoot more than 25%. You can estimate your number and then try to shoot 25% of that number, but just realize that there will be some that spill in from the neighboring properties during the off-season and you will have to start over again – especially if you have the best food sources around.

As I mentioned, it can be a real battle if you are the only one shooting does.

Shooting Does

I have shot a ton of does on properties I have owned over the years. I have learned the hard way that you have to shoot them all season long, whenever the opportunity presents itself, or you will struggle to hit your target number.

When to Shoot Them

Strictly from a genetic and biological standpoint, it is best to shoot them before the rut. That way you reduce the number of does that need to be bred, which also incrementally reduces the amount of stress on the bucks.  Also, in theory, if you shoot them all before the rut you are not shooting any does that were bred by your best bucks.

Unfortunately, it is really hard to shoot a good number of does before the rut. You will get some, for sure, but if your target number is more than just a handful, you are going to have to shoot them all season long in order to hit the number.  So, that is my answer.  You keep shooting them until you hit your number.  It is better to do that, in order to keep the herd in check, than to stop shooting them when the rut starts and fall short of the target number of does harvested.

Shooting Does

My friend, Mike Sawyer, shot this giant buck on my farm back in 2008. At that time I had dramatically flipped the buck to doe ratio on the property. There were way more bucks than does. This buck was out cruising in the middle of the afternoon, alone, on November 13. It is rare to find mature bucks actively looking for does during the very middle of the rut when there are high numbers of does present and many in estrus. This buck, and several others, proved to me that not all of the bucks leave when you reduce doe numbers.

Whether Shooting Does will Affect Buck Hunting

There are many factors, way too many to get into here.  But, the short answer is maybe shooting them will hurt your buck hunting.  If you have a small property, and you shoot most of the does off it, the local bucks probably won’t spend as much time there during the rut. But if you have a medium sized property and there are still doe family groups around during the rut, you shouldn’t see much difference in your buck hunting.

Now if you have a big property and shoot lots of does you may think the bucks will leave during the rut. That has not been my experience. Just realize that they don’t know what is happening outside their ranges.  If the doe numbers drop within their range, they just travel more in that range.  They don’t suddenly enlarge their range – at least I never saw that even though we flipped the buck to doe ratio and actually had more bucks than does for several years.

But, if there are more does in one part of their range than in other parts, they will naturally spend more time (but not all their time) rutting in those areas that have the most does. So, the question is not whether they will leave, it is more related to the range of the bucks and what is happening in each part of that range.

If their entire range is on your property, you won’t see much change in buck numbers.  But if bucks are ranging on and off the property you may see some difference in the number of bucks during the rut if you shoot a high number of does.

This next part has some real benefit for people trying manage high deer numbers.  There is more to buck hunting than just the rut. I have seen that when you significantly drop your doe numbers in areas that have too many you encourage more bucks to stay on your property. Bucks will disperse and fringe out from high density areas.  I guess they don’t like crowds, especially as they get older.  The real dispersal seems to come at age 2 and then more slowly after that.  

But, disperse they do and you will keep more bucks around if your overall deer density is not super high.

It goes with the old saying that nature abhors a vacuum.  By removing a good number of does, you create a vacuum. In this case, the vacuum fills with bucks.  Some may leave during the rut, for sure, but you will have more in the early and late season than you would if the property is full of does. Again, this only works in areas with high overall deer numbers.  

Conclusion

In my experience, you really need to make extreme changes to the herd before you will notice a difference in the number of bucks during the rut. If you are just shooting 25% of your does each year you should not see any difference in the rut and this is a good, comfortable level of doe harvest in most areas with solid deer numbers.  Good luck.

Comments (3)

  1. Dan Martin

    Awesome! Thanks Bill!

  2. Kurt Meyers

    Great discussion, Bill! Your sentence about non-rut timeframes: “I have seen that when you significantly drop your doe numbers in areas that have too many you encourage more bucks to stay on your property.” This seems to be describing what others call a “doe factory”; a large enough number of does/fawns that it discourages bucks, particularly mature bucks, from using the area during non-rut timeframes. Some think that a doe factory is hogwash, while others swear that they exist. There are also differing opinions as to why they might exist. Having summer food sources with nearby bedding seems to increase doe density, causing a doe factory. One well-known whitetail habitat manager promotes NOT having summer food on your property. Instead, focus on fall attraction. Another manager feels that it’s fine to have summer food, just make sure that you have more remote bedding to accommodate bucks so they are a comfortable distance from the doe groups. And yet another manager feels that you should stack as many deer on your property as the habitat will allow. All of this probably depends on the size and quality of the property, and other factors. I think what adds to my confusion on this topic is the home range shift of bucks in the Sept/Oct timeframe. Is a summer doe factory enough to discourage bucks from moving onto my property in the early fall? I had been trying to make my property attractive to deer year round, and I wasn’t really buying into the doe factory theory…but then I read your blog…Can you provide some more details on your statement? I enjoy hearing the differing opinions. Thanks.

    1. Bill Winke

      Thanks for the comment Kurt. In my experience, if you have a high deer density, you fringe out the bucks. Call it what you will, but that happens for sure. Some buck remain, but they tend to disperse more rapidly in high density areas. The highest number of bucks I ever had on my farm (and it was sustainable until EHD wiped out upwards of 70% of them) was in the late 2000s and early 2010s when I was really hammering does. But that was a unique situation. The overall neighborhood was loaded with deer. After my aggressive doe shooting, the neighboring farms had more deer than I did so I became a net importer of bucks fringing out of those areas of high density. For sure, I would have had poorer buck hunting (both during the rut and during non-rut times) than if I had not shot those does aggressively. I know that for a fact. That is one end of the spectrum, it is not a typical situation. That entire area (many square miles) had gobs of deer. I learned a ton watching that evolve over the 25 years that I owned land in that area.

      I still say the most important thing (and the simplest way to look at this) is to balance the deer to fit with the food. I kept that balance by shooting does (way more does than bucks). In a typical year, we shot 3 or 4 bucks off the farm, but anywhere from 30 to 50 does (depending on the year). Naturally, my farm tended to have more bucks than does. That was just a side benefit of keeping the numbers in check. But, as I stopped shooting does to let the herd grow back after the EHD of 2012, I noticed that the areas that accumulated lots of does, generally didn’t have many bucks. Some of those were areas that had been loaded with bucks before EHD reshuffled the deck. It was just interesting to see how things changed when the herd grew back without shooting any does. (I did start shooting does again in 2016 and was back up to shooting about 25 to 30 by the time I sold it in 2020).

      Now for the discussion of food sources. If you have to choose between having bucks on your property in the summer or in the fall, for sure, the fall is better. But, I am not sure there is really a magic “fall food plot”.
      The deer really don’t need your food plots until December most years. Unless your area is really food limited, they will find plenty of browse and waste grain until well into November. I never felt that food plots made much difference in my rut hunting, but they made a huge difference in my late season hunting. It will be December before they start to really look for those better food sources, so I don’t buy the summer food vs fall food argument. I think you need to have both – deer eat the summer foods well into the fall anyway. The deer (bucks too) will be eating alfalfa and clover through November in most parts of the Midwest and for sure farther south. I don’t see any reason not to have a good mix of both summer and winter foods.

      There are a lot of ways to manage deer. I just try to keep things simple and focus on stuff I know for sure. First, there is such a thing as too many deer. Second, shooting does won’t hurt my buck hunting. Third, I need as much food as I can reasonably plant on the place. Fourth, I need to balance the food plots (the stuff I don’t combine) at roughly 1/3 greens (clover/brassicas/alfalfa) and 2/3 grains (corn, beans, sorghum). Fifth, I need to keep the deer numbers within the limits of the available food so it lasts well into the winter. Fifth, to keep my deer numbers down, I shoot does. Sixth, the better the habitat, the better the hunting. I focus a lot of effort on making sure the habitat is really good. Not only does this benefit the deer with more browse (which takes the pressure off the plots) but it makes the farm hunt bigger by keeping the deer from seeing me as I sneak in and out. Seventh, deer need water, so you need a water source roughly every 80 acres. Eighth, I want every acre on the property to serve a purpose: feed deer, hold deer (habitat) or create income. No wasted acres. That is pretty much how I have managed deer properties since 1995. It is a pretty simple formula that steers clear of the academic arguments about deer behavior and focuses on the practical aspects of growing them and shooting them.

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