November 29, 2010
Shooting big bucks has its merits, but for a real challenge -- and a treat on the table -- try bagging some baldies.
Hunting videos and TV shows reach a large, impressionable audience, and they vary greatly regarding the hunting of antlerless deer. Doe kills are presented entertainingly in some productions, and I applaud their creators for illustrating how much fun doe hunting can be. For them, it's not just about managing the herd but also about hunting accomplishment and good eating. I enjoy watching footage of such "meat hunts" because such coverage accurately reflects the reality of bowhunting.
SITTING IN MY TREESTAND, I fixed my eyes on a trail to my left. This area was so loaded with sign, I was absolutely certain a mule deer would materialize at any moment. The Colorado morning was getting a sluggish start, as the mist evaporated slowly and the sun gradually became more visible through the mountain's haze. As the minutes dragged by, I found myself yawning. Then my eyelids suddenly felt quite heavy, and before you could say Bambi, I was sound asleep. For how long? Who knows?
Finally waking, I jerked my head up and popped open my eyes to check the trail to my left. I saw nothing, but glancing to my right, I discovered a plump old doe staring directly at me. Instantly filled with excitement, I froze. The tag in my pocket was for an antlerless deer.
Throwing down the gauntlet, the deer stamped her forefoot and waited for me to flinch. I remained stock-still. Our eyes were locked. My heart began racing like a thoroughbred on steroids. Finally, she lowered her head and gradually fed toward me. In slow motion, I stood and began to position myself for a shot.
Because she was to my right and I'm right-handed, I had to reverse my stance completely in the treestand, which required extensive maneuvering. Watching her, I waited for an opportune moment. Just as she started to turn broadside, I began to lift my bow into position. She caught the movement, her head snapped up, and again our eyes locked. She was at 30 yards. Once more she stamped her foot, turning to face me squarely. No shot angle.
I had experienced similar run-ins with game in the past. But now, with my bow arm half raised and my adrenaline pumping, I lacked confidence. It was just a matter of time before she would blow out of there. As her steady gaze pierced my fully camouflaged form, I debated my next move.
At last, she turned her head to the right and shifted her body slightly. I began to draw. She looked back and caught me at half-draw. I imitated a statue, even though my heart was pounding and my ears were ringing. She busted me, my internal voice shouted. At this point, figuring I had nothing to lose, I drew my bow fully as she shifted nervously and turned broadside. I held on her chest, directly behind her foreleg, and released. The broadhead sliced through her so fast she didn't even twitch an eyelash. After taking a few steps, she folded.
I sat down, exhausted, physically and mentally. Several long minutes passed before my breathing returned to normal.
When I hunt Midwestern whitetails or Colorado mule deer, the first order of business is to bag a couple of antlerless deer for the freezer. Then my mind turns to bucks. If you'd like to spice up your doe hunting, climb down out of your treestand and try stalking to within bow range.
THAT ENCOUNTER HAD me rattled. A doe had tested my nerves unlike any buck had ever done, and I thanked God for the experience. Regardless of what some hunters believe, does are not easy, and they certainly are a blast to bowhunt. Tagging a doe always leaves me feeling pretty cool.
In my younger days, the thought of killing does never crossed my mind. Like many of my fellow hunters, I equated antlers with success. Then one day I was talking with a friend, a diehard bowhunter, for whom I had the utmost respect. He caught me off-guard when he commented, "I consider a mature doe the ultimate challenge." I have never forgotten those words. With time, I began to hunt does as well.
After years spent thinking a certain way, changing your mindset can seem impossible. The toughest hurdle for many hunters is the initial leap to accept does as worthy targets. It was for me. When I was cutting my teeth as a bowhunter in Wisconsin, there was an unabashed disdain for "doe killers." Real men hunted bucks. Even a spike was a superior trophy to a mature doe. Thankfully, that way of thinking appears to be on its way out.
In many areas of the country, additional doe tags are available to control burgeoning deer populations. Doe hunting allows you to extend your time afield. In my case, shooting a doe always leaves me with a very cool feeling.
Despite increasing attempts by outdoor writers and video personalities to present the benefits of responsible doe management, a contingent of hunters clings to two faulty beliefs. One is that you "can't grow your deer herd if you shoot the does." Even though modern game management and exploding deer populations have proved that theory wrong, some hunters still cling to that antiquated notion.
The other is that does are inherently inferior to bucks. Some hunters with this mindset may reluctantly shoot does to help manage the herd, or because the landowner insists on it, or because they're in an earn-a-buck area, but they feel no pride in it. In some circles, egos and bragging rights mean everything, and antlers are required to avoid ridicule.
In 2009, I had an interesting encounter. After a morning of elk hunting in western Colorado, I was hobbling wearily down the mountain to camp when I smelled bacon cooking. After locating the source of the intoxicating aroma, a tiny creekside camp, I stopped in for a visit, half hoping for a morsel or two. The elderly gentleman tending the Coleman stove was quite courteous, and he offered me a plate of eggs and bacon. When he saw me stare at the skinned deer carcass suspended from a meat pole, the man declared, "I already took the head to my taxidermist. The rack scores about 170."
"Impressive," I said. "That's a dandy buck, and pretty darned rare around here."
"No doubt," he agreed with pride.
After scarfing up every tidbit on my plate and thanking the old man for hi
s hospitality, I strolled over to his deer. With great enthusiasm, the man delved into the details of his hunt, relating every move the buck had made. I simply smiled and nodded, humoring him. You see, I already knew his secret. Since Colorado law requires hunters to leave evidence of sex naturally attached to big game carcasses, and since this man, to his credit, was apparently a law-abiding sportsman, I was quite aware that this had never been a 170-inch deer. In fact, it had never been a buck. The female organs were in plain view, naturally attached as the law requires.
"Well," I began, shaking his hand, "congratulations for your success." Part of me wanted to say, "There's nothing to be ashamed of. I also love hunting does." But instead, I simply thanked him for the food and continued toward my own camp farther down the mountain. On my way, I wondered how many other embarrassed hunters attempt to conceal the truth about does.
Recently at the local archery range, I overheard a group of young bowhunters discussing their exploits in the deer woods. Tall tales have never been taller. Finally, one of them said, "I'll never kill a doe now that I've bagged a 160-incher." Bristling a bit, I initially considered lecturing these lads on the importance of managing the deer herd, but then I figured that they, like most outdoorsmen, had heard that argument many times and would simply regard me as a pontificating dud. Instead, I slowly approached the five friends, trying to appear as unflappable as Clint Eastwood playing Dirty Harry, and said, "Shooting does is cool." Leaving them to ponder those words, I collected my gear and departed from the range. Sure, they might have thought I was just some crazy person. But, then again, they might have got the point.
If you want to extend your season and put more meat on the table, doe hunting presents the perfect solution. Diehard venison lovers spend as much time in the woods as possible, and they do not hesitate to harvest female deer. To control exploding deer populations or to limit the spread of disease, many states issue bonus doe tags. Here in Colorado, for example, the annual limit is one buck, but you can buy additional doe tags within certain areas.
Each and every year, whether I'm chasing Midwestern whitetails or Colorado mule deer, I tag as many does as possible, and they're rarely pushovers. Oftentimes, I find them far more alert and elusive than bucks, and every run-in with a plump old doe sets my heart to pounding and my ears ringing. Pretty cool.
The author is a proud doe hunter from Divide, Colorado.
Author's Notes: When after does, I use the same equipment I use for bucks. Lately, I've been shooting a Hoyt AlphaMax set at 63 lbs., Carbon Express Aramid KV arrows, and FUSE Kumasi broadheads. My Pentax DCF 10x50 binoculars are never out of reach. I wear Columbia wool clothing during cold weather. Rocky boots keep my feet comfortable.