The biggest test of your bowhunting skills does not wear antlers.
AFTER WORK one Friday afternoon, I drove to a nearby farm and climbed into my treestand overlooking a well-used trail. Earlier that week, I had spooked a mature doe and her two fawns when I had stood to draw my bow. I had thought that all three of their heads were obscured behind various trees, but, incredibly, the doe had detected my movement and quickly fled.
Having rested this stand for three days, I was determined to win round two of the battle. Sure enough, the mature doe and her twins came down the mountain on the same main trail at about the same time. Reaching a point 40 yards from my stand, the doe suddenly led her fawns on a wide loop around my tree. The old girl then lifted her nose, walked toward my stand, and sniffed the air. After reading the air currents, the doe stamped her foot several times, snorted, and bolted.
Frustrated, and frankly badly defeated, I decided to hunt a different farm on Saturday morning. About 6:45 a.m., I watched as a doe and her two offspring slowly approached my hillside stand. Although I was a good 22 feet above the flat the deer were walking on, the mature doe instantly detected the movement as I started to draw. She, too, stamped her hoof several times before leaving the scene with her youngsters.
Exasperated by those attempts to take mature does, I drove to a farm in an adjacent county to hunt Saturday evening. About 6 p.m., I spied a buck. Although he was no huge trophy, I needed some venison for the freezer and decided to take him. When the buck came within 20 yards, I drew my bow -- right as the buck disappeared behind a tree. After some 90 seconds at full draw, I had to let down. Just then, the buck reappeared, and once again I drew. The buck was so intent on his search for an estrous doe, he had not detected my drawing on him twice, nor had he heeded the squeak when my bow brushed against a bleat call hanging around my neck. The arrow flew true, and a few minutes later I was field-dressing the buck.
THOSE SCENARIOS ILLUSTRATE why I rate mature does, especially those with fawns, as bowhunting's biggest challenge. In many cases, they're even tougher than mature bucks.
Dave Steffen, forest wildlife program manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and a former state biologist in Mississippi, believes mature does with fawns are indeed quite a challenge.
"I think one of the reasons this is so is because mature does more intimately know their range than do 1½ or 2½-year-old bucks," Steffen, an avid bowhunter himself, said. "First, doe ranges are typically much smaller than those of bucks. Second, does live in those ranges their entire lives, whereas a buck's mother typically forces him to leave the area where he grew up.
"For example, let's say a mature doe is likely to use a particular trail 100 times over the course of a deer season as she comes and goes. A buck in the same area may use that trail only a few times in a month's time. I don't think there is any question which one of the two is more likely to recognize a change in the environment."
The doe is also more likely to remember and avoid a point at which she detected potentially threatening movement (a hunter drawing his bow), an unnatural noise (the squeak of a bow against a call), or a waft of human scent. Certainly, the close bond between a mature doe and her offspring can heighten the hunting difficulty.
"After a doe gives birth, she is constantly looking for the 'wolf in the woods,'" Steffen explained. "Although that drive to protect her fawns is not as strong in the fall as it was in the spring -- when a doe will not even tolerate other deer nearby -- it is still quite strong.
"This bonding is so strong, of course, that does form matriarchal societies. A hunter may encounter a 2½-year-old doe, her sole offspring from the previous year, and two fawns from the current year. Now, that could be a very difficult doe group to hunt because, in essence, a hunter would have to contend with two mature does and two fawns looking for danger."
Steffen hunted just such a doe group this past season. Once, while the biologist was bowhunting, the lead doe "made him" in a stand. Every time thereafter, when the doe came within a certain distance of his stand, she would stop and peer into the tree, searching for him -- and then detour out of range.
Taking an adult doe, like the one I'm pictured with here, can be a real challenge, but it's a necessary part of proper herd management.
The Value of Killing Mature Does
Brian Murphy, executive director of the Quality Deer Management Association and a wildlife biologist, proudly emphasizes that he has done his part in managing the nation's whitetail herd. Over the past decade-and-a-half, he personally has harvested more than 170 does and about a half-dozen bucks. He has passed on easy shots at nearly 500 bucks.
"In many parts of the country, doe numbers need to be reduced to improve both habitat quality and deer herd health," Murphy said. "For some hunters to stick with that outdated notion that an individual who kills a doe is somehow less of a hunter than someone who kills a buck -- no matter how small or young a buck -- is just ridiculous."
Murphy emphasizes numerous reasons for harvesting mature does:
€¢ Killing mature does is the best way to reduce deer densities and balance sex ratios.
€¢ By reducing competition for forage, killing mature does makes room for and improves the quality of young bucks.
€¢ Killing mature does helps reduce the harvest pressure on young bucks, resulting in more trophy bucks in the long run.
€¢ Does yield the highest-quality venison, which feeds many hunters' families as well as needy families helped through feeding-the-hungry programs.
€¢ Killing mature does increases reproductive success and fawn recruitment.
€¢ Killing mature does reduces dispersal of young bucks.
€¢ Keeping deer herds in check by harvesting more does is good for both game and nongame animals, and it satisfies mandates of farmers, insurance companies, private homeowners, and others affected by excessive deer numbers.
€¢ An old myth says that killing a mature doe will hurt her fawns' chances of survival. Hunting season dates are structured to ensure survival of fawns with no ill effects.
Tips for Harvesting Mature Does
Every bow season, I target mature does. Not only am I pleased to help manage my local deer her
d and to enjoy a measure of hunting success, but also my wife is pleased with her husband for filling our freezer with the highest-quality meat and reducing our grocery bill for the coming year.
Despite the defeats cited above, I have killed my share of mature does. One reason for my success is that I deeply respect does' survival instincts. As an old doe approached my stand during Virginia's early bow season last year, I waited until her head passed behind a tree before drawing. When the doe came around the other side, I released the arrow.
The shot was accurate and the blood trail was easy because I had given the doe's eyesight the same respect I would give that of the oldest, wisest buck.
Later, I shot a doe at a distance of only 10 yards, thanks to my prehunt preparation. I was wearing a Scent-Lok suit, had sprayed my body with a scent-eliminator, and had applied a cover scent to my hat and gloves. Again, I gave the doe's senses the same regard I would give those of any buck. The bottom line is that you have to hunt does just as carefully as you would the biggest trophy bucks.
Killing a mature buck is a thrill of a lifetime, and the dream of most serious deer hunters. But killing a mature doe is every bit as honorable and can be an even bigger challenge, because she just may be the smartest deer in the woods.
The author is a high school English teacher and an outdoor writer and photographer from Fincastle, Virginia.