It’s the late season. The rut is over across most of North America. The deer are moving back to feeding patterns. Hopefully your buck tag already has been punched. There’s still plenty of time left in the season, though. And it’s more fun sitting in a tree stand than doing chores around the house any day of the week. Plus, the big void is coming – that long gap between the end of the current archery deer season and the start of the next one. If you want to bowhunt, now’s the time to do it. That means it’s doe time!
I don’t know about you, but as long as I’ve got an open buck tag, I’m not going to shoot a doe. If one comes into bow range, that deer could be just the bait I need to lure in a buck. So unless I tag my buck early, I’m basically always looking at filling doe tags in the late season. And that’s just fine by me. It’s cold, which means bugs and meat spoilage are not issues of concern. Does tend to gather in large groups on the available food sources in the late season, so they can be easy to pattern and, therefore, easy to hunt. And I can confine my hunting to afternoons, which means no early-morning alarms. Does it get any better?
Why Kill Does?
If you’re managing a property for deer, odds are you have an annual harvest goal that you have to meet to keep your buck-to-doe ratio down and to make sure the herd using your land doesn’t exceed its carrying capacity. When the latter occurs, antler growth can be stunted. Some friends and I were called on by a farmer several years ago to get the deer herd on his property under control so he could make money on his crops. Since the property hadn’t been hunted in decades, there were an incredible number of deer on it.
The first couple of years we hunted the farm, we saw plenty of bucks, but no good ones. Even the mature bucks we shot and got photos of had unimpressive racks. They also had fairly small bodies. After focusing on killing does for about three years however, we started seeing and killing solid 140-class bucks. And the body weights increased. The first three years, we didn’t kill a buck weighing over 200 pounds. Afterward, we regularly killed 200-pounders.
They may not carry the antlers we all dream about, but don’t underestimate the importance of harvesting does in your hunting area. Often times, doing so can actually improve the quality of bucks on your property.
Different properties can sustain different numbers of deer, depending on the available food sources. Once you know what your land can hold, you can manage your herd accordingly. And to do that, you’ve got to kill does. Let’s say you hunt public ground and/or private property that you can’t manipulate for deer management. Well, for you taking a doe is more about collecting venison than managing a herd. Maybe the buck you shot filled your need for steaks, chops and burger. Take a doe to load up on bologna, jerky and other tasty meat treats.
Locating the Herd
Come the late season, the rut is over and deer switch to survival mode. They need to pack on fat to survive the leanest months of the year which lie ahead. So you’re going to find them in and around food sources. If you’ve got standing crops of corn or soybeans because the farmer didn’t get them out of the field, or because you purposely left them for the deer, then you’ll want to check out those areas for sure. If all the crops where you hunt were harvested, check to see if there’s any waste grain lying around. For sure, the resident deer will know if there’s anything left in a field. Often times, farmers will plant cover crops, such as winter wheat, rye or timothy after they harvest corn or soybeans. Deer love those green shoots when they start sprouting in the late season.
Late season means one thing….food! Locate the food and the deer (does) will beat a path to your stand.
In big-woods country, hunt for stands of oaks that still have acorns lying around. Look particularly hard for red oaks. Their acorns have as much as three times more fat than white oak acorns. Find the acorns in December and January, and you can bet does will show up.
Another good place to look for deer in the late season is around a source of open water – assuming there’s no snow on the ground. Studies have found that a whitetail (in winter every day) needs to drink about 1.5 quarts of water for every 100 pounds of body weight. Well, if most of the local watering holes are frozen, deer are going to hunt for open water – such as a flowing stream or a natural spring. I have a friend who religiously uses an ax to chop a hole in the edge of a pond on the farm he hunts when there’s no snow on the ground. He does well shooting does with his bow over that hole.
Be Sure It’s a Doe
One thing you want to avoid at all costs when hunting for does in the late season is shooting a button buck. That little antlerless deer with two nubbins on its head could be a future wall-hanger. Even if you’re hunting public land or private property where others have access, you don’t want to shoot button bucks. There’s just no benefit. Some outfitters assess fines for clients who shoot button bucks to fill antlerless-deer tags. They know a dead button buck is one less rack in the woods in future seasons.
Telling the difference between a button buck and a mature doe is fairly easy when the two are side by side. The doe will be bigger. But the size of a button buck by itself can be deceiving. I’ve heard more than one bowhunter say he thought he shot a “big doe,” but when he walked up on it, he found it was a button buck. So here are a few clues to figuring out what you’re preparing to draw on.
Food doesn’t always mean “food plots”. Locating a natural food source can really increase your chances of success; especially in big-timber regions.
Button bucks unfortunately are not survival experts. Often times, they are the first deer to enter a field during daylight for dinner. So take a hard look at that deer when it shows up near your stand. Also, when you look at any young deer – be it a button buck or a yearling doe its face is going to seem short and blocky, whereas a mature doe’s face looks long and lean. Also, the legs and body of a young deer will look shorter than normal. If such a deer appears, break out the binoculars and study its head. By the late season, there should be two pretty good bumps on a button buck’s head. If you see anything that looks like a bulge in the hair, leave your bow on its hook.
Hunt the Afternoons
Perhaps the best thing about hunting for does in the late season is the most productive time to hunt is in the afternoon and evening. You’re hunting for deer leaving their beds and heading to food. It’s not fair to say mornings are totally worthless for hunting at this time of the year, but there’s no question afternoons are better. And hey, who likes getting out of bed in the dark to go sit in a frigid tree stand anyway? We’re not hunting bucks now. This is a doe hunt. So why not sleep in and enjoy a leisurely afternoon hunt?
Get out early. I like to be in the stand for an afternoon doe hunt at around 1 p.m., since it gets dark about 5 p.m. where I live. If I go out later, I run the risk of bumping deer off the field or in the woods near the oak stands. That’s disastrous this time of year. Late season does are predictable, but they’re extremely spooky, having survived months of pressure from bow and gun hunters alike. Heck, they’ll high-tail it out of the county if they don’t like the looks of their own shadows at this time of the year.
Doe hunting means you can skip the early wake up call , get a little extra rest, and head to the stand after the morning temp’s have risen and conditions are more confortable.
Get in your stand long before you expect any deer to show up. The colder it is out – and especially if snow is falling – the earlier you can expect deer to head to food. Nothing drives them to the dinner table like nasty winter weather. They know they need food in their bellies to keep them warm. Digestion generates body heat, and a deer has got to have something in its stomach for digestion to occur. That’s a leading reason why deer browse on twigs and other natural vegetation in the late season, even in areas where they have plenty of more substantive feed. If they can nibble on twigs near their beds on a frigid day, they can generate body heat by expending very little energy.
Bowhunting for deer is better than not bowhunting for deer. Take advantage of any opportunity you can to stretch the strings. In the late season, that might mean you have to set your sights on does. So be it.