5 Reasons to Take Does Early

When the density of deer where you hunt exceeds the ability of the habitat to support those deer in healthy condition, it’s time to take an appropriate number of does to bring balance (and balance is reached faster if you increase habitat quality at the same time). Lots of questions usually follow this statement, and one of the most common is: Do I shoot does early or late in the season?

For several reasons, the QDMA’s answer is: shoot them as early in the season as possible. When there is a doe-harvest goal to be met, don’t delay. Use any opportunity to kill does early, including archery and muzzleloader seasons. Here are five good reasons why:

• Early in the season, all deer, including does, are feeling less pressure than after big crowds have hit the woods for opening day of gun season and the rut. By late season, does may be as wary as bucks, and just when you are ready to start shooting them, you don’t see any.

• Early in the season, buck fawns (button bucks) are still relatively small compared to mature does, and the difference in body size makes it easier to avoid mistakes. Later in the season, button bucks may be as big as adult does.

• Early in the season, there’s no looming deadline to influence judgement when it comes to trigger control. If you’re hurrying to meet your doe-harvest goal before the season ends, you’re more likely to mistake button bucks for does.

• Early in the season, hunter enthusiasm and attendance is high. As the season fades, fewer hunters show up. If you put off doe harvest until after the rut, you’ll have less help to get the job done.

• Finally, taking does before the rut changes the buck:doe ratio and can help intensify rut competition that same year, making bucks more visible and rut behaviors more prominent. In other words, more fun for hunters!

What About Spooking Bucks?

The number one reason that many hunters delay harvesting does is because we fear that if we shoot a doe with our bow or gun, the imaginary buck that might be following will vanish. Many hunters can tell stories of seeing or harvesting mature bucks while a doe is already down near their stand, but the more important consideration is the long-term effect on your buck-harvest opportunities. Over the long haul, balancing the population with the habitat will increase resources for the young bucks that you pass, including food and cover, allowing them to better express their body and antler potential. Also, balancing the sex ratio will intensify breeding competition, making these healthier bucks more visible during the rut. These long-term benefits far outweigh any short-term disadvantage like spooking bucks, even if it really happens.

A Real-World Example

Consider the case of a group of hunters I know in Greene County, Georgia. They had been successful at bringing the population closer into balance with local resources on their 1,600-acre hunting lease. Deer body weights increased as a result, and efforts at passing up young bucks resulted in more bucks being sighted from deer stands. However, because reproductive rates and fawn survival were increasing along with herd health, doe harvest was still important.

One season, the hunters decided as a group to delay doe harvest until after Thanksgiving to avoid spooking bucks before the rut. December came around, hunting enthusiasm cooled along with the rut, and folks were busy with holiday functions. Soon the end of the season on New Year’s Day was looming, and the club was far short of meeting their doe-harvest goal. The members scrambled at the last minute to organize a hurried doe-hunting effort, but after nearly four months of archery and gun-hunting activity on the club, even the does were difficult targets. Worse, in the last-minute rush to kill does, the hunters mistakenly shot four button bucks and a spike!

When hunting season ended, a winter trail-camera survey produced an estimated adult sex ratio of four does for every buck. The decision to delay the doe harvest was a costly one: much of the progress of previous seasons was erased, and the club had to work hard in following season to get caught up again.

So, even if the gunshot that drops a doe also spooks a theoretical buck that you might have killed, don’t worry. Meeting your doe-harvest goal early each year will result in better hunting for bucks down the road.

Now, on to another common question about doe harvest: How many does should I shoot?

  • Justin Monk

    The biggest problem with harvesting does during early season where I hunt in south Alabama, is most does are still nursing during this time period. We try to only harvest 1.5 yr old does during the early season and wait til later in the season before harvesting any older does when their yearlings tend to be old enough to take care of themselves.

  • mike

    I’m sorry, I have to totally disagree with this article. I have a small 270 acre farm that is all in woods, mostly pine plantation with some hard wood creek bottoms mixed in. If we start shooting early with guns its puts all the deer on lock down and within a few days of the opener they’re nocturnal. However, if we don’t shoot until late in the season when its good and cold. We see deer during daylight all season. Reason being when the guns start up on the clubs around me, deer have learned to pour into my place where they’re safe. Plenty of food, water and cover and no guns going off. So we get to go and watch deer all season getting an idea whats there and around. Then the last 2 weeks of the season when the woods have all but emptied anyway due to hunter fatigue, and its cold and wet and my food plots are in high gear, we go to work and it doesn’t blow them out. This is 5 years of doing this and it works every year, sorry but this article in some cases is just flat wrong.

    • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

      Mike, we certainly welcome disagreement and debate. Thanks for commenting! In a situation like yours, where you are hunting a relatively small property and are surrounded by heavy hunting pressure, I can certainly see why waiting is an advantage for you. You are attracting deer to you by managing hunting pressure, which definitely works. You’re basically creating a sanctuary of your entire property. If deer on your acreage are not overly wary by late season because you haven’t been pressuring your acreage, no problem. However, hunters who are managing deer populations across larger properties, and who have a large doe-harvest goal where they hunt, should still follow our advice to work on that goal as early as possible. Also, the other four points of the story still apply to you. For example, you still have to be more cautious with late-season doe harvest to avoid killing button bucks, since they are much larger by then. So, I disagree that our article is “flat wrong,” even in your case. Thanks for reading!

      • mike

        Lindsay, I don’t have to be cautious late season about button bucks, my deer rut very early, sometimes as early as late September but most of the time by mid Oct. So by late season I don’t have any button bucks they all have hard antler on their head, most of the time they all have hard antler by early Sept. My trail cams don’t lie. Button heads disappear by that time and all show some antler mos to the time about a 4 to 6 inch spike. My whole point was, and my experience of hunting with a lot of people over 4 states for over 20 years. Is that every place is different and that article is written as it its gospel. There are a whole lot more people like me who are hunting small or smaller tracts than there are people who own or lease thousands of acres like a Jackie Bushman or Lee and Tiffany, those people and places are the exception not the rule. More articles need to written to the small tract hunters because the rules by and large are different for us.

        • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

          Mike, I have serious doubts that all of your button bucks (which are fawns born this same year) are achieving 4 to 6 inches of antler in their very first fall of life. Where I hunt in coastal Georgia, we also have a rut peak in October. Spike bucks where I hunt are all yearlings (1.5-year-olds) who are in their second fall. Even on the most high-quality habitat with superior nutrition, it would be extremely rare for a wild buck fawn to achieve 4- to 6-inch spikes in its first fall. So, unless you are hunting in extremely superior habitat, I’m certain most of these spikes you are seeing are in fact yearlings (1.5-year-olds) and not button bucks (fawns).
          And I stand by my early point: Four of the Five points of the article, if not all Five, are applicable regardless of the amount of acreage you are hunting. And it’s not news to us that small-acreage hunters outnumber those on bigger acreage. We’ve known this for a long time, and we steer our educational efforts to supply relevant information for small-acreage hunters.
          Thanks again.

          • Jon Gunder

            I agree with this from what I’ve seen in N FL, which has a similar environment and nutrition.

            One thing I was surprised to see not mentioned in the article was avoiding taking pregnant does. Does taken before the rut haven’t been bred, so you aren’t limiting fawns produced next year, especially if you have a surplus of does. If you take does late in the season, they may be pregnant and if you have too many does you can create other issues from a secondary rut,etc.

          • Lindsay Thomas Jr.

            Jon, if you have determined you need to take X number of does at a certain location this season, it doesn’t matter whether they are pregnant or not. You are reducing the herd’s reproductive capacity by the same amount. The fawns these does would have produced won’t be produced, regardless.

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of QDMA, and he is QDMA’s Director of Communications. He has been a member of the QDMA staff since 2003. Prior to joining the staff of QDMA, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.