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Not everyone practicing Quality Deer Management needs to take does. But everyone should ask themselves each year whether or not they need to. There are a number of factors to consider, so QDMA has compiled 24 questions that will help you decide whether to take more, fewer or zero does each season.
Doe harvest is how you manage deer density, and you adjust deer density to achieve balance with the local habitat’s ability to support those deer in healthy condition. If the deer population is about right, you may need to reduce or stabilize the number of does you’re taking. Or, if the land can support more deer, you’ll probably want to reduce doe harvest for a while. If you determine that you indeed have too many deer, you’ll need to set a target number of does to kill. However, you can also increase the land’s ability to support that many deer through habitat management. This is why we make sure to offer in-depth discussion on forests, fields or food plots in every issue of Quality Whitetails.
A doe harvest prescription is based on equal parts “analyzing the past” and “predicting the future,” along with a pinch of “gut feeling.” Generally speaking, harvest prescriptions are based on information from at least one previous year and should include multiple seasons to give a sense of direction. In other words, you are forecasting what you think will happen based on recent herd and habitat trends. These can vary widely just a county or township away – so don’t fall into the notion that you need to do the same thing as your neighbor 10 miles up the road. Take the time to find out what the conditions are where you hunt. The land and deer will guide you in what to do.
When you review our Doe-Harvest Diagnosis questionnaire (link provided below), you’ll see the information you need is grouped in four major categories. You may have some of this information handy, you may need to gather other details, and you might also want to speak to your state wildlife agency’s local deer biologist to get additional input. We’ve included links in the questionnaire to articles that will provide additional guidance on some topics. Review the questions, check “yes” or “no” for each question, and total the Yes and No columns.
- If “Yes” far outnumbers “No,” it’s likely you should increase your doe harvest goal.
- If “No” far outnumbers “Yes,” it’s likely you should decrease or eliminate doe harvest.
- If it’s a close race or a tie, a stabilized doe harvest may be appropriate.
Before we look at the questionnaire, let’s discuss the four major categories you should study to see if deer are in fact overabundant on the land you hunt.
Harvest History: Listen to the Past
The most recent harvest history of an area should be one of the first variables considered. For example, the annual doe harvest both on your property and the neighbors’ over the past three years should be investigated. If you don’t know, contact your state or provincial wildlife agency and try to get your hands on the harvest records for your county or other local unit for the past few seasons. If it’s trending upward, the population may be growing. Of course, this is all directly related to how many hunters are out there, too. We know that in most situations across North America, hunting is the primary source of deer mortality. Thus, it’s a safe bet that regions with lighter hunter pressure have less potential to overharvest than areas with lots of hunters.
Habitat Diagnostics: Listen to the Habitat
Just because a place has green plants growing everywhere and it’s dog-hair thick does not mean your deer population is in balance. The plant composition within a deer’s reach, particularly in a forested setting, will tell the real story. What species are there? What’s missing? Start by learning to identify the 10 most common plants you see in your woods. Grab a plant identification book and distinguish what’s there, then determine if deer are actually browsing it. Signs of browsing don’t necessarily suggest deer prefer that forage – it may just be the best of what’s left.
This is where you may need to seek outside advice. Two books, Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses and A Guide to Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants, will help tremendously as well. If available, you can also contact the private lands department of your state or provincial wildlife agency, or the Deer Project Leader directly. You’ll find contact information for your state’s Deer Project Leader in the latest edition of our Whitetail Report.
Harvest Diagnostics: Listen to the Deer
The general health and condition of deer found where you hunt should also be a major consideration. Are health indicators worsening, stable, or improving? Most of this data will be collected at the skinning shed, and one of the first things most hunters think of as they implement QDM is that the deer must be getting bigger. Are they? Don’t guess. Collect a weight off every deer you harvest and lump them by sex and age class (based on a jawbone), then calculate an average and assess the trend over time.
Also, a herd’s productivity can give you a sense of what overall condition the deer are in as well. An easy reproductive index that pretty much everyone can collect at the point of harvest is a doe lactation rate.
Observation Diagnostics: Listen to the Hunters
Just as you collect and interpret information from dead deer, use other methods to assess the general herd size and structure from live deer to tell if the population is declining, stable or increasing. This is where hunter observations and routine population surveys become invaluable. Everyone has the ability to record what they see while hunting, and many can also implement a baited trail-camera survey in the late summer.
Remember, there is no absolute correct doe harvest for a property. In fact, when doe harvest is needed, don’t even prescribe a single number as a target. Rather, opt for a range. My best advice is to be a bit conservative with your initial prescription and gradually increase the bar until you see signs that the deer population is in check, then start backing off until both your biological and recreational expectations are met. Over time you’ll likely have to ramp it up again. Your mantra should be: Kill deer. Collect data. Interpret. Prescribe. Repeat.