2016 is going to be the year of the doe if we have anything to say about it. After seeing our local population recede around 2009-2010 to the lowest number we had experienced in 20+ years, you may wonder why we would be interested in targeting a significant number of does again in the coming Fall. The simple answer is space.
During the slump we experienced about 6-7 years ago its safe to say that we still didn’t have a whole lot of problem filling tags. We shot the occasional buck and usually managed to fill the freezer with a few anterless deer as well. However, the deer numbers weren’t what we were used to seeing, but that is not to say what we were used to seeing was a good thing either. During this time I purposefully harvested a number of doe fawns in order to have less impact on the breeding age population of the resident doe family groups on our property. Within a few short years we were again experiencing populations that could sustain a healthy mature doe harvest. Careful to avoid a drastic swing pendulum swing, we resumed our doe harvest at a reasonable pace and began to keep up with the neighbors’ harvest numbers to a better extent. With hunter sightings still below average, we began to notice that we managed to have our best years in buck encounters (age and size) for this property during the years we experienced the fewest doe sightings. With local deer numbers lower, the understory of the timber began to rejuvenate and regrowth areas began to get thicker than ever. This provided more and better bedding areas for bucks to take advantage of, and with fewer does frequenting the property there was less competition for the bedding cover that existed.
I believe bucks prefer to find secluded bedding that allows them to avoid human interaction as well as unwanted disturbances from other deer. When our property was holding a lower number of does it provided more opportunities for bucks to find solitary, secure bedding. Part of this phenomenon could be due to the crop rotation on the farm during these years. The specific food source combination during those years, coupled with a noticeably lower deer density, made for some less eventful archery sits, but throughout the season, our success rate in seeing or harvesting antlered deer was actually higher than it has been during more recent years of higher overall hunter sightings.
The food we provide the deer on the property is fairly adequate. Although we can always do better, the deer have food sources on a year round basis with a mixture of weeds/forbs in CRP fields to agricultural crops such as corn and alfalfa. We also provide some supplemental nutrition through plantings of Brassicas and clovers (about 3.5 acres) and of course the deer utilize acorns, when available, and woody browse in the timber. I bring this up to explain that the problem with a high deer density on this property is not nutritional carrying capacity; winter kill is rarely an issue. The problem is bedding capacity. There are only a few primary bedding areas on the farm and fewer yet that are easily huntable. Much of the bedding occurs just over the property line on the neighbor’s land and the deer cross onto our parcel to feed. While our habitat projects include the establishment of new bedding areas in huntable locations as well as the enhancement of current bedding areas to give them more side cover, and allow for the property to “hunt larger”, current conditions are such that we can afford to eliminate some of the doe population to make room for bucks to use the property as a primary bedding location.
While additional harvest is one way to combat this problem, we will also look to manage our food sources and assess when our property is attractive to the local deer herd. In years where the farmer has the ag fields in alfalfa, our clover food plots and the large destination food sources are becoming attractive at relatively the same time; late Spring to early Fall. By late October the frosts begin to take a toll on the alfalfa and our clover plots are often reduced to mud. There is little attractive food source on our property when the best part of bow season is starting. We managed to attract deer to our property all summer and sustain a large local doe population, which in turn seems to have pushed bucks onto neighboring properties to bed during daylight hours. The best we can hope for is for those bucks to return for a cruise in early November when the estrous does begin to draw them to their feet.
A more desirable situation would be to have highly attractive food sources maturing at different times throughout the Fall to attract and hold bucks once they reestablish from their summer ranges. Having brassica plots next to plots of peas, oats, with winter wheat and rye, and additional plots of standing corn or beans provides the deer a consistent food source that are all utilized and desirable at different times.
Appropriate food plot timing mixed with a year or two of persistent and deliberate doe management can create a property that will lend itself to daylight use by a more mature age class of buck. Smart hunting and careful stand access can provide opportunities for an entire season, instead of crossing one’s fingers and hoping to catch a rutting buck during the first two weeks of November.