5 reasons you should shoot more does!

To say that Wayne Sitton, Hillman, knows how to grow big, healthy deer is an understatement.

Since 1997, Sitton has been turning around the fates of both whitetails and whitetail hunters for the Turtle Lake Club, a privately owned hunt club sprawled over 26,000 acres in the northeastern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula.

His efforts have greatly reduced the number of deer that die of disease, despite the fact that Turtle Lake sits right in the heart of tuberculosis country. As a result of Sitton’s work, whitetails inhabiting the area have proper nutrition, helping them produce a healthier crop of fawns, grow larger sets of antlers and come through northern Michigan’s harsh winters no worse for wear.

Hunters also benefit from Sitton’s achievements. Instead of seeing mostly 1½-year-old bucks sporting small basket racks, they get to hunt and harvest gray-muzzled bucks that reach 5½ years old and older.

Others have noticed Sitton’s accomplishments. The Quality Deer Management Association named Sitton its 2009 Al Brothers Quality Deer Manager of the Year.

One of the keys to growing a healthy deer herd that thrives in its habitat is achieving a balanced doe-to-buck sex ratio (2-to-1). Unfortunately, most deer herds in Michigan’s lower peninsula have a sex ratio that’s severely out of whack, with far too many does. Solving this problem is simple.

“I tell deer managers and hunters to shoot does until they’re afraid they’ve taken too many, and then shoot some more,” advised Sitton.

For many hunters, this is easier said than done. If you’re like me, you learned from a young age that shooting does is frowned upon. In fact, we used to look down our noses at those who harvested does, firmly believing they didn’t have the patience and hunting savvy to match wits with the big boys.

This type of thinking may unite hunters together, but it can be very detrimental to a deer population and to hunters’ success. If you’re skeptical of this statement, consider the following benefits to harvesting more does:

Too many deer means there’s less food to go around. This results in under-fed deer that suffer from inadequate nutrition, making them more susceptible to disease and ill-prepared when the snow starts to pile up. For bucks, too little food results in higher mortality rates and stunted antler development. Common sense dictates that to grow bigger bucks, you must provide them with enough to eat.

If there are too many does around, bucks will run themselves ragged breeding them. Take for example a young buck that may initially feel like a kid in a candy store when it sees all the females it’s got to choose from, but it takes an enormous amount of energy to breed multiple does. Research has shown that bucks lose up to 30 percent of their weight during the rut.

“A young buck will use itself up breeding does and probably die of starvation in the winter,” explains Sitton.

Sitton points out this also happens to older bucks.

“If you’ve got mostly young bucks where you hunt, it’s not just because hunters are harvesting too many older bucks. It’s caused by too many does, and older bucks are wearing themselves out breeding them. They then go into the winter vulnerable.”

If deer are exceeding the carrying capacity of an area, they’ll overbrowse it and destroy the native vegetation. Overbrowsed forests lose their intermediate vegetation layers, including shrubs, seedling and sapling trees, and forest floor plants die off.

“By lowering populations, you start to see forage get better,” Sitton pointed out.

Improved forage means a better habitat for not only deer, but other animals such as pheasants and turkeys as well.

In general, the fawn recruitment rate is the percentage of fawns born in a given spring that are still alive the following spring. Throughout most of Michigan, the fawn recruitment rate hovers around 15 to 20 percent, meaning few young deer (and bucks) are added to the herd.

“I don’t care what you do, if you have too many does, your rut will run long,” added Sitton. “If this occurs, then a lot of does won’t get bred the first time they cycle, meaning fawns will be born late, giving them little chance to come out of the next winter.”

By reducing the number of does, Sitton has been able to create a short rut (about two weeks) at Turtle Lake. A short breeding period results in just about all does getting bred the first time they’re in estrous, so their fawns are born early enough the following spring to give them a fighting chance to survive winter. This produces a fawn recruitment rate of a whopping 80 percent at Turtle Lake.

Shooting more does means more hunters were successful, and a successful hunter is a happy hunter.

“Everyone enjoys harvesting deer,” said Sitton. “For the older hunter who doesn’t want to take a doe, have their nephew or niece do it.”

In just about every region of the country, fewer individuals are choosing to spend their time hunting. One of the best ways to reverse this trend is to help a new hunter achieve success in the field. Once they taste the thrill of the hunt and get an opportunity to bag a deer, they’ll be hooked!

Hunters often ask Sitton which does to harvest. His answer is simple, “Shoot the older does first.”

There are several reasons Sitton advises hunters to take old does out of the herd. For one, the matriarchal structure of a doe family means that when it comes to eating, older does get first pickings, and young does get what’s left over. This can result in inadequate nutrition for the doe least prepared to survive the upcoming winter, and its offspring.

Taking older does first also results in more bucks being born.

Say what? Hear me out on this one. Sitton has been gathering and analyzing data on whitetail births for years, and what he’s learned may shock some hunters. “Among does giving birth for the first time, 87 percent of the fawns born will be bucks.”

Finally, compared to harvesting young does, it’s easier to identify and distinguish an older doe from a yearling buck.

“If you focus on harvesting old does, you won’t shoot a nubbin buck by accident,” explained Sitton.

So if you want to improve the health of your deer herd, create a better habitat for whitetails and other animals, have more old bucks to hunt and improve hunter satisfaction, get together with your hunting buddies and talk about the benefits of shooting more does. Don’t wait until the start of the season to have this conversation. Just as you need to prepare for deer season by organizing your gear and practicing your shooting skills, planning prior to the season is the key to achieving all the benefits that a balanced sex ratio provides. Take the time to do this now, and you and the rest of your hunters will reap the rewards for years to come.