Spot And Stalk…
The task of getting Michigan deer hunters to harvest antlerless deer has no doubt been a daunting and ongoing endeavor for DNR wildlife experts. Deeply steeped hunting traditions that have been passed down are often very hard to change. However such was not always the case in regards to a hands-off attitude by hunters towards the whitetail doe.
Due to unrestrained and unregulated deer hunting, the whitetail numbers in Michigan began to show a noticeable drop towards the end of the 19th century. Commercial (market) hunting for whitetails in North America was actually considered an honest way to make a living from the Colonial period on until game laws were finally passed by farseeing conservationists that began to eventually curtail this occupation. The American terms such as “buck” and “doe” in regards to money relate distinctly to the past market hunting era. One notable frontiersman that was quite adept at market hunting for deer and other game was Daniel Boone.
Due to steadily dropping whitetail numbers within its borders, Michigan began making deer hunting closures in various counties of the state in the early 1890’s. The first deer hunting license became law in 1895, with a bag limit of 5 deer (either sex). In 1921 the first bucks-only law came into effect with a bag limit of one buck per hunter with an extra buck tag being allowed as a “camp deer”. This is when what is considered to be a legal buck was determined by the 3 inches of antler length, and the protection of antlerless deer began. It would in its own manner of protecting antlerless deer become the catalyst that would give the doe whitetail its “sacred cow” image with Michigan deer hunters for years to come.
1948 was the year deer hunting was opened up statewide with areas such as my home Thumb area having a deer season being re-established after more than 50 years of complete closure. Deer managers realized early on that the efficient way to control deer numbers is by issuing antlerless permits. Special antlerless permits were issued in 1949 during December 1-10 in the “fruit country” of the northwestern portion of the Lower Peninsula. A broader scale effort to control deer overpopulation in various counties was done in 1952 during the last three days of the regular November season.
I began deer hunting in the Thumb of Michigan in 1963, and the shooting of a doe during the November firearms season was not only illegal, it was considered ultimately sacrilegious. When the first antlerless permits became available in the Thumb area in 1970 I applied for one and was successful. I can remember local sportsmen’s clubs hosting “Doe-Tag” burning parties during which successful applicants publicly burned their antlerless tags. I was not one of them.
Being successful about filling my doe-tag that season had its share of mixed emotions, mainly in not being discovered by any devout bucks-only deer hunters. I felt that discovery would not only bring my skill and ethics as a young deer hunter into question, but my manhood as well.
Fortunately times and attitudes are changing, even if perhaps a bit slowly. In 1978 while dragging out a large doe I had successfully tracked down and stalked in on, a passing motorist stopped to talk to me just as I reached the roadside. Upon discovering me with a doe he immediately began haranguing me with quite a pious dialogue about depleting the local deer population by killing off all the does. I completely ignored him and continued about my business, which left him at a loss for words. In my opinion I had hunted hard for that doe and getting her wasn’t easy. She had also been legally harvested on land where I had permission to hunt, and the whole affair was absolutely none of this passerby’s business.
In 2003, I had almost an identical experience, so some things with certain folks are very slow to change.
Personally I like to use what I call “selective doe hunting” and carefully size up the doe I’m going to harvest before committing to the shot. It is an extremely challenging way to hunt and during my more than 45 years of deer hunting I’ve had more does become aware of my presence in various hunting situations than bucks. A hunting method I often employ in the more open farmlands is spot and stalk, and I have found a lone buck is far easier to move into range on than a buck with a doe. If a doe is present (as can often be the case during the rut) the challenge of getting in close is at least in my opinion multiplied three fold. Maybe it is due in part to a matriarchal system in deer herds, because I have found does to be more wary than bucks, and it is a fulltime attitude in regards to that sex of the species. Rearing and continually looking after young in the wild tends to promote such.
I primarily hunt farm country where deer tend to be well fed, with mature does generally being on the plump side, and some of my heaviest deer I have harvested have been mature does. My oldest doe however, being aged by the local DNR at being a lean 8 ½ years old, wasn’t the biggest by a long sight. Deer being individuals, some are bigger than others, so size isn’t always indicative of age. My largest doe was a very plump 4 ½ years old.
During the special antlerless deer season in Tuscola County a couple years ago, I was able to fill out my two “doe” tags one cold evening just a couple minutes apart. I took up an early afternoon stand against a grapevine-enshrouded tree in a fencerow, directly between a brushy deer bedding area and a corn stubble field. I carefully watched with my binoculars as deer ventured out to travel to food as the sun ebbed away. A pair of bold button-bucks came out first and began frolicking about. A very large doe came next followed by several other does and smaller antlerless deer. The big doe remained on the point position and continually sniffed the evening breeze while scanning the surroundings and moved forward one cautious step at a time.
She was just nearing my scent trail on the wind 120 yards away when I carefully braced up on a handy tree limb for a steady aim. I was using my T/C (rifled barrel) 20ga Encore topped with a Weaver 1.5×5 shotgun scope. As the doe picked up a slight scent and came to an abrupt halt, I squeezed the trigger. Directly after the Encore’s explosive report I could hear the Remington BuckHammer slug slap home, with the doe tumbling down after a short dash. Not knowing where the shot came from the other deer milled about with another large doe finally bounding out, allowing me time to reload my single-shot T/C. This doe stopped as well when she picked up a slight trace of my scent on the wind and was 40 yards closer than the first doe I had shot. When I squeezed the trigger she piled right up.
Trust me, getting two plump, field-dressed deer out to your vehicle a quarter mile away through knee-deep snow all by yourself is an interesting project. I called my wife Ginny on the cell phone and told her I was going to be a little late getting home for supper.
While I don’t hesitate to harvest a doe when good fortune smiles upon me during the earlier deer seasons, I dearly love selective doe harvesting during the special late antlerless deer season in December, and it is the same attitude I’ve had since my first hunting season that allowed harvesting antlerless deer.
And harvesting does is a necessary element of proper deer management.