This is Part 4 of the Ground to Gun series with Craig and Neil Dougherty, as they provide excerpts and insights from their newest book “Whitetails: From Ground To Gun – A Guide To Hunting and Growing Mature Whitetails”
You can’t understand deer hunting without understanding land. Deer are inextricably linked to the land they inhabit. Land determines how a deer will spend his time, how he will stay alive, and whether or not he will realize his genetic potential. Land also determines how deer move, where they bed, and what they will eat. Connect the dots between understanding the land mature whitetails use, and the ways to hunt them and you’ve begun to realize the “Ground to Gun” philosophy.
By Craig and Neil Dougherty:
“Managing “herd” dynamics is far from an absolute science. State agencies have been managing deer numbers for decades, and while the science may sound exact, it is not always the case. The math may sound impressive, but some of the underlying assumptions of their management models have not been changed in decades. Many agency management models were developed when deer populations were expanding. Hunters took any buck they saw and resisted harvesting does. This is no longer the case. Hunters are no longer shooting the first buck they see. They are letting young bucks live and stay in the herd until they at least reach the ripe old age of 2.5 or more (hopefully). Many agency models were developed on the assumption that hunter harvest is a representative sample of bucks in the herd. This is not necessarily the case. Many state harvest reporting systems are seriously flawed. Underlying assumptions need to be changed and the models updated, but that takes money, and agencies always seem to be strapped for cash; in spite of the millions they receive from hunting license sales and excise taxes levied on hunting and fishing equipment.
The Impact of Predators
Most states do not include predation in their population models, but study after study has demonstrated that bears, coyotes, and even bobcats prey heavily on fawns. Coyote populations are burgeoning in most areas, as are black bears. Some areas are losing deer to wolves. Man is not the only predator in the woods and we have yet to see a coyote fill out a deer harvest report. Add some winter kill and habitat depredation to the mix, and you may be losing more deer than you think. Over-harvest does a couple of years in a row and a population just may fall so low that it has difficulty recovering.
Coyotes are tearing up deer herds across the country and it’s starting to make a difference. Researchers in PA, AL, GA and SC have recently looked at the impact of coyotes on white-tailed deer and the results are pretty grim. Coyotes are gobbling up fawns at an alarming rate!
Alabama researchers studied fawn recruitment (number of fawns per adult doe 1.5 years and older in the herd just prior to hunting season) before and after removing predators (22 coyotes and 10 bobcats). The results were astonishing. Areas where predators were removed showed 193-256% greater fawn recruitment than areas where predators were not removed.
Another study in Georgia estimated that it took 78 does to recruit 2 fawns in an area with a high predator population. After the predators were re-moved, 2 fawns were produced for every 3 does. A South Carolina study captured and monitored 60 newborn fawns. Coyotes killed 47-62% of them by fall with 66% of the kills occurring within the first 3 weeks of life. It’s clear, in areas of high predator population that predators are taking their share of fawns and then some. Dr. Karl Miller reported at the 2011 Quality Deer Management Associations Annual Convention that across the whitetail’s range, fawn recruitment rates are changing. According to Miller, recruitment rates once averaged around 1 fawn for every doe; in coyote dense areas, the recruitment rate is now closer to .4 fawns per doe.
We have coyotes in our area, but as of yet they have not become a real issue (at least for us). Typically, our challenge is to kill enough does to keep our numbers in line with our habitat. If anything, the coyotes working our property are helping us out by keeping our deer population in check. We like doe hunting well enough, but the law allows us to take only so many, and sometimes we need a little help. It is also disruptive to be harvesting does all season long, especially when we’ve been after a certain mature buck all season. Make no mistake, we keep a sharp eye out for over-predation, but as of this writing we are at peace with the coyotes using our property.
Small properties that need to be kept super quiet in order to hold good deer also can benefit from a little help from predators. Constantly harvesting deer from any property is disruptive. Shooting a half dozen does a season from a small property can run all the deer off of it.
Coyotes are also having an impact on how we bowhunt. Common practice among bowhunters is to leave poorly hit deer overnight to “stiffen up” and die. John Jeanneney, one of the top blood-tracking dog breeders in the country and author of the excellent tracking book Dead On www.deadonbookcom. , has started recommending that bowhunters get after their deer almost immediately after the shot unless a gut shot has been confirmed. He is probably one of the most experienced and knowledgeable trackers in the country and is reporting that 50% of the deer he and his dogs recover next day in the last few seasons have been fed upon by coyotes.
This is really a big deal if you are a bowhunter! Craig has had coyotes beat him to a bowshot deer twice in the last two years. The first was a next day recovery, while the second was a “let’s eat dinner before we go after it” scenario. Radar was on the kill an hour after it was shot, but not before the coyotes had gutted it first. A bear beat us to a kill a number of years ago as well.
The best way to keep track of your predator situation is to keep your eye on fawn recruitment rate. In most areas with a balanced herd, the ratio should be about one fawn for every adult doe. Some areas have higher or lower ratios depending on herd health and the survival rate of fawns. Another trick is to keep an eye out for twins, if they are common in your area. Keep a year to year tally and look for trends (3 consecutive years should begin to tell you something). Finally, you can begin checking harvested does for lactation. Does with fawns, typically have milk in their udders when harvested during the early part of the season. Fawn free does will be completely dry. Comparing dry doe numbers year to year can give an indication of fawn recruitment on your property.
Keep an eye out for coyotes and coyote scat while in the woods; keep your sharp eyes open during the day and your ears open at night. Watch for bears as well, as they are notorious fawn predators. Most of all keep track of your deer population, especially fawn recruitment; look for trends over time.
Excessive predation is especially problematic for professional deer managers who have spent the last 30 years convincing hunters to harvest does. As one agency biologist stated, “Just when finally have convinced hunters to start taking does, we need to re-educate them that they may need to back off. With no communications budget this will be a nightmare.”
State agencies typically look at incredibly large deer areas at a single time; the tags issued in your area may have been issued to reduce deer damage occurring thirty or even fifty miles away. Under most of the management models, it is next to impossible for state agencies to manage whitetails on a site specific basis; that’s up to you and your neighbors. Something (like predation) may be going on in your area which has negatively impacted the local population of deer. You and your neighbors may need to lay off the does for a few years. Trouble is, your state most likely has no way of knowing this, and they have issued everyone in the neighborhood a pocket full of doe tags. Never fill a doe tag just because you have one; you should do so for a known reason. And don’t trust the state to do your thinking for you.
We are not trying to beat up on state agencies here. Their budgets are stressed and over the years they have done a wonderful job of establishing huntable populations of deer, turkeys, and other game species. But they have a tough job, and if you believe as we do, that deer management needs to be site specific, you need to think carefully about your doe harvesting program. The days of shooting every doe you see and then a few more are over. You don’t have to use a doe tag just because your state issued you one. As we said in the beginning of this chapter, the buck part is the easy part.
Do You Have a Population Problem?
So how do we know when we need to harvest does? There are all kinds of ways to look at this issue but our favorite, and probably the easiest to implement, is to look at the impact of deer on the habitat in a given location. It is not all that difficult if you know a little about what deer eat and how to read the woods.
The first thing we look at when consulting on a new property is how deer are impacting their habitat. In fact, it starts before we even leave the truck. We start studying habitat 20 or so miles away from the site as we approach the location. In areas of high deer density or marginal deer habitat (food), clear and distinct browse lines where trees border fields are readily apparent. Tree limbs and leaves are relatively non-existent 6 feet above the ground and below. If we pull into the property and there is no browse within the reach of an adult whitetail there is generally a situation which needs to be rectified.
The next indicator we look for on a property is the impact of deer on preferred browse species; whitetails really like to eat the tender leaves and buds and even stems of certain preferred tree and brush species. In most areas of the north, deer prefer maple, oak, ash, and some pines like white pine. They also heavily browse cedar, fruit trees and many types of shrubs like berry bushes and viburnum. They do not prefer beech, most spruce, birch, ironwood, and autumn olive. Extensive lists of preferred vs. non preferred whitetail food species are generally available from most soil and conservation offices across the country. Many state agencies publish deer preference lists of plants and trees as well.
We check impact on the preferred species to see how much of the plant has been browsed. Deer typically nip off a quarter to half inch of the stem at a time. If only the last inch or less of the stem has been eaten we are not concerned. It is perfectly normal for a deer to take a nip here, and a bite there, as they pass through the woods. In fact, if no preferred stems are nipped at all, a red flag goes up; we may be looking at very low densities. If however, 2 or even 3 inches of the end of a stem has been eaten we probably have a problem with too many deer for the available habitat (food). We check multiple areas as sometimes deer tend to “hang out” in certain areas like field edges for extended periods of time and create false indications of browse use. Excessive browsing on shrubs and young tree species, combined with some serious browse lines, generally means either too many deer or too little food. So does deer feeding on less preferred foods like beech, spruce, and most grasses. When you see them eating the less preferred foods, it generally means they have eaten all the shrimp and lobster from the smorgasbord and are now down to the lettuce and onions. We also take a good look at fawn recruitment levels as poorly nourished does will often absorb their fawns or have only one where they should be having two.
To sum it up, if your deer are eating themselves out of house and home, it is time to either provide more food or reduce the population. It’s about that simple.”
If you’re interested in learning more about population models and the impacts that deer have on their habitat, pick up a copy of the Dougherty’s new book “Whitetails: From Ground To Gun“
Quality Deer Management Association CEO Brian Murphy describes this book by saying it “provides detailed insight into what makes a great hunting property and how to consistently harvest mature bucks. It is a clear roadmap to QDM success.”
Pick up a copy today (click here to buy “Whitetails: From Ground to Gun”)