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Creek Bends: Hunters in the know take... any doe?
Small doe raises questions, is biggest thrill for semi-retired blood-tracking dog
Never have I been so mentally thrown off in the woods by such a small thing.
I pride myself on preparation for any hunting outing.
But I was not prepared for a small doe.
Hunting Oklahoma I have held out to take only a large, trophy buck of 5 ½ years or older (which means I have yet to put an arrow through a buck), but I’ve been happy with mature does.
Previous does have been one or two large ones from someone’s property and I say “thank you very much for the opportunity” and that’s that.
I know what a mature doe looks like. Never had a problem spotting those long faces and mature outlines. The biggest does are usually in the 90- to 100-pound range.
But things are different at Snake Creek. We want to do some population management. Trail cameras in early October showed three fawns that still had their spots. Dallas Barber, the big game wildlife biologist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said that likely was an indication our area is too heavy on females. It resulted in an extended rut through winter, fawns dropping late, and added stress on animals that didn’t need it with the drought this summer.
Does with visible ribs and boney hips on the trail camera were evidence enough.
I set a pop-up blind about 20 yards from the mineral block and some rice bran I had out for deer inventory purposes. Now the blind is there for inventory thinning.
I learned early this season that the box and all the scent control spray I can use is not enough to let me ignore wind direction. A mature doe is not stupid. She knows how to use her nose.
Wind direction Wednesday afternoon was out of the east-northeast, but at only 6 mph it was not perfect. A good, solid 10 mph north wind with some 20 mph gusts, that’s perfect.
The deer usually approach from the north and east, so I thought I could be OK even with very little wind. So I went for an evening stand.
A small deer arrived not 30 minutes after I arrived. I enjoyed watching her nibble on the mineral block and meander about to nibble on foliage.
About 20 minutes later, as the clock neared 5 p.m. and the wind absolutely died, questions started to roll.
I looked through the binoculars again, but this time to confirm she was, in fact, a doe.
I started to realize I’ve never really eyed a small doe and I had questions.
“Was this a fawn or a 1-year-old?
“She is not a mature doe, but is she actually smaller than I think—a fawn?
“We’re trying to remove several does from this area, should I be passing up any opportunities to shoot any doe?”
“Are little buggers like this one even sexually mature yet?
(I learned later that, yes, unlike young bucks a healthy doe can be sexually mature in its first year, as a fawn.)
“Should I be targeting only large does, or just thinning out females—any females?”
For a “hunter in the know that takes a doe,” I sure had a lot of questions.
The moment of truth
The bottom line was she was one legal doe and I can take five more. More than one old deer hunter has told me that small ones are best for eating. I settled on the idea she was not a fawn simply because most fawns I’ve seen on the cameras are still with, or at least near, their doe.
“Maybe I should follow that old rule, one in the hand... Remember that time you passed on that young New Mexico bull elk and never got another chance.”
The silent debate continued in my head as I lifted my bow off its hook, just in case.
The doe suddenly perked up and stared straight at me.
I froze, but it wasn’t me she was eyeing. I heard steps behind me, slightly to the east. More deer approached. It sounded like several deer.
“Good,” I thought. “Choices.”
My blind sits among fallen trees and brush at a busy crossroads on the oak ridge. Twenty yards is tighter quarters than I’d prefer to that mineral block if I’m honest, but the brush pile and the trails are where they are.
The most-used trails are east and north of the blind and the fallen trees—but not all of them.
Hooves crunched oak leaves on the ground behind me as the deer approached from the east. As they paused I knew exactly where they stood without looking. Any attempt to lift a flap and look would be a very bad idea.
They were about 15 yards southeast of my blind and they had a choice to continue north on the trail upwind of my spot, or continue west and walk directly downwind.
I heard a stick snap, right behind me.
“Ahhhhh, nooo. Really!?”
Sure enough, a minute later came the hoof stomps, and a blow so loud it felt like that deer had its nose pressed up on the blind.
Those “you’re busted” blows are the absolute worst. It’s so quiet out in the woods, and suddenly it’s like you’ve just done the most embarrassing thing in your life and all the popular kids are pointing and going, “Ha!”
The little doe popped to alert, and she was broadside.
“Well, one in the hand, then.”
I held low but the hit still was a little high. I must say the target area looked little, period. The arrow hit just behind the shoulder, lodged into the opposite, and knocked her down where she stood. She rolled and broke off the arrow in death throes that lasted longer than I’d have liked.
The deer behind the blind bolted and crashed off through the woods, their noses no doubt all the wiser.
As I handled the little doe, I was still unsure of her age. She was easily 50 pounds, maybe 60, but not as heavy as my 70-pound Lab. I still assume she was 1½ but I honestly don’t know. I’ve never handled a fawn or other young deer to know the difference.
Barber said the only way to age a young doe is to look at tooth wear and eruption. “Really when it comes to doe management they’re all of equal value when it comes to harvest,” he said. “If you have options, as in a group of does, take the biggest one.”
Small as she was, she was easy to drag and carry, so I took a little extra effort to create a short 40-yard “track” for Whiskey over easy terrain.
With his knee issues and recent “mystery collapses,” blood tracking has been too rare for him of late. To let him find a real deer in the woods would be a big deal.
I let him out of the truck, then pulled out his tracking harness, the bell ringing, like a surprise Christmas gift.
He had a full-on conniption. He jumped, he spun, he ran around the truck, he panted as if he’d already run a mile, and pushed into me like, “put it on me! put it on me!”
“Whoa!” I commanded. He stopped, sat, and wagged his tail, ready for his big “track.” He completed it in very short order but with no less pride and excitement than any other—and without hurting himself or passing out.
The heart and kidneys, fat around the kidneys, and some scraps made a good meal for him while I broke down the doe into pieces for the cooler and the trip home.
One of us was happy with breaking the ice for the season and removing one doe of more to come, the other was absolutely thrilled.
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