Growing up in a family of passionate hunters, I’ve heard many campfire tales. Most of these tales are ones that garnished enough value for the person to file it away for reference. Some of my most memorable experiences of my own, as well as stories I’ve heard from others, are about mistakes. More specifically, a few hunting tales where the doe ended up being a buck, the gobbler observed at 200 yards became a hen at 50, and so on.
As a very young person, I recall hearing one of my dad’s hunting partners telling a story of deer he’d shot during bow season. He’d watched the deer in the thick woods of early fall and had it pegged as a mature doe. He setup for the shot, the arrow hit its mark, however upon retrieval of the old gal, he discovered his doe had changed sex in the final moments of life. I remember thinking about how much revered him as a hunter, especially as a bowhunter, and how I couldn’t believe such an accomplished outdoorsman could make such a mistake at close range. Later that evening I revealed my thoughts to my dad, who simply smiled and said, “Son, if you hunt long enough, you’ll do the same thing.” But dad being one to never pass on an opportunity to share wisdom, added, “But remember son…we learn twice as much from our mistakes as our successes.”
Of course, as a fairly accomplished outdoorsman myself, even at that age, I dismissed it pretty quick. Thinking to myself, “Not me. Nope, not this guy. I’ll never mistake a buck for a doe at 18 yards.” Here is where my young ego outweighed my raising, as I should have remembered what the Apostle Paul said in verse 11 of the book of Romans about “boasting”.
As I progressed through my teens, my bowhunting adventures were filled with unsuccessful hunts. Dad had always said, “I’d rather scout for a week and hunt for a day than to scout for a day and hunt for a week.” My teenage hunting years were full a lot of ignorant stand placement that produced sightings, but never produced a shot. Finally somewhere around the end of my teenage years, I decided that old fart was actually a lot smarter than me. I made a commitment that summer to investing a whole lot more in my scouting than my hunting. Actually, I went as far as to commit to hanging no more than one stand before season opened. I can’t recall why I made that decision, but I guess I thought it would make me focus harder.
Now one thing to keep in mind is this time I am referring to predates game cameras. I say that so that you understand that scouting during this time was all about reading sign, searching out food sources and spending considerable time in the woods. One spot I’d been scouting pretty hard was a transition point between two common bedding areas. It was a hardwood strip with one long hollow that ran into a sharp corner. On each side of the corner was cutover in different stages of growth. One side was young pines that were about five years old and about 10ft tall. The other side was older cutover, but was allowed to grow up in natural vegetation and was so think in places you couldn’t walk through it. From what I could tell by the sign, the deer were leaving these two bedding areas and using this hollow to access the white oaks in the hardwoods for the acorns they produced. The hardwood strip was full of freshly popped acorns and droppings. I would often pick up popped acorn hulls under one tree, then check the same tree later for fresh popped hulls. I also used some old school tactics like tying light thread across deer trails. I would barely tie the thread so the deer wouldn’t really know they were walking into anything and usually do this in the mornings. This way I could check it that following evening to see if deer had used the trail during that same day. If it was still in tact, I’d leave until morning and check again. This would tell me if the deer were using the hollow more at night, or during the day. In the end, I focused my attention to a more dense portion of the hollow where the primary trail intersected with a secondary trail that crossed the hollow almost perpendicular. While this portion of the hollow had no white oaks, the traffic sign led me to believe the deer would use the heavier cover of the hickory trees to gain access to the less dense area where the white oaks grew. I picked the best tree, which was a fairly large hickory, screwed in about ten steps and strapped on my homemade lock-on treestand. I ended up cutting a few lanes through the sapling tops to open a few holes to shoot through along the primary trail and even made a few mock paws to make the deer stop, hopefully offering a shot. I had about a week before season opened and ended up actually hanging out in the stand a few evenings to observe. In every session I observed a small group of doe deer that would leave the bedding area to my south, cross the hollow and feed down the edge as they migrated to the thick cutover to my north.
Opening day fell in the middle of the week. I knew that I couldn’t take the whole day, but carefully planned every excuse I could to leave early. I saw my exit point about 3PM and took it, but I had a bout a 45 minute drive, plus time to change clothes and walk in to my stand, so I knew I’d be really pushing it to make it to the stand by 4PM. I didn’t care though. During this time of year, the days are still a little long and I knew I’d have shooting light until about 6:30 or so. I drove as fast as I could, changed clothes at the truck, put my face in the wind and made it to my stand by about 4:15PM.
The evening was fairly uneventful with deer activity, but the squirrels kept me on my toes. The hickory trees were full of shell encased hickory nuts, some nearly as big as a baseball, and the squirrels were cutting in full fashion. I even thought at one time that there was no way the deer were going to show with this much racket. Then about 6PM, the cutting noise turned to silence, then almost instantly turned to synchronized barking. I knew then that there was something these squirrels could see that I couldn’t. After a few moments of surveying my surroundings, I caught movement to my right, up high on the ridge right next to where the hardwoods boarded the cutover to the south. As my eyes focused on the one spot, I quickly realized the movement was a deer’s tail twitching back and forth. I thought to myself, “Well, here we go.” I was already excited because it was the first time I’d realized how right my dad was about scouting so heavily. I eased to a standing position, propped my bow on my left hip and waited, my eyes never leaving the movement on the hill above. I could tell there was more than one deer, but couldn’t tell how many. I’d already ruled it as the group of doe deer I’d been observing, so there was no more decision to make. All of them were big enough to harvest with even the smallest yearling in the group being 70lbs or more. Sure enough, the lead deer made its way down the line to the primary trail, put its nose to the ground and turned my way as if it were on a chain. Within seconds, the deer was standing straight at me with its nose on the ground in one of the paw marks I’d made earlier. I eased my bow hand under the nock, felt the feather fletching in the corner of my mouth about the same time I felt the string touch the end of my nose, settled where the neck met the shoulders and let the arrow fly. I watched the bright green custom feather fletchings disappear exactly where I was aiming, the deer nearly crumpled in its tracks, then turned and ran crashing back to the thick cover of the cutover to the north. I’d done it. It all work. Everything my dad had been trying to tell me for years. It was literally all I could think about. My heart was racing, my breathing was quick and heavy, but all I could think about was the process. Then, I noticed the movement of the other deer I’d forgotten about. But there was a problem. It wasn’t the rest of the group easing down the hill, it was just one other deer by itself, and it was bigger. I could pick out bits and pieces of the deer as it slowly descended the ridge and all of its parts were larger. Then it stepped into the more open area of the hollow, exactly where the deer I shot had come out, only this deer had a eight very visible points and an inside spread of at least 16 to 17 inches. My mind literally went, “What? Why would a buck like this be with a doe on October 1st?” He was about 40 yards or so at this point and literally appeared as if he was going to visit the same paw as the first deer for a moment. I eased another arrow onto the spring rest and got ready for another shot, but he quickly smelled the blood from the first deer and I could tell his increased alertness from his posture. He was never coming in. He turned and walked off exactly where the first deer had gone crashing.
I gave him just a few minutes to leave and I eased down my tree. Light was fading and I didn’t want to be looking for my deer in the thick cutover at night. I walked to where I’d shot the deer and my arrow was literally buried in the ground so deep that it took both hands to retrieve. The blood was so noticeable that I never had to break pace in following it up the hollow. I eased to where the secondary trail entered the thick cutover growth and noticed the blood didn’t stop. As I entered the edge, I had to almost kneel to see under the vines, and there stood the second deer. He wasn’t 10 yards in the thick, just standing there staring back at me. He blew one hard time and disappeared. I could still hear him blowing over 100 yards away. I took one step and noticed a deer leg hanging out in the trail edge with the body slumped off in a hole left by an old stump. I grabbed the leg, gave one heave and immediately noticed a set of testicles that would make any dad proud. I thought, “What? I shot a doe!” Well, no I didn’t…I’d shot a 125lb spike with antlers about four inches long. I just sat down right there and for the next 10 to 15 minutes, pondered about how I’d done this. How in the world had I made such a mistake?
I share this story because I believe it will help anyone who reads it. You see, I’d made several mistakes: 1) I based too much on history. I never questioned what I was seeing and didn’t consider what I could see. 2) I never really looked at the deer. If you really look at a deer and watch the way they behave, you can tell a whole lot about the sex of a deer at a distance.
Number two is what we’re going to focus on here: LOOKING at deer. Through this I will discuss the two most common questions I get asked as a hunter.
One of the questions I get it asked is: How do really evaluate a doe deer? Take a look at the picture to the right. This picture shows a mature doe deer and a younger doe deer. The mature doe deer is in the main picture. First and foremost, look at her head. The head will tell you a whole lot about a doe. Notice how long her head is, especially how long the span between her forehead and nose. Also, notice very distinct hump in that same area. These are signs of a doe of 4+ years of age. The younger doe has a much shorter head and doesn’t have that distinct hump. The doe in this picture is 1.5 to 2.5 years old and is of prime breeding age. Additionally, a lot of hunters will make the mistake of assuming a single deer is a doe deer without young. In all of my years, I’ve only observed a lone doe without young on a handful of occasions. Doe deer are most definitely herd animals. Even older doe who are barren will most likely still travel with their grown offspring. You see a lone deer about dark, you’d be way better off to let it pass as it is most likely a young buck (spike) or yearling buck with buttons.
This leads to the second most common question I get: How do I tell the difference between a young buck and a young doe? Take a look at the picture to the left. Here we have two young deer that look almost identical.However, look closely to the crown of the head. Notice the deer on the right has a high center that tapers to the ears. The deer on the left has a lower center, but notice the nodules (buttons) just before the ears. The deer on the left is a young buck, or what we commonly call a button-head. Now look at the deer in the picture to the right. Deer won’t often give you the option of looking straight on where you can see the buttons, but will commonly give you side profiles. Especially young deer. They will often be more playful and moving around. But even here, notice the distinct difference in the head length. Both of these young deer are about the same age, but notice the doe deer in the main picture has a longer, slimmer head profile. The young buck in the secondary image has a shorter, kind of stumpy head. Learning to identify with head characteristics comes in especially useful when observing single deer far away. It is whole lot easier to evaluate deer with another deer to compare it to. A single deer can be very tough to evaluate and I’ve made some poor decisions more than a couple of times that I regretted deeply after the shot.
In the end, you will still commonly make mistakes not matter how hard you look. My strongest point of encouragement is to simply slow down and look closely. I end up taking a lot of kids hunting throughout the year and I always get tickled at how most want to raise the gun as soon as a deer appears. I usually just put my hand on the gun and whisper, “Let’s just watch for a minute.” Secondly, I encourage people to use things to enhance their viewing, like a nice pair of binoculars. Magnified devices like scopes and binoculars offer tremendous advantages when observing deer and other animals. I often carry binoculars even when bowhunting, especially when I have single deer come in as more often than not, it isn’t a doe, no matter how bad I want it to be. Even at 20 or 30 yards, what I thought was a nice mature doe has ended up having three inch spikes hidden behind ears.
For a more comprehensive read on identifying and gauging whitetail deer, click on the MSU Deer Lab picture below and download their full PDF file. This is a fantastic read that is full of information on comparing antlers to age.