I’d only been in my ladder stand a few minutes when I heard the shot a few hundred yards away. It was Saturday, December 3, and it was several minutes shy of 2:00 p.m. I knew who the hunter was, and I knew what would soon be coming from within my coat pocket. Sure enough, a familiar signal from my cell phone meant a text message had just been posted, and the two-word text was just what I expected—Doe down! The hunter was a pastor friend of mine who was not only in possession of a DMAP (Deer Management Assistance Program) tag for our farm, but also possessed a reputation for one-shot kills. Didn’t matter what firearm he was using, if it took up space in his Cannon safe, he had its capabilities memorized from practice on the range.
I always plan on helping the Pastor get his deer kills back to his vehicle with the assistance of my UTV. Minimizing human scent by utilizing low impact deer removal and field dressing elsewhere helps keep areas surrounding our stands as clean as possible for the next hunter in line hoping to score. The Pastor was waiting for me when I arrived at the ground blind, but instead of greeting me with his usual victory smile, I was met with a disgusted face. When I gestured my hand, the Pastor just shook his head and said, “It’s not worth a fist pump.” Even though I asked why, I instantly surmised what the Pastor was about to show me, and driving up alongside the carcass proved my suspicions.
While perfectly legal using an antlerless tag, there is one particular deer that many hunters attempt to avoid killing, and that is a male fawn—commonly referred to as a button buck. And the Pastor had just tagged one. Apologizing for the mistake, the Pastor shared his reasons for assuming he was shooting at a “real” doe, while I singlehandedly lifted the small deer onto the carrier. By the time we had reached my preferred field-dressing site, I’d thought of several ways the Pastor could have spared himself the discontentment.
As I previously mentioned, the Pastor was privileged to hunt our farm with a property specific DMAP tag. Being enrolled in the program obviously illustrates that there is an overpopulation of deer presently on our farm, and the severity of our annual crop damage justifies the need for such enrollment. Because of our high deer numbers, we’ve never issued any restraints to those DMAP license holders—the Pastor included—regarding certain deer. That’s always left to the judgment of the hunters to tag whatever they are happy with, as long as it qualifies as a legal antlerless deer. To reiterate, we wind up with a higher deer harvest if there are no restrictions on button bucks, rather than having hunters become so gun-shy that even yearling does and doe fawns get passed up.
So why was the Pastor so disappointed with his hunting skills? Let me explain. There are two primary reasons why hunters would pursue and purchase the privilege to obtain DMAP tags. They either love to hunt, or they love the meat. While the Pastor loves both, he places far more emphasis on the weight of his freezer when the season’s shooting hours have ceased than he does the number of hours he logged occupying stands. And since a male fawn significantly lacks the meat yield of a mature doe, his venison dinners will now be fewer and farther between despite the same out-of-pocket processing fee.
But what really hurt was when I had to rub in the phone conversation that we’d had earlier that day when I was scheduling his hunt. “Twenty-six deer have already been tagged on the farm,” I told him. “That means there are plenty of unaccompanied fawns that will be very vulnerable in or near the food plot you’ll be hunting over. For that matter, it’s imperative that you carry binoculars with you to aid in identification.” While the Pastor brought them along, it amazes me how many people I’ve guided to stands over the years that did not have a pair in their pocket or strapped to their chest. Unlike riflescopes, using both eyes to view objects through binoculars provides users with a more defined, three-dimensional image. Distant objects are far easier and more quickly analyzed by using binoculars, rather than constantly lifting a rifle to scope them. And, if it were a person that demanded identification from your location, what would you do if you did not have binoculars? Don’t even think it!!
My phone conversation with the Pastor also mentioned that he should not be in a hurry to pull the trigger. “Those unaccompanied fawns may be the first to visit the plot,” I cautioned. “And since that plot hasn’t been pressured, you’ll have plenty of time to wait for the appearance of other deer to size them up and pick out a big one.” The Pastor has frequently expressed to me his desire to get the most bang for his buck...pun intended. He had a family that loved venison, they were counting on him to provide it, and what a blessing if he could fulfill those wishes with a big doe. He also knows from past sits on our farm that it’s not a question of not seeing deer...it’s normally a question of when and how many. He’s also well aware how large some of our whitetails can be, since he holds the record for tagging the heaviest recorded doe at 191 pounds actual live weight.
So here’s what happened. A lone deer enters the plot of brassicas out in front of the blind. The Pastor—with the aid of binoculars—determines that it’s a fawn. Minutes later, another deer appears and starts feeding close to the first one. Binoculars reveal that the second deer is noticeably bigger than the first. That size difference tricks the Pastor into thinking that the pair is most likely a doe and her fawn. A range finder confirms the distance at a mere sixty-one yards.
From that point, did he thoroughly examine other body features that might be telltale signs of something otherwise? Did the larger deer have a long nose typical of an adult doe, or the short neck and compact nose length of a fawn? Did he consider that a male fawn will usually be larger than a female fawn? Did the larger deer have a smoother, rounded head between the ears typical of a doe? And from a side view—the best angle to distinguish—were there any signs of antler projections or indications of bumps where antlers normally protrude which would define a button buck? And, since the shot occurred in mid-afternoon, did the Pastor heed my advice by patiently waiting for other deer to show? You already know the answers.
The art of differentiating young from mature deer comes from observations and experience. But since there are no laws protecting button bucks from other antlerless deer, why should most hunters be inclined to educate themselves? Well, in the Pastor’s case, he would have been a far more delighted hunter if he had led me to a mature doe. And naturally, I’d be a happier landowner if he had taken a doe, since that animal would no longer be contributing o spring to the herd the following spring.
The Pastor’s button buck wasn’t the only male fawn killed on our farm this past season, and I guarantee it won’t be the last. With a pre-season harvest goal often set at fifty or more deer, it’s not uncommon for us to have over thirty people on our roster who will hunt our property—depending on their luck—from one day to several days. Within that list, there will always be some novice hunters tagging button bucks, there will always be those who don’t have time to wait for the preferred deer, and there will always be those who make mistakes. And there’s absolutely no sin associated with all three.
By observing antlerless deer year-round, by studying photos in books and magazines, and by heeding the lessons from the Pastor’s hunt, one can surely make a more conscious decision about when to pull the trigger. And when the shot is red and you walk up to your prize, more often than not you’ll be the one texting a message to a friend or family member that really does mean: “Doe” down!