"There are some who can live without wild things and some who cannot." - Aldo Leopold

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

That Old Doe

2004 South Carolina Doe

The old doe fed in a clearing between palmetto patches, munching on acorns from the sweeping live oaks that rapidly diminished what was left of the fading light. She’d come from a marsh accompanied by a younger doe and a yearling. She was a chocolate-gray color, unlike her unseasoned counterparts who still sported a pine needle red coat that had carried through the heat of the summer into the early fall. While the two other deer audibly splashed their way into the hammock like children running through the surf, she tip-toed, an almost imperceptible wet hoof-beat.  She’d walk a few steps and then stop to survey her surroundings, that long Roman nose gauging the swamp air for any hints of danger. This old doe had been around a while. Always cautious with animals like her, I was careful not to breathe, even though I was 20 feet up a pine tree with the wind in my face. I've played this game before.

Still, she never could defeat that natural wariness of hers. She sensed something. The scabs on surrounding pines from other hunters scaling the trunks in climber stands betrayed any notion that I’d tapped into a virginal hunting ground, and it was becoming more apparent with each passing moment that she’d had an unpleasant encounter prior to my visit. She’d ceased focusing on her buffet, raising her head and pinning her ears back as she’d gaze in my direction. Occasionally she’d stoop her head as if to continue feeding but immediately snatch it back up to see if she could trick anything into moving.

Finally, that old doe had had enough. She oozed back into the understory, circling through the creek to get downwind of my position. I knew, without doubt, what would be coming next. That nanny finally hit the current of air she sought. I’ll never know if she caught my scent or the fumes from the Therma-CELL, but this once-silent creature who went to great lengths to avoid being detected, raised Hell a mere 30 yards away, blowing and snorting and slapping her hooves into the water. She still did not have a bead on my location and stood exposed, broadside for 5 minutes adhering to this routine. I had never wished for an antlerless tag so badly in my life.

This was on a Special Opportunity Hunt at Lake Panasofkee last Saturday evening. An archery hunt, the rules for the property required a tag for the harvest of does. I’m not sure why I upset this doe so much; I hadn’t killed any of her relatives. Heck, I don’t think I’ve even shot a deer within 100 miles of this location, but she had it out for me. And if you’ve ever had an old doe stomp and blow at you, you are well aware that this is Taps, the 3rd strike in the bottom of the 9th. Game Over. Content with her damage, she finally trotted off into the gloaming, and that was it for the deer that evening.

That’s the way of things with those old does. They can be your worst enemy in the woods, worse than squirrels barking in your face. But just as with those obnoxious tree rats, it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of their bluster to start contemplating revenge - an arrow, a bullet, a hand grenade, something to shut them up.

One of my favorite “Return to the Campfire Tales” is when a hunter reports with wild excitement how That Old Buck winded him down in the Pine Woods and blew at him all evening. I never want to spoil anyone’s big buck story with my attitude and theories, but more than likely, it was a doe calling you out. If a buck winds you, he’s outta there. Mature bucks, as elusive and crafty as they are, just don’t have it in their DNA to hang around and intentionally ruin your hunt. Plus, they have the does to warn them; no point risking their own hides when their sentries will sound the alarm. It's just good business.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it probably comes down to a doe’s maternal instincts. Bucks aren’t burdened with raising fawns and protecting them from the perils of the woods. I’ve watched does chase coyotes and bobcats and run off wild boar. Does will reliably come to a predator call – like a mouse squeaker - during the spring. I’ve watched them decoy themselves to distract attention from bedded fawns. So the fact they’d open themselves to sacrifice during hunting season isn’t all that surprising.

This isn’t to say they are easy targets - not at all. The fact this one was caught in the open was as an anomaly. In my experience, the older does hang in the woods a little longer than the younger ones, having since lost their reckless ambition over the course of several seasons. They have a knack for shielding themselves from a direct shot, and oftentimes the first glimpses you have are of those ears, ever-shifting above the brush. Then the nose is tossed in the air, and this is the truly frightening part. Those wet nostrils can calculate scents we can’t even begin to register.

If her safety checklist is met, she’ll slowly proceed into the open, cautious to the last step. If the area has been hunted before, you probably won’t be in her graces for too long. Those old does will remember stands and always keep an eye on them, often just staring in your direction daring you to move.

At this point, you are left with two options, one that is out of your hands, and the other completely under your control. You could just let her be and hope she passes through, but if she’s so inclined to stick around, know that the spotlight is on you. If you shift to relieve a cramp, pick your nose, flick a mosquito, or finish Level 20 of your iPhone game, she’ll know. If the vagaries of the wind turn on you, you’re screwed, and God help you if you inadvertently kick over a water bottle or ding a jacket zipper on a metal stand.

The other choice is to grease her. You’ll probably sacrifice your chances at a buck that evening, but when she showed, that was likely anyhow. There is no shame – quite the opposite, in fact – in taking a mature animal like this. It’s a far nobler and challenging quest than collecting any random set of antlers.
Hardee County Doe, 2001

Of the forty or so does I’ve killed, I can only think of a handful that were legitimate old-age trophies. I recall one in Hardee County that tried slipping behind me through a chute of gallberry bushes. Luckily my stand was just tall enough to fire a clear shot. I took another in Erhardt, SC in 2004 right after the four hurricanes pummeled Florida. The guide had warned me she’d be there and to smoke her if I had the chance. Seems she’d busted other hunters during the course of the immature season. And I shot one last year in North Carolina that seemed staked behind a fence of clearcut before slowly slipping out to munch on sweet potatoes.

But there is one old doe I’d love to catch up with. She’s been haunting my hammock in Manatee County for years. Already mature and noticeably large-bodied when I first met her, she had a habit of staying out of bow range during archery season, but would come within feet during blackpowder hunts when she was off-limits. She’d have no trouble patrolling that clearing, blowing and stomping and generally ruining the world. I thought I had her two years ago. Her hips had been sunken by advanced maternal age, and she seemed a tad off her game as she actually fed underneath my lock-on stand. All she had to do was clear the grating of the footstand and meander a few yards in front and she was mine.

As it turned out, a gobbler flew down and started drumming, alerting the other doe that had slipped in with the old mare. Her friend got to blowing and circling downwind and finally caught my scent, busting off for the swamp. The matron leisurely followed suit, saved by her new apprentice who had quickly learned the ways of the old doe. I'm not sure that deer is still alive, but I can't help but hope I get one last crack at her. 

And there’s another lady up in Lake Panasofkee who’ll be in mind when I return one day – hopefully with a doe tag.

1 comment:

Trey Luckie said...

Nice write up Ian. We have all had those old does in our lives and they sure can cause some trouble. I watched a youtube video one day of a guy getting busted by an old doe. She was blowing like mad, so he started blowing back at her. She came right back into his stand location and stood yards from his blind looking for what was making all that noise. Curiuos creatures they are!