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Can You Shoot a Doe? | What You Should Know


With a harvest of 6.3 million whitetail deer in the 2020-2021 season, it’s clear that deer hunting is a popular pastime for many Americans. Although the mature buck with his distinguished head of antlers gets most of the attention, many hunters wonder if they can also harvest a doe, the adult female deer.

You can shoot a doe in most cases. However, to do so legally, there are various factors to consider, like the dates of the deer hunting season, license requirements, and bag limits. Additionally, it would be best to understand the reasons to shoot—or not shoot—a doe in specific circumstances.

As someone whose earliest memory is sitting in a tree stand in the Ozarks, I’ve harvested my fair share of does over the decades for reasons ranging from an upcoming barbecue to balancing the herd’s sex ratio. In this article, I will go deeper into the how, when, and why of shooting a doe, so you can make informed decisions and contribute to a thriving deer population for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.

When Is It Legal To Shoot a Doe?

In most places, it’s legal to shoot and harvest a doe at some point during the year and under certain circumstances. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s always legal to shoot any doe you see wandering down the road.

Instead, there are several legal aspects to remember:

If It’s Deer Hunting Season In Your State

Most states have a whitetail deer hunting season during the rut or the deer breeding season. This takes place in the fall throughout most of the US and means that does give birth to fawns during the spring. The rut is the ideal time to hunt deer because they’re more active and less cautious during this time. 

Unfortunately, it’s rarely as simple as a start and end date. Many states have different antlered and antlerless seasons, which affects when you can hunt does. Similarly, other methods of take usually have different seasons, and various parts of the state may set their own dates.

In Permitted Zones or Wildlife Management Units

Most states separate their territory into different hunting zones. These may have different season dates and also different limitations on antlerless deer. For example, one zone might let you hunt does with a crossbow in October, while another prohibits it altogether.

If You Use The Correct Method of Take

Most states’ hunting seasons are based on the method of take or the weapon you use to hunt the deer. 

The most common categories are:

Some states may have a separate crossbow season if it isn’t included in the standard archery season. As a general rule, the archery season is the longest and usually the least restrictive when it comes to hunting antlerless deer or does. Gun seasons are typically much shorter.

If You Follow The Necessary License Requirements

In any state where you hunt deer, you’ll need a hunting license. The process and cost to get one varies widely across the country but often involves paying a small fee and showing proof of graduating from a hunter education course.

In some cases, you may be exempt from your state’s license requirements under certain circumstances:

  • You’re a landowner hunting on your own land.
  • You are on active military duty or a disabled veteran.
  • You have a disability.
  • You’re a child. 

States usually use their license fees to fund their conservation efforts. Plus, it shows that you are prepared to hunt safely and responsibly.

If You Have Doe-Specific Tags and Permits

Arguably the most confusing aspect of shooting a deer, most states require a specific permit or tag for each deer you kill. The name for this varies considerably from state to state and is sometimes even referred to as a separate “license.”

For example, in my home state of Arkansas, most zones limit you to a total of five deer. They can be “antlerless” does, or two of them can be “antlered” bucks. Conversely, I’ve also hunted in Pennsylvania, where you have to buy a separate antlerless tag per doe, and the number you can buy varies from year to year based on management quotas.

Regardless of your state’s specific setup, a bag limit will likely exist. This is the number of deer you can harvest in a particular season. Many states have bag limits by sex as well, explicitly limiting the number of does you can harvest.

States also commonly change bag limits based on the sex ratios and dynamics of the local population. Keep up to date and stick to these limits to hunt sustainably and help maintain the herd.

How To Tell a Doe from a Buck

Deer near a deer fence

A doe is an adult female deer, and they are the deer responsible for giving birth to and raising fawns. Regardless of why you’re hunting, you need to be able to pick out a doe to know you’re hunting the correct animal.

Telling does from bucks, adult male deer, and fawns, juvenile deer, is usually pretty straightforward. Key characteristics of does include:

  • Smaller and more slender than bucks but larger than fawns.
  • No antlers except in rare cases where the antlers are still not well-developed like those of a mature buck.
  • Cautious and less aggressive than bucks.
  • More active during the breeding season (or rut), which occurs in the fall.
  • Usually give birth to one or two fawns per year.
  • Congregate in herds consisting of does and fawns in the spring and summer but led by a single dominant buck during the rut.

Of course, you can also tell does and bucks apart by their genitalia, but that’s not usually possible in a hunting situation—at least not until you’ve harvested the animal. As a result, you need to know these external signs while you’re hunting.

The most important are the antlers, and this is usually the characteristic used by authorities.

Reasons To Shoot Does

Below are some reasons to consider shooting does: 

Harvesting Meat

Dressing a deer carcass with knife

Unlike bucks, which usually have trophy value thanks to their antlers, the main reason to hunt a doe is to eat it. A doe can provide a lot of meat for the hunter and their family.

You can eat a buck too, but older bucks are often wiser and more challenging to harvest. Meanwhile, immature bucks may not be legal to take depending on your state’s antler requirements. Plus, doe meat is usually leaner and more tender than that of a buck, so many hunters opt to take does if they’re looking to fill their freezer with venison.

Population Control

In some areas, eliminating their natural predators like wolves, bears, and cougars has led to the deer population expanding dramatically and unhealthily. This has resulted in problems like overgrazing and increased disease transmission. The deer may also outcompete other species like elk and moose.

In such cases, wildlife management agencies may allow doe hunting to help control the population. They may encourage doe hunting by extending seasons and providing extra licenses.

Balancing the Sex Ratio

In addition to the general deer population, wildlife management authorities may determine that the local herd has an unbalanced sex ratio, with too many does and not enough bucks. This can lead to a reduction in overall deer herd health and produce more aggressive and violent bucks.

When this happens, your local game and fish commission may increase doe quotas and lower buck quotas to encourage doe harvests. By shooting a doe, you help balance the sex ratio, helping to create a healthier and more sustainable deer population in the long term.

Herd Management

While state wildlife bureaus and game and fish commissions may attempt to manage the deer population and sex ratio of the entire state, many hunters have their own land and wish to control these numbers for the herd on their property.

The same principles apply. If a hunter discovers too many does on their property and not enough bucks, they may want to even out the numbers. Similarly, they may feel too many deer will result in overgrazing and disease, and they may harvest to solve these problems.

Reducing Human-Deer Conflicts

Overpopulated deer herds can lead to more human-deer conflicts, such as vehicle collisions, crop damage, and spreading of tick-borne diseases. By shooting a doe, hunters can reduce these conflicts and promote a safer environment for deer and humans. 

Harvesting does and reducing their population are just as important as doing so with bucks since does give birth to fawns.

They’ve Run Out of Buck Tags

Most states allow for numerous doe harvests while restricting buck harvests to just one or two per year. Some states essentially allow unlimited doe harvests during archery season. As a result, many hobby hunters who have already used up their allotted buck harvests may opt to continue hunting does during the season.

Similarly, many states have complex seasons where buck harvests are only allowed at certain times. Hunters who wish to hunt during other parts of the season must harvest does.

Final Thoughts

While it’s generally acceptable to shoot a doe, you should consider various factors, including local regulations, population dynamics, and overall herd health, before deciding. 

By understanding the implications of doe hunting and adhering to responsible and sustainable practices, you contribute to maintaining a balanced and thriving deer population for future generations to appreciate.

For more, check out What Can Deer Smell? (How to Avoid Detection).