Question: Can you determine a deer’s age by his antlers? Are genetics and nutrition the only things that cause differences in antler growth? — Ben Trom, Blooming Prairie, Minn.
IMPORTANCE OF AGING DEER
The age of the bucks you shoot is a much better indication of your ability to hunt intelligently and carefully than their antler score. A mature buck is a trophy no matter what he has on his head, and targeting them brings new purpose and challenge to your hunting. Here are a few quick tips on how you can age deer on the hoof and then I’ll come back with a discussion about why I think it is important.
AGING DEER ON THE HOOF:
My purpose here is to help you tell 4 1/2-year-old and older bucks from deer that are 3 1/2 years old and younger. It can be done with good accuracy by focusing the deer’s body and face.
Facial features: Bucks of 3 1/2 years, or less, have noses that generally look long because they are thin. There is no loose skin around the face, especially the jaws. There is no skin sagging under the neck to reveal age as there is with older bucks. Typically, younger bucks don’t yet have the classic wide forehead that is a characteristic of older bucks.
Body profile: Body shape is my most reliable indicator of age. A buck of 3 1/2 years or younger typically has an abdomen that is narrower than his chest. They look long legged. As deer get older than 3 1/2 years, their bodies become much more blocky or rectangular in appearance as their bellies have basically the same (or larger) girths than their chests. The neck is also a good indication of age. It will seem to be nearly as thick from top to bottom as the buck’s chest once he reaches age 4 1/2 and older. The neck generally has a lot of loose skin. We call these old bucks “Jelly Necks”.
Antler appearance: While antlers are the least reliable judge of age, the mass of the antlers can be factored in as the deciding vote if you are having a hard time deciding whether or not a buck is more than 3 1/2 years old. Generally, if a buck’s rack looks more massive than the average deer you see, he is likely also older than average. Though mass is related both to genetics and age, it can be used as one loose indicator of age.
Antlers also tend to “trash up” as the buck gets older than 3 1/2 years. Sticker points begin to appear around the bases and sometimes off the primary typical points. Again, this is only a rough gauge, but is worth observing.
Hopefully, you already know how I feel about using the size of the antlers as an indicator of age – it doesn’t work. Some years, the biggest antlers I see belong to bucks that are only 3 1/2 years old. They are genetically superior deer – like a Shaq of the deer world.
THE NORMAL PROGRESSION
It is not easy for the average deer hunter to age bucks on the hoof. Dr. Grant Woods, private deer research biologist and management consultant, recently told me that he feels the average deer hunter trying to make these decisions for the first time probably has less than 10 minutes of combined lifetime experience watching mature bucks.
In the past, they never watched bucks during the season because they were too busy aiming their 30-06 and pulling the trigger. The only time they witnessed mature buck activity was from a long distance – beyond shooting range. It is hard to observe and soak up the visual cues that expose a buck’s age when you have almost no experience with older aged bucks.
How well would you do guessing the age of a person if you had spent only 10 minutes in your entire lifetime looking at people more than 15 years old? This is why everyone wants to use antler size as the criteria for management decisions. Unfortunately, this criterion is filled with many problems, as I’ll point out in the next section.
THE MANAGEMENT REASONS
Managing by age is not for everyone, nor do I imply that it is. It is for those who are looking for more challenge and maybe to take a few steps to produce the occasional truly outstanding buck.
Managing by age is a movement born out of the imperfection of failed efforts to manage by antler size. As I already mentioned, the biggest failure of managing by antler size is the intense pressure it puts on the genetically superior young bucks. In my experience with hunting whitetails all over North America, the easiest trophy to shoot is a genetically superior 3 1/2-year-old buck. Bucks in this age group are very active during the rut, which makes them much more vulnerable than older bucks. I won’t say they are easy to kill, but they are much easier than bucks only one year older.
They can grow some very impressive headgear. I’ve seen 3 1/2-year-old bucks with beautiful antlers that would score over 150 inches, some as big as 170 inches. These deer are obviously on the fast track to monster buck proportions. What a shame to cut them off just one year before they begin to express their true potential.
If you are serious about shooting a giant buck, there are two reasons why you should lay off all the 3 1/2-year-old bucks – even (especially) the big ones. First, you want them to get bigger. The number of bucks in any free ranging herd capable of reaching giant proportions is very small. The average buck, even in good parts of the country, is likely to be a 145-150 inch eight- or nine-pointer when he grows up. Those capable of exceeding this average become increasingly limited the farther above 150 inches you go.
For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that in a good area one buck in 20 has the potential to gross score over 170 inches when he reaches full adult status (defined here as age 4 1/2 and older). If the area you manage doesn’t have good genetics and you are limited by food, then pick a correspondingly lower “trophy” score. The point is the same, why do you want to shoot that one great buck in 20 before he even comes close to growing his biggest rack? Granted, he becomes a lot harder to kill as he gets older, but at least he is there. You will never shoot a true monster if you shoot all your best 3 1/2 year olds each year.
The second reason to leave that genetically superior buck in the herd for anther year is so he can breed as many does as possible and spread his genes. Three-and-a-half-year-old bucks do a lot of breeding and if you leave the buck in the herd, he will naturally spread his superior genes to future generations.
I’ve made mistakes both ways. I’ve passed up dandy bucks that later proved to be fully mature and I’ve talked myself into shooting a few young bucks. We need to keep everything in perspective or we will ruin the experience of hunting for ourselves and for everyone else. Accept the fact that there are going to be mistakes and never feel ashamed, or cause anyone else to feel ashamed, over shooting the wrong buck. That cheapens the experience of the hunt and makes it stressful – something hunting should never be. Just acce
pt the mistake and go on, respecting the buck for what he is and remembering the excitement of the hunt.
Not all bucks are big enough to mount but they are all big enough to respect, and the hunt was no less thrilling just because the deer turned out to be a year younger than you thought.
If you have shot many good, solid bucks, but you really want to put a giant or two on your wall before you can no longer climb into a treestand, your best hope of reaching that goal is to start passing up all the 3 1/2-year-old bucks. Go a step farther and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same thing. Like me, you will soon start looking forward to each season with new enthusiasm knowing, rather than hoping, that there are monster bucks in your hunting area.