By Jason Snavely
As a whitetail manager, I practice ageism. (It’s a real word; look it up!) Habitat quality aside, when it comes to managing whitetail bucks for larger antlers, the number of birthdays a buck celebrates is the most important factor. Remember, dead deer don’t grow!
If harvesting any legal buck, regardless of antler size, is your goal (be honest with yourself), the rest of this column is not for you. However, having worked with hunters for the last two decades, I know it is easier to kill a 160-inch, 5 ½-year-old buck on public land than it is to find a popular hunting magazine with a yearling buck on its cover! Let’s face it; we all want big bucks, and since they usually get bigger with age, you need to start consciously improving your ability to estimate a deer’s age “on the hoof” where you hunt.
Although there are some great resources out there that explain how to estimate a live whitetail’s age, my clients report that there is nothing better than simply collecting photos of each buck they have captured on their trail cameras over the years. Many articles and books that cover aging whitetails on the hoof show bucks from areas that may very well be 2,000 miles from your treestand. The landscape in the photos is usually the giveaway — when was the last time you saw a cactus growing in Dodgeville, Wis.?
There are drastic differences in appearance when you compare bucks from the same age class in Cortland County, N.Y., and Bandera County, Texas. I’ve worked with programs in both counties, and I’m here to tell you, accurately placing bucks into age classes via trail-camera photos is a challenge at best. When I travel to work with clients, I have learned to “recalibrate” my aging scale for my change in latitude, but that’s not something someone less-traveled can do. Experience refines accuracy.
If you collect enough trail-camera photos of bucks in your county, you will more accurately calibrate and refine your aging process. You don’t have to restrict yourself to your property lines; collect from neighbors, too. Although some people may hold their photos tight to their chest, most will happily share — I’m always impressed with how quickly folks can call up a particular photo and shove it in my face. Those are my kind of guys!
As your trail-camera photos pile up, create a display area. An album will work fine, but there’s nothing that beats a camp wall dedicated to buck photos. For me, this is like an Xs and Os chalkboard for a football coach: always readily available and an excellent visual-learning center. I can’t tell you how many camps I have been to where we ended up congregating around “the wall.” The conversations always started with chatter about specific bucks the hunters eventually harvested or never saw again. I’m guilty of routinely steering the discussion to age in order to conduct a short course on what to look at when estimating live whitetail ages. There’s a reason why show-and-tell was so popular in kindergarten: it’s effective, and we all have a little 5-year-old in us when it comes to whitetails.
In my opinion, live-age estimation should always end in death. Let me explain. Biologists often refer to studies that look at “known ages” of live bucks and compare that data to a technician’s assigned age estimate “on the hoof.” You don’t have to be a biologist with known-age bucks in pens to conduct the same research, but you do need to compile data on dead local bucks that you have trail-camera photos of. By simply collecting the primary incisors (bottom-front teeth) from these “known” dead bucks and sending them to a lab for cementum-annuli testing, you can “ground check” the live-age estimate that you recorded on “the wall.” This process allows you to recalibrate your aging skills and drill down on aging accuracy.
After just a couple years of doing this, I’ve seen whitetail enthusiasts become addicted to the process, getting more excited about collecting two teeth from a mature road-killed buck that they had on camera than harvesting their own bucks. (OK, maybe that’s just me.)
In the End
Wrapping up your aging-on-the-hoof program, data presentation, typically in graph or chart form (see example on previous page), provides a visual description of your hard work. This is often the most rewarding part of the process, as you begin to see trends in areas where you commonly make mistakes while aging live whitetails. You can also really impress your biologist here!
Many landowners, myself included, have found that herd- and habitat-management practices lead to larger deer. Advanced age-ologists may refer to a buck as an “upper-thirds 3-year-old” or a “lower-thirds 4-year-old”; these classifications come from a few years of refining their aging-on-the-hoof accuracy by comparing their age estimates from trail-camera photos to the resulting lab data once the buck is dead.
I’m an all-in betting man, so when the lab data comes back on a buck that we had some friendly disagreements over while classifying him into an age class, I’m up for a friendly wager. Although I can’t say I’ve won the pot every time, I always take away more knowledge and confidence for aging the next buck. Start your aging-on-the-hoof program now; you will be amazed by the positive compounding effects it has on your management program!