Deer hunting is often a game that comes down to mere seconds. A buck pops out of thick cover, making its way across a hardwood bottom to another patch of thick cover, not to be seen again in daylight for the entire season. The hunter has just a few seconds to make the decision to shoot or not. While the binocular closes the distance and reveals clues about the buck, questions race through a hunter’s mind at light speed: “Is the buck large enough to shoot? How many points does he have? What does he score?”
That split-second decision has important consequences for a deer manager. Dead is dead, so when you harvest a buck, the decision is final. If you have a genuine interest in growing large, mature bucks and maximizing buck potential, your question should be, “How old?” not, “What does he score?”
For the vast majority of bucks, the factors that limit antler growth are nutrition and age. Food plots, habitat management and, more importantly, controlling overall deer populations by harvesting the right number of does each season will help provide the nutrition a buck needs to maintain its body condition and grow a quality set of antlers each season. Another equally important part of that equation is letting a buck grow old enough to express his genetic potential.
Age’s relationship with harvesting raises some big questions that, in some cases, have fairly complicated answers. How old is old enough, and where is the point of diminishing returns? How do you age a buck on the hoof? Thankfully, there are plenty of deer hunters and managers who have been able to answer these questions and develop fairly reliable methods for aging bucks before the trigger is pulled.
There are quite a few hunters who don’t believe you can age bucks in the field. That view is most commonly held by hunters who haven’t had the chance to see older buck age classes. However, it certainly is possible and is practiced by thousands of deer hunters and managers. Because antler and body size varies so much throughout the whitetail’s range, site-specific aging criteria are required.
My brother, John Guthrie, was in a unique position to follow the progression from novice to knowledgeable. As an intern, and then wildlife biologist, he first learned, then taught these skills to hunting club members on Millhaven Plantation and Belfast Plantation, which sit across the Savannah River from each other in Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. Guthrie, now the game manager at Belfast, walks new members through the program before each season.
“Most guys join Belfast for a chance to harvest above-average bucks, but are nervous about making mistakes,” Guthrie said. “Many of them haven’t had the chance to see bucks that are at or above our minimum–110 Boone and Crockett points, or bucks 4.5-years -old or older.”
Most new members learn in two distinct stages. For the first few years, they stick to gross Boone and Crockett score, using the length and width of alert ears to determine tine length and spread. Main beam length is determined by how far the main beam stretches down the buck’s nose. Some quick addition will provide the magic number. Gross score generally keeps hunters from harvesting bucks below the minimum, but often, the harvested bucks are well-endowed 2.5- or 3.5-year-old deer, the kind you would like to see get older.
After a few years, hunters have had the chance to observe plenty of bucks, both in the field and at the skinning shed. This experience increases their fieldcraft to the point that they are ready to start shooting bucks because of their age, not their antlers. In a perfect world, this would be the harvest criteria from day one.
With a lot of practice, making the quick decision to shoot or not becomes much easier. That critical determination can be made in a few seconds through a quality binocular. Selectively harvesting bucks can add a deep sense of satisfaction to the hunting experience when the hunter knows a buck is mature and has expressed its potential. The other, more tangible reward looks pretty good on the wall.
James Guthrie is a regular Deer & Deer Hunting contributor from Georgia.
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