Aging Bucks on the Hoof – Part 2

Editor’s Note: To read Part 1 of this article, Lucky is the hunter privileged to see a buck that has reached what is referred to as its golden antler producing year. At six, their physical appearance is similar to five-year-olds; however, one distinguishing feature to look for is obvious loose skin protruding from under the lower jaw. The nose is rounded and the ears no longer terminate to a sharp point. A prominent rounded belly and a sagging back also become obvious. Although deer develop their largest antlers at six years of age in South Texas, it doesn’t mean that all six-year-olds will exhibit extremely large antlers because of variable factors such as weather conditions (rainfall) and the animal’s genetic potential, which ultimately determine antler size.

7.5-year-old bucks

These over mature bucks are extremely rare and sometimes confused for younger deer because their muscular features begin to regress. Loose skin around the face and neck is obvious. Ears are completely rounded at the terminal end with old, healed-over scars sometimes evident. As these animals reduce their breeding activities, recent battle scars are not present but old healed-over scars are evident. Although antler size generally decreases in the over mature age classes, I have witnessed exceptional antler growth in older bucks experiencing ideal range conditions. Matter of fact, I harvested an 8.5-year-old (based on tooth wear) buck in 1993 that gross scored 184 and netted 171 3/8 inches. Thus antler size alone cannot always be employed to estimate a deer’s age. Behaviorally these deer are extremely reticent and often go unobserved until peak-rutting activity is over.

Fawns

I placed fawns last, but in reality mistakes are frequently made on these youngsters. Classifying a deer as a fawn is not difficult; however, distinguishing whether it’s a male or female can be challenging. One of the principle tenets of deer management is to balance the sex ratio. Since deer are born evenly distributed between males and females, a ratio of 1:1 is considered more natural.

The accomplishment of this scenario usually requires a substantial doe harvest that often includes fawns. Even when fawns are considered off limits to hunters, they will still show up in the harvest, and a buck removed as a fawn is a mistake. Some fawns, particularly males, late in the hunting season can develop an above-average body size and be difficult to distinguish from young adult doe. So, let’s start here and talk about telling the difference between does and fawns.

One key characteristic is body size and shape.

An adult doe is more rectangular, while the fawn looks square. The head of a doe is long and slender while the fawn’s head is short and compact. Behavior is also helpful. A fawn is less wary than an adult doe. Fawns are also more submissive, more playful, and more inquisitive than an adult doe.

Now let’s consider how to tell buck fawns from doe fawns. Obviously, the presence of buttons is a major clue to a buck. Hunters must employ a quality optic, but even then the hair-covered antler pedicels on these larger fawns are difficult to see. Buck fawns have flatter, less-rounded heads, larger bodies (except in late fall), and are more aggressive and inquisitive than doe fawns. A buck fawn is extremely curious and normally will remain in sight much longer than the females. My theory here is if it doesn’t run off, don’t shoot it.

One other behavioral trait; button bucks are more likely to be traveling alone in the hunting season than doe fawns.

Much of the information I reviewed is the result of years observing, studying, and hunting deer. Employing a unique capture technique and critiquing a variety of body and antler characteristics from 766 free-ranging bucks, Dr. Mickey Hellickson researched this subject over a 13-year period to determine if certain features could significantly improve one’s ability to age bucks on the hoof.

Statistical results of Hellickson’s research indicated that antler gross score was the best antler characteristic for estimating age proceeded by basal circumference and inside spread of antlers.

The best body characteristic for estimating age was stomach girth. However, none of the body characteristics were significantly different for bucks 2.5 years of age or older. Combining characteristics, the two that work best for aging live deer are gross Boone and Crockett score and stomach girth. Based on Hellickson’s research, chest girth increases with age as does the gross Boone and Crockett score. However, estimating chest girth is extremely difficult in the field. It really presents a challenge when time is limited.

The most efficient method of estimating a buck’s age on the hoof is to become familiar with antler measurements after the buck is harvested. Since physical characteristics collected as harvest data can be employed to estimate a live buck’s age, sportsmen should become knowledgeable with antler and body sizes for each age class of bucks taken on their hunting lands. This can only be done by collecting and reviewing harvest data. If none exist, begin collecting this valuable information. It not only addresses management decisions and progress, but it facilitates one’s ability to age and score deer in the field. By acquiring this information, you will also become more familiar with the scoring process as well. Thus when a particular buck appears during the hunting season, you will be able to age him with more confidence and precision.       

Estimating a deer’s age on the hoof is no less challenging than first locating the animal. With experience, it can be accomplished but mistakes are inevitable. Antler size and body condition remain dependent on the nutritional components of the habitat and this can be as variable as the weather that dictates the quality and abundance of forage required by deer.

Accomplished deer hunters are adept at estimating the Boone and Crockett score of deer, but when it comes to aging a deer on the hoof, even the experts have trouble on occasion. The fact is that estimating the age of live deer is nothing more than an educated guess that improves with experience. The more deer one has seen, the better they become at estimating their age – after all, that’s all it is – an estimate.

Q&A

Hunter: I don’t understand why aging a buck is so important. I hunt in areas where there are few older bucks, so whether the buck I harvest is 2 ½, 3 ½, or 4 ½ makes little difference. Why bother?

Bob/Dave: At one time, for almost all hunters, being able to age bucks on the hoof was of little consequence. Then along came quality deer management, where individuals were trying to maximize the quality of the does and bucks on their land. With habitat and harvest management, hunters on such properties started seeing bigger bucks, and then came a need to be able to age bucks on the hoof to maximize their growth before harvest. Whether you age bucks on the hoof so as to restrict your harvest is up to you. It is an individual or a property owner’s choice.  

Hunter: I read that one should wait on a 4 ½ or 5 1/2-year-old buck or older rather than shoot a younger one. What is that all about?

Bob/Dave: I covered a bit of this in the previous question, but the 4 ½-5 ½-year-old category is one that some landowners utilize because it is at that age, that bucks reach their maximum. Thus, they chose to let their bucks reach that age before any bucks are harvested. For many hunters, such a choice doesn’t exist simply because there are few older bucks where they hunt. But, where the management practices are aimed at quality deer management, passing up younger bucks, harvesting lots of does, and passing up button bucks, then you may reach a point where you can restrict all buck harvest to those that are fully mature.

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