|Antler size and characteristics vary on a regional basis, but restraint can dictate just how big those antlers get. In reality, hunters are the managers of this resource because each time a trigger is pulled, a management decision is made. Unlike bass fishing, there is no catch-and-release scenario. In order to reduce the harvest of young bucks, hunters must be able to estimate the age of bucks in the wild.
It takes time to critique the rack and physical attributes of a buck, but time is often limited. Aging deer on the hoof remains an educated guess.
Even seasoned hunters make mistakes. Experience remains paramount to one’s ability to estimate the age of live deer.
When attempting to age deer in the bush, the nutritional status of the animals must also be considered. For example, in South Texas, periodic drought negatively impacts antler development due to the sub-par range conditions they create. Thus sportsmen employing antler size criteria to complement their age estimate in this region must pay particular attention to weather conditions during the spring and summer antler-growing periods.
In dry years with poor range conditions, average antler size will drop significantly, resulting in underestimating a buck’s age. Worst yet, prime-aged bucks can be harvested because hunters consider the animals inferior (antler-size-wise) for their age and remove them for what is often referred to as management bucks, whereas if passed over, these bucks could develop exceptional antlers in proceeding years under ideal conditions.
Three characteristics are employed to estimate age of live bucks. These include antler size, body characteristics, and behavior. The following is an overview of characteristics that can be employed in the field to age whitetails on the hoof.
A yearling buck can be described as a doe with antlers. Ears are semi-pointed at the terminal end, and the nose is well defined and square in appearance. Their legs appear long and thin because their body is slim.
The number of antler points is not a reliable feature when estimating age.
At two years of age, antlers are not large, but can make you take a second look. They are larger than yearlings, but their legs remain long in proportion to their body. Their belly remains firm with no sag whatsoever.
Middle-aged bucks portray a muscled neck and deeper chest, yet a distinct junction between the neck and shoulder exists. Some describe their appearance as that of a well-conditioned racehorse. Muscling absent in 2.5-year-olds begins to become obvious in the third year. Their chest begins to appear as large as their rump. Antler spread is often outside the ears and on quality habitat impressive antlers can develop. For inexperienced individuals, three-year-olds are often mistaken for mature bucks.
Bucks mature at four years of age and lose the racehorse appearance. The obvious junction between the neck and the shoulders fades away as the neck becomes firmly muscled, appearing almost as large as the chest. The animal is muscled throughout, but their stomach remains taut, yet rounded, and their back remains flat. The legs begin to appear shorter and no longer out of proportion. Antlers can be large, as they have attained 90% of their size. The tarsal glands become noticeably larger and darker, chocolate to black. Behaviorally, four-year-olds are the most aggressive and active age class during the rut.
At this age bucks are approaching their maximum antler-growing years, thus antlers can be large yet indistinguishable from genetically superior four-year-old males. The principal characteristic defining this age class is an obvious sag in the stomach and a slight drop in the back. The nose is often rounded, losing the square confirmation characteristic of younger males. Their legs appear thicker as well. During the rut their necks are extremely muscled, inflated-like in appearance, eliminating the juncture between the chest and neck. The neck and brisket area appears to become one.
Five-year-olds are in peak muscular condition with little sign of aging. The tarsals on some become obviously chocolate brown to wet-black, oftentimes extending down the entire inside of their legs. One other characteristic.
Often at this age bucks will start to develop narrow, squinty eyes. Watch for it.
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