Aging Bucks On The Hoof
Here is an article on field-aging a buck that I just read over at The Hunting Channel. I hope you guys find it as informative and useful as I did.
Sometime in late December, I was notified of the death of an outstanding buck that inhabited a good friend of mine’s ranch. The deer was not shot; it succumbed to one of the whitetails’ rarest mortality factors—old age.
At 3 years of age, when it was first observed, its sheds were measured at 175 inches. On another ranch, a buck of this caliber would have become a cherished mount in someone’s game room, but not for this individual, for he is totally dedicated to allowing exceptionally-antlered animals the opportunity to live out their lives in an attempt to perpetuate their antler qualities through reproduction.
By adhering to this principal, the gentleman enjoyed observing and filming the buck for eight antler-growing cycles, acquiring much knowledge about antler variation and the impact age has on these structures.
The buck’s antlers were largest at 5 when its recovered sheds scored 246 inches, but a nine-point rack developed at 6, then returned to a rack displaying two rows of tines the seventh year. Fortunately, he knew the deer and did not shoot him as a cull buck when it exhibited only nine points. A rack breaching the 210-inch mark in its 11th year is testimony that an old buck can still grow outstanding antlers.
Hunters have always been fascinated by antlers. The fact that sportsmen can increase the size of racks on these animals by allowing them to age makes for an exciting time in the hunting world.
Most sportsmen are cognizant of the fact that antler size increases with age. Depending on expectations, they are often willing to allow immature bucks the opportunity to reach maturity. Not all deer, however, have to survive six years in order to satisfy some sportsmen.
For example, in some states, including Texas, until recent changes adding antler restrictions, 80-plus percent of the yearling bucks were harvested annually. Thus, few 2-year-old bucks occurred in the proceeding year, with 3-year-olds considered rare. In this situation, antler size could be elevated by simply allowing bucks to reach their second year knowing that a few would enter the 3-year-old age class over time.
Hunter restraint, or what is referred to as discretionary harvest, dictates just how big antlers can become. In reality, hunters are the managers because each time a trigger is pulled, a management decision is made. But in order to reduce the harvest of immature bucks, hunters must be able to estimate their age in the field.
Although antler size can be employed as aging criteria, it cannot stand alone.
When one attempts to age a buck on the hoof, the nutritional status of the animal must be considered.
For instance, in South Texas, drought negatively impacts nutrition, in turn antler size. Thus, sportsmen employing antler size criteria to complement their age estimate must pay attention to weather conditions during the spring and summer antler-growing periods.
In dry years, average antler size declines, resulting in underestimating a buck’s age. The result is prime-aged bucks are harvested delinquently because hunters consider them inferior (antler-size-wise) for their age and remove them for what is often referred to as a management buck, whereas if passed over they could develop exceptional antlers in proceeding years when ideal conditions return.
Characteristics employed to estimate age of live bucks include antler size, body characteristics and behavior. The following is a review of characteristics that can be employed to age bucks on the hoof.
A yearling buck exudes a doe-like appearance with antlers. Ears are pointed and the nose is well-defined, often square in appearance. Their legs appear long and thin because of a slender body. Yearlings seldom develop a swollen neck or the muscular features of older males. Although tarsal glands are rubbed throughout their lives, a yearling’s tarsals remain small and tan in color. In the relaxed or semi-alert position, the tip-to-tip measurement between the ears is approximately 14 inches. Seldom will a yearling buck exhibit an outside antler spread over 14 inches.
Antler point count is not a reliable feature when estimating age. This is particularly evident in nutritionally strong deer habitat and in supplementally fed herds where yearlings can develop six-, eight- or even 10-point antlers.
Two-year-old bucks are obviously larger than yearlings, but their legs remain long in proportion to their body. Their belly remains firm with no sag whatsoever. During the rut, neck swelling is minimal. The tarsal glands begin to get darker in color, but obviously less than older males. When observed broadside, the head appears elongated.
Three-year-old males develop a muscled neck and deeper chest, yet a distinct junction between the neck and shoulder exists. Muscling absent in 2-1/2-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. Three-year-olds are often mistaken for mature bucks.
At 4 years of age, the junction between the neck and the shoulders fades away as the neck inflates during the rut. The animal is now mature and 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 with the body.
Antlers can be large as they achieve 90 percent of their size. The tarsal glands generally become noticeably larger and darker, chocolate to black. Behaviorally, 4-year-olds are generally the most aggressive and active age class during the rut.
At 5, bucks are approaching their maximum antler-growing years, thus antlers can be large yet indistinguishable from genetically superior 4-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. The upper portion of their front legs appears thicker, as well. During the rut their necks are extremely muscled and the neck and brisket area consolidates.
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. At 5, bucks begin developing narrow, squinty eyes.
Lucky is the hunter privileged to see a buck that has reached its sixth year, often regarded as its maximum antler producing year. At 6, their physical appearance is similar to 5-year-olds; however, one distinguishing feature to look for is obvious loose skin sagging from under the lower jaw. Loose skin at the lower brisket area also becomes evident. The nose is rounded and the ears seldom terminate to a sharp point. A prominent, rounded belly and a sagging back also become obvious.
Although southern bucks often develop their largest antlers at 6, not all 6-year-olds exhibit extremely large antlers because factors such as weather conditions (rainfall) and genetic potential ultimately determine antler size.
Survivors of seven years or more are 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 and old, healed-over scars become evident.
Although antler size generally decreases in the over-mature age classes, I have witnessed exceptional antler growth in old South Texas bucks experiencing ideal range conditions. As a matter of fact, I shot an 8-1/2-year-old (based on tooth wear) 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.
Classifying a deer as a fawn is not difficult; however, distinguishing whether it’s a male or female is important. One of the principal tenets of deer management is to balance the sex ratio.
In order to accomplish this task, does must be harvested. Even when fawns are considered off limits to hunters, they still show up in the harvest. Some male fawns, particularly late in the hunting season, develop large bodies and become difficult to distinguish from a doe.
The distinguishing characteristic is body size and shape. An adult doe is more rectangular, while the fawn appears square. The head of a doe is long and slender while the fawn’s head is short and compact. Fawns are also more submissive, playful and inquisitive than an adult.
The occurrence of nubbin antlers must be recognized. Hunters must employ a quality optic, but even then hair sometimes covers the small antlers making them 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, it’s a juvenile male.
Possibly the ultimate method of acquiring skill to estimate age of live deer is to film them on an annual basis. By doing so, you will not only improve your aging capability, but also recognize the sometimes-metamorphic stages that antlers go through over time. It will also help you recognize those particular bucks that show up almost annually on a particular area.
Videoing deer can be employed as an educational tool that can turn in to as much fun as shooting the animals. Sure, it interferes with the preparation of shooting a buck, but it may be the ultimate excuse affording you the opportunity to see that particular buck in the future, perhaps with a larger set of antlers.
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