Deer Management By Age

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deer hunters sometimes hold off on shooting a deer
Sometimes deer hunters get lucky and when they hold off shooting a deer, they end up getting to hunt the same deer the following season.

After we talked about the buck, Larry began looking back through his tape footage from the 1999 season and found a minute of two of that same deer taken across the same open ridge.

Larry made it his mission to shoot the buck when the season opened on October 1, but the deer had other plans. He went underground in late August and Larry never saw him again until October 26 when his arrow found the mark. Even though the buck had broken off a five-inch abnormal point that was evident in Larry’s video, he still grossed over 240 inches and netted 237 3/8! He was the tentative Iowa state record archery non-typical for a week before a bowhunter in another part of the state shot a trophy buck scoring 240 inches.

Even though he didn’t get a chance to hunt the deer, he felt good about it. Sure, it would have been great to have a gross-170 buck on the wall. And sure, there was risk that someone might shoot the buck later in the 1999 season after he passed him up. But, had he shot the deer when he was right under his tree stand, Larry never would have killed a state record.

The Big Jump

In a recent interview that was conducted with renowned deer researcher Dr. Grant Woods, he confirmed this theory. Bucks make a significant change in two categories from age 3 1/2 to age 4 1/2. Most bucks make their biggest jump in antler size during this year. Unfortunately, this growth spurt also coincides with a personality change that is just as dramatic. In human terms, they go from sexually charged, wild-eyed 18-year-olds to very isolated and cautious 45 year-olds in only one year. Both transitions can be shocking in their magnitude and frustrating in their outcomes.

After letting some 3 1/2 year-old bucks go during the season, you expect to come back the next year and find them again as 4 1/2 year-olds, but it doesn’t always work that way. Whitetail bucks are not the same animal after they make this transition.

In a typical fall hunting season, you might encounter several 3 1/2 year old bucks within range but only one or two (or none) that are 4 1/2 and older. This makes it very tempting to pull the trigger on a genetically superior younger buck. Some deer hunters have come full circle to the offbeat conclusion that the only way to shoot a 4 1/2 year old buck on purpose was to shoot him when he is 3 1/2. Of course, that doesn’t make any sense, but it shows the level of frustration that goes with deer hunting fully mature bucks.

This reality only adds to the dilemma. Should you pass up trophy class 3 1/2 year old bucks in the hopes of seeing them again as truly exceptional mature bucks with much more impressive antlers? The first illustration in this regard would echo a resounding “NO!” But the second such experience, the buck Larry killed four years later, produced a much better result. You will have to face this question as your management program gains momentum.

Managing for 4.5 year old Bucks

deer hunters look at antler score
Most deer hunters overuse antler score for deer management. Deer hunters should focus on age instead of antler score.

The real point in telling about the two toughest decisions one ever has to make in a tree stand is to bring attention to an important aspect of deer management. Most deer hunters overuse antler score as the main reason to pull the trigger. In their view, when a buck’s rack reaches a certain size he becomes a shooter. In the process of shooting these deer, they also shoot some genetically superior young deer - future monsters - a year too soon. Maybe the focus should really be on age. When a buck reaches a certain age, he becomes a shooter. In an ideal world, the deer management goal should be to hold off shooting all bucks until they reach 4 ½ years old.

Superior 3 1/2 year old bucks are much more valuable than the average 3 1/2 year old. And because 3 1/2 year old bucks are definitely much easier to kill (where they exist) than 4 ½ and older bucks, the very deer (genetically gifted 3 1/2 year olds) that should get another year older are the ones most deer hunters target. Like it was said above, it is a dilemma.

Unfortunately, most of the world in which we deer hunt is not ideal, and passing up a great 3 1/2 year old buck in the hopes of seeing him a year later and a year bigger is often tough and sometimes even foolish. That’s a decision that only you and your deer hunting buddies can make. But, if you are in the right setting where most of the deer hunters are committed to growing whoppers, passing up these super young bucks is the most important single step you can take toward some day shooting a trophy buck.

How to Age Deer on the Hoof

deer management
You can tell a deer's age by looking at their hoof, but deer hunters also take into consideration facial features, body profile and antler appearance.

Just as you can guess a person’s age very closely by looking at his or her body and face, you can do the same with a deer. Of course, it is tougher with deer than with people because we interact with people a lot more. Our visual cues are sharper and better defined. However, that shouldn’t stop you from getting good enough to tell a 3 1/2 year old buck from one that’s older. Here are the things to look for.

Facial Features:

Young bucks, 3 1/2 years, or less, have tighter skin on their faces. Their noses generally look long and thin when compared to an older buck. There is no loose skin sagging under the jaw to reveal age. Typically, they don’t yet have the classic Roman nose facial profile and broad forehead that is a characteristic of older bucks.

Body Profile:

A buck of 3 1/2 years or younger typically has a wasp-shaped body that features a narrow waist. In other words, the animal’s girth at a point just forward of the rear legs is noticeably less than his chest girth. Their legs look long compared to their bodies. As deer get older, their bodies become much more blocky or square in appearance because their bellies have the same (or larger) girths than their chests. As they get really old they may also exhibit a sway back – a dip in the line of the back bone right over the center of their body.

Antler Appearance:

Antler appearance is the least effective way to age deer. Antler mass can help you a little. Most of the time, older bucks have more massive antlers than young bucks (but not always). Though mass is more closely related to genetics than age, it does tend to increase somewhat as deer get older. Just keep in the mind the fact that mass is only a very rough, and marginally trustworthy, guideline. Antlers also tend to “trash up” as the buck gets older than 3 1/2 years. Sticker points begin to appear around the bases and sometimes off the primary typical points. Again, this is only a rough gauge but is worth observing.

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