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Old November 6, 2011, 03:59 AM   #1
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Aging Bucks On The Hoof

Here is an article on field-aging bucks that I just read over at The Hunting Channel. I hope you guys find it as interesting 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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Old November 6, 2011, 07:14 AM   #2
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I've seen a bunch of the TV hunting shows where the hunter or guide states the buck's age like it is printed on his side(it might be on his eartag if the camera didn't pan away). Aging animals by visual clues is general at best. I call BS on those comments of absolute certain aging of a buck. I've been around livestock my entire life and can guarantee you can't tell w/o looking at their teeth and then it's just a range of a few years. Even then I've watched experienced vets "mouth"(that's look at the teeth of a cow) animals as 5-6 when I absolutely knew they were closer to 10-12 cause I'd raised them.
There are external clues of age but only indicate young, middle, or older age. No one can look at a mature buck and say for sure if he's 4 or 5 or maybe 7 or 8. You simply can't put a specific year on them.
The other factor of passing on obviously big racked deer because you think they may be bigger next year is the hunter next door. On a Texas ranch, you might be able to do that but in the midwest, that buck may cover 5 or 6 farms and sooner or later get popped. I have a fairly large area to hunt and have passed some decent bucks hoping they would survive until the next season but I can't guarantee that the guy across the fence will be so selective. I'm hoping I can score on a really big racked buck I've seen the last 2 years on one of my farms. He's very savvy and doesn't present himself often and then only a very short time. It may not happen since there's bunch of fulltime poachers just across the fence and I found their illegal bait pile last week. I didn't LET him walk either time I saw him, he just didn't give me a chance. Three years ago, my older son visited for a 2 day hunt and a very nice buck came by. I encouraged him to shoot but he let the buck pass after which we had a quiet talk about how big he really was. I grunted, rattled, and bleated that buck back in range and he actually ended up being 17 points with stickers adding up to 23 total. This was a 4+ age group deer that probably would have gained some mass if he'd lived 2 more years but the possibility of him doing so AND ending up on my place were very slim.
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Old November 6, 2011, 10:03 AM   #3
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+++++++1 for Mobuck

I live in Missouri also and don't have that much land to hunt on. If I get a good clean shot at a nice buck, you can bet I'm going to take the shot regardless of age because if I don't, one of the neighbors will.

There was a really really nice buck I hunted for the last 3 years. We are talking 10-12 points and lots of mass. I saw the old boy several times during both bow and gun decision by he never presented a decent shot. At least not one that I felt good about, so I never launched arrow or bullet in his direction. Last year the neighbor's 7 yr old kid shot him on the afternoon of opening day of gun season. The rest of the season wasn't nearly as exciting.
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Old November 7, 2011, 08:56 PM   #4
Join Date: September 17, 2011
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Here in Texas you better be able to judge a deer's age pretty close or you would find yourself kicked off a lease pretty quick. You can never be 100% sure due to many conditions affecting a deer's physical looks. I have learned over the years to not even look at the antlers its all about the body. This year is even harder due to the drought and alot of the deer being in poor condition.

For the small acreage hunters it really doesn't matter there is no way you can game manage. If you let a deer walk to get another year older the guy on the next patch of land will drop him so it just doesn't work.

I am lucky to be on a lease and surround by other game management minded hunters so alot of our deer do make it to 5 and 6 years old. It really does make a difference in the size of the horns and body. Those saying you can not age a deer I believe that to be false. You can definately tell a 3 year old to a 5 year old deer. It becomes much easier when you have several bucks of different age groups in the field so you can physically see the difference in their bodies. Can you be 100% accurate everytime? NO! Keep doing it while in the field and you become better at it. Letting those young deer age a little longer makes a big difference.
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Old November 8, 2011, 12:35 AM   #5
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My BIL retired from the Wisconsin DNR and while I can't stand him (know-it-all) he does know his technical stuff as he was a biologist up in the northwestern corner of Wisconsin (where the real monsters are). He claims the only accurate way to age a buck is look at their teeth and you usually have to slice back on the mouth to do it correctly.

During the rifle season he would usually have to help a couple of days at the local registration station and he registered a buck that weighed over 200 lbs. field dressed and the rack met the minimum for qualifying in the Boone and Crockett book.

He aged the deer by the teeth and it was only 1-1/2 years old! Now how many of these "experts" would call that a 5-6 year old deer? All of them? And they wouldn't even be close.
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Old November 8, 2011, 05:25 PM   #6
Join Date: September 17, 2011
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We just had a 9 point killed at our lease over the past weekend. When he was aged by his teeth one side of the jaw aged it at 3.5 and the other aged him at 5.5 years.

There is no way to be 100% sure of a deers age until you put him on the ground and sometimes not even then.

We try to manage our deer heard by taking only 4.5 year old deer and older and all spikes. You try to be as accurate as you can but there is no foolproof way of doing that.
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Old November 9, 2011, 02:08 PM   #7
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I was a hunting guest several years ago on a South Texas ranch, and in each box blind there was an age versus body shape chart with photo examples. It was helpful to me, and I've been hunting for many decades, so I can only assume that it was or could be very helpful to less experienced hunters. I found the laminate charts for sale in the back of some hunting magazline and I ordered one for my grandson to study. Like any other method, it's only approximate, but it's a start.
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Old November 9, 2011, 06:01 PM   #8
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We just had a 9 point killed at our lease over the past weekend. When he was aged by his teeth one side of the jaw aged it at 3.5 and the other aged him at 5.5 years.
Abnormal wear or abnormal dental development invalidates teeth aging.

Teeth aging is the best method currently available via visual examination.
"If you look through your scope and see your shoe, aim higher." -- said to me by my 11 year old daughter before going out for hogs 8/13/2011
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Old November 9, 2011, 09:13 PM   #9
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Id rather shoot does any day, they eat alot better but if you want to age a buck you should shoot him where you can get a good look at him and then try to age him
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