How to Estimate Deer Age/Maturity While Hunting in the Field
- 05 Aug, 2020
For most hunters it can be easy to tell the difference between a yearling buck and a large mature buck, but how do you tell the difference between the middle stages? In recent decades, letting bucks grow to their potential and harvesting them once they get mature has become the go-to management strategy. The Quality Deer Management Association is a large part of this strategy. With their strategies, they are not only able to get larger bucks on average but also a healthier deer herd overall. So if you want to be able to use these great strategies to improve herd health and harvested buck size, how do you tell if a deer is mature in the field?
What’s Most Important
Generally, when we are judging a whitetail in the field, we want to look at the body. You borderline want to ignore the antlers. Young deer can have nice racks and mature deer can have small racks. The only information we can get out of the antlers is to look and see if they stick outside his ears. Although this is only going to separate yearlings from 2.5-year-olds and up generally.
So we want to focus on the body of the deer. How big is it? If you took the antlers away would it look like a slender doe or a bull? Putting two deer at opposite ends of this spectrum side by side will let you see just how different they can be, but when you are comparing mature deer just a year apart things can get more ticky.
Key Physical Features
The neck is one of the first things you will notice about a mature buck. With the combination of the shoulder muscles, mature deer will have thick muscular necks and will look “stocky”. Most bucks do not fully develop these muscles until they are about 4.5 years old, so young bucks will have more slender and weak necks. Typically, the thicker the neck, the more mature the buck.
The size of the neck will also change throughout the year. During the rut, bucks allocate more resources to the muscles in their necks, so they swell. This allows them to be stronger during this time of the year so that they can fight other bucks.
The next indication of a mature buck is the belly. Young bucks will have small stomachs, they are still growing, and using most of the nutrients they consume. Although mature bucks have stopped growing as much and will start storing nutrients as fat. In a mature deer, their bellies can sag down and make their legs look short or stubby. While in a young deer, their bellies will appear level or even curved upwards.
The Body Overall
At a quick glance, you can see just how much bigger mature bucks are compared to young bucks based upon sheer body mass. Mature bucks will be fatter, and bigger. You can tell the difference between a 12-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man in humans, the same rules apply to deer. Their bodies will not even compare. The only problem here is that the body size largely depends on the location. You have to know what a large deer is in your location because a small deer from Iowa is a huge deer in Florida. So this will take practice, but generally, the bigger-bodied a deer is the older he is.
Practice Makes Perfect
As with any skill, practice makes perfect. You could practice judging deer online as long as you have actual answers and not other's speculation. Although the best way to practice is to judge the deer you want to shoot and then judge them closer when you have them on the ground. There is a process that you can use to judge whitetail by their teeth that is much more reliable than the field method. So I suggest giving a deer your best field judge guess and then finding out the more accurate age with the teeth method.
Just keep practicing and over the years you will be able to make very educated guesses about whitetail in the field and then decide if that animal is mature enough for you to harvest.
So in order for us to better manage our whitetail properties, we must harvest mature bucks and let the little guys grow. We can do this by bettering our sense of which whitetails are mature and which ones are still too young. We learned that you need to focus on the physical features of a buck and basically ignore his antlers. Things like, how swollen the neck is, how low their belly hangs, and the overall mass of the deer are dead giveaways to how old they are. Pay more attention to these attributes and over the years you will be able to tell how old a buck is in the field with reasonable accuracy.
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