It takes practice to age bucks on the hoof
In the world of Southeastern Conference football, they call the pregame education process “getting reps,” which over time builds experience and muscle memory.
For instance, when the quarterback sees the outside linebacker charging toward him on a pass play rather than dropping back into coverage, the time allotted for a smart decision can be measured in milliseconds. Quarterbacks have to develop the ability to make the correct read on the fly with split-second timing.
The analogy between the quarterback and a serious deer hunter is compelling. Preparation and repetition is the key to success, whether the deer hunter is making a quick decision about whether a buck is legal or fully mature. The time allotted for the hunter’s shoot/no shoot decision can be extremely short and fleeting. And whether the hunter is constrained by state-mandated antler requirement or by even more restrictive lease or deer-camp minimums, the need to make a fast and accurate assessment is the same.
Again drawing on football as an apt comparison, practice before an upcoming game is much better if it replicates “game speed.” As any hunter who has spent at least a few days in the whitetail woods knows, things happen suddenly and often unexpectedly. You better have your eyeballs and brain calibrated long before you climb into your deer stand.
General aging criteria
There is no truer time to put this axiom into practice than during the rut. Bucks are out cruising, trolling for does in estrus or madly grunting as they pursue one. In other words, sometimes you get a stationary look at a buck, but more often than not, bucks that are driven to distraction by the elixir of an estrus doe are in constant motion. The serious deer hunter better have studied and committed to memory the various tell-tale characteristics for aging bucks on the hoof, well before his or her backside hits the stand’s seat.
When a buck comes into view, it is usually seen from a frontal or side view; therefore, the two mandated qualifying criteria concern inside spread and main beam length. A buck that meets at least one of the two qualifying thresholds is considered legal. Inside spread is best determined looking face-on at a buck, while beam length is usually estimated from the side.
These days, a lot deer hunters — whether by hunting property rule or by personal preference — tend to target more-mature bucks age-wise than in the not-too-distant past. A live buck’s age on-the-hoof is best estimated by way of three general criteria that include antler size, body characteristics and behavior.
Across the full range of potential buck age-classes from young to old, in my opinion, three age-classifications can be fairly easily identified in the field or in trail-cam photos: young bucks (1½ to 2½ years old), adult to middle-age bucks (3½ to 4½ years old), and mature to older age bucks (5½ years and up). Certainly, however, given enough time and experience, a hunter can become more proficient in age estimation.
For our purposes, we are going to hone in on the older classification, namely fully mature bucks that are 5½ years and older. There is no foolproof system for eyeball-aging a buck, so in spite of hunters’ best efforts, mistakes and surprises do occur, but they will certainly occur less often with more experience.
I am using the two accompanying velvet photos, taken during the summer, of a particular buck that I have been watching to illustrate some of the variables and pitfalls of age estimation. At a minimum, estimates made from late winter through late summer, especially when velvet is involved, deserve caution. The closer to the rut the better, as all three tell-tale age identifying characteristics can be utilized.
Having numerous trail-camera photos of the subject buck as he grew over the summer, especially compared with other bucks, my opinion is that he is fully mature. Almost all bucks have thin necks during summer, but he has noticeable belly and back sag, and his legs have that classic “too short for the body” look. Additionally, his rack shows upper-end base circumference and beefy mass.