Aging Deer on the Hoof

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By: Wade Nolan Bowhunting Biologist
By: Wade Nolan Bowhunting Biologist

It is easy for most of us to categorize a buck as a shooter or not. We just decide if he’s the one that meets our personal expectations. A buck’s antler size is more important to most hunters than a bucks age. However, it can be a lot more complicated. There is a movement among professional deer managers to age the deer on the hoof by looking at a variety of facial, antler and body clues. The big question is; can they actually do it with accuracy.

First, you must realize that there are regional variables. A buck in the Midwest may grow faster and sport more inches of antler than a buck the same age in Texas or Mississippi. One of my favorite places to hunt is Henderson County Kentucky. A biologist friend worked with a lodge I’ve hunted and developed a QDM management plan for them in the late 80’s… before the words Quality Deer Management even existed. C.J. Winand found that most of the 2.5 year old bucks scored 125 P&Y. That was amazing because it meant they are trophy status with their second set of antlers.

This buck is likely mature but judging his age is dicey as he is from Texas. This makes him older than you might guess if you live in the Midwest.
This buck is likely mature but judging his age is dicey as he is from Texas. This makes him older than you might guess if you live in the Midwest.

Today with so much genetic manipulation (pen breeding) happening, I have seen bucks 2.5 years old that score 200 B&C. Numbers like that are almost never true for bucks in the wild. Fact is, if you allow them to get old many bucks will reach trophy status. If you hunt the King Ranch, you’ll find yourself around deer managers who only speak in years of age and I think they are often correct. Some of these guys know individual trophy deer.

Lets look at the science. The study I’m going to refer to was funded by the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation. The study was conducted using 85 whitetail deer professionals who either work professionally with whitetails or are enrolled in a university where they are studying whitetail science. They were given an opportunity to identify, from photographs, the age on the hoof (AOTH) of seventy, age known, wild deer from Oklahoma. The deer’s ages ranged from 1.5 to 10.5 years old.

The only thing I can say with certainty is that the one below is younger than the top one.
The only thing I can say with certainty is that the one below is younger than the top one.

The wildlife biologists were each shown a picture and then made an estimate of the deer’s age. Here are the results. When shown a buck that was a 1.5 year old, sporting his first set of antlers, the bio guys guessed the age correctly only 62% of the time by using the AOTH method. In a college course 62% is a failing grade. Then they got progressively worse.

Even if you look at deer all day long and know them by name it is still difficult to AOTH and get it right.
Even if you look at deer all day long and know them by name it is still difficult to AOTH and get it right.

Here are the results on the AOTH scoring on older bucks. For 2.5 year old bucks they got it right only 43% of the time. For 3.5, 4.5, 5.5 year old bucks they averaged around 26%. That means they missed it about 75% of the time. For bucks 6.5 years old they got it right only 15% of the time and for bucks 7.5, 8.5, and 9.5 they got it wrong 93% of the time (that’s a 7% score). For the 10.5 year old bucks only 2% got it correct. How’s that for an aging method that is at best a shot in the dark.

I’m not saying that professionals that use this eyeball method everyday aren’t better at it but let’s agree that this is a guessing game at best. The only way to really know a bucks age is to have the teeth analyzed. I’ve done this on a few deer and we have learned that some Pennsylvania bucks are growing big antlers at a young age. The process uses Cementum annuli characteristics of teeth. It costs $60 but is 85% accurate.

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This 210 pound buck, above, that my son Cory shot in Westmoreland County scored 170 5/8 and was 3.5 years old. Another local buck that was a very non-typical and scored 211 B&C was also a 3.5 year old buck.

Aging deer is only easy on yearlings (1.5 year old bucks) and then only because they usually have thin antlers and small bases. Beyond that, shoot the buck that makes you happy and let the guessing to the professionals. The age I worry most about is how old is that package of deer burger!

This Week in the Whitetail Woods teaching moment has been brought to you by the scent suppression specialists at Atsko Products  and today’s most intelligent broadhead Swhacker Broadheads  and Whitetail University. Wade Nolan is a whitetail professional and biologist who has been working with deer since 1981. Wade Nolan