With the growth of more progressive deer management more emphasis has been placed on managing for age and not just antlers. Using selective criteria of "number of points on a side" (typically 3 points or 4 points) for passing bucks leads to the possibility of "high-grading" and also not managing for the greatest potential. This has opened dialogue that centers on educating deer hunters to methods that will enable them to actually judge the age of wild, free-ranging whitetail bucks "on the hoof" using various antler and body characteristics.
We must remember throughout any of these discussions that when we "set the bar" at any stage of antler and body growth, we put an excess of hunting pressure on the very next available age-class or portion of an age class based on the criteria; thus high-grading (harvesting the best of) a portion or all of that age-class. Any movement of whitetail bucks into age classes older than yearling should be considered a step in the right direction in terms of managing for an older buck age structure. However − being skilled at field-judging all age classes of bucks allows you the freedom to choose exactly where you want to set the bar for your club or cooperative.
A different method of field-judging whitetail bucks for age started developing in central New York in the mid-90s, was practiced, and continued to be refined, and is used successfully by many private deer managers and deer hunters throughout New York State. I believe it is an easier and better way. I call this method the "Masters Main Beam Method" and it relates directly to the position of the tip of the main beam in relation to the eye & the nose of the buck. Let's take a look at how it developed.
In 1993, I was part of creating a progressive deer management cooperative of approximately 9,000 acres for private landowners in Otisco Valley in central New York State. The use of Antler "width outside the ears" was chosen as their criteria for passing younger bucks, a method that would protect virtually all yearlings. Early on in this effort one of the more avid hunters in this cooperative began noticing that harvested and "ground-checked" (aged by tooth wear) yearling bucks had antler tips that did not extend forward of the eye, regardless of number of points. Furthermore he felt that most 2½ year-old bucks demonstrated antlers with the tips (or forward-most point of the antlers) slightly forward of the eye. This was potentially important information, because at that time little thought was given to a "more balanced buck age structure" and moving all yearling bucks to age 2½ was the shared goal. Several local cooperatives saved lower jaws and those were aged by certified agers from New York's Bureau of Wildlife using tooth-wear and replacement techniques. In the ensuing years a concerted effort was made to compare age with antler-tip relationship to the eye.
It should be mentioned here that they never considered a judgment of actual main beam length in inches as the criteria and still do not think of it that way. Talk of judging "inches of length" only makes it seem more difficult to the average deer hunter. Relationship to the eye sufficed to give them the decision they needed. Obviously this was a huge step in a positive direction because now it gave them criteria using a front view (width outside the ears) and a side view (antler tips forward of the eye) to accurately judge bucks on the hoof and protect all their yearlings, including the high end ones − the potentially best bucks of the future.
From 2001 to 2005 I was involved in deer research in Cayuga County New York that required countless hours of daytime and nighttime observations, including repetitive spotlight surveys to get a handle on herd composition and buck age structure. The field sheet for those spotlight surveys was formatted for three columns to include bucks of ages 1½, 2½, 3½ and older, and three more columns for does, fawns and unknowns. Separating bucks into those three age categories required me and my technician assistant to have an adequate method of field-judging bucks for those age categories. By then I was very familiar with the techniques used for recognizing the antler characteristics of yearlings and 2½s and quickly trained my assistant in that method. As other antler (and body) characteristics became evident we put them to use and soon had antler characteristics for 3½ and 4½ year-old bucks that we felt were reliable. When you are doing repetitive spotlight surveys on a specific area you soon become familiar with individual bucks and their favored core areas. Many of those bucks we observed (and videoed) were harvested and brought to our check station during the fall hunting seasons. This provided a wonderful opportunity to check our previous age determinations and substantiate our theories of field-judging bucks for age.
That research project was on an area of approximately 4,000 acres, but within a Wildlife Management Unit of 357 square miles − more than 200,000 acres. As a certified ager I was also required as part of my routine duties in the fall hunting season to visit meat processors and collect age and beam diameter data for that WMU. Obviously I also noted and recorded the relationship of the tip of the antler beam to eye and nose for all those bucks aged − yearlings to age 4½. We don't see many 4½s in New York State and 5½s are rare. Meanwhile the deer hunters on those locally managed cooperatives were saving lower jaws and making the same observations for me. Now I have deer hunters in clubs and cooperatives across New York State using this method. Thousands of aged bucks later, we have developed a very reliable method for the deer hunter to age bucks in the field! While all field-judging methods are subjective I feel that the one I'm going to describe here is the easiest and most reliable.
As a whitetail buck grows from age 1½ to age 4½ his new set of antlers changes each year and that change very much resembles a blooming flower, in this case opening forward and down and out to the side and down. Think of it as going from up and tight to down and out.
In earlier times deer hunters thought that a whitetail buck added extra points each year and that "number of points" was an indicator of age. As it works out number of points is a very poor indicator of age and we regularly see a yearling buck with 8 points and on occasion one with 10 or more. Although width of the antlers can be a useful tool for passing younger bucks, it also is a poor indicator of age in 2½ and older bucks. I have aged 2½s with inside spread ranging from 14" to 23". And height (as judged hurriedly in the field) is not something to use for judging the age of whitetail bucks. Many times I have had a deer hunter (who was intent on passing younger bucks) show up at the check station with a nice 8 point yearling whose rack was up and tight and say to me "His rack looked really high, so I shot him".
Using The Main Beam Method: Of the antler position indicators you can use for field-judging a wild, free-ranging whitetail buck, the relationship of the tips of the antlers to the eye and the nose is the best.
While this is best judged with the buck's head up, we have found that any deer hunter can soon get a handle on this regardless of head position.
Using the jaw bone-line as the base, visualize a perpendicular line from the jawline up to the antler tips.
Where does that perpendicular line lie in relationship to the eye and the nose?
I have purposely not mentioned antler beam length. You are not judging the length of the beam. You are judging where the antler tips come in relationship to the eye and the nose.
This method is exceptionally easy when a buck is broadside (which coincidentally is the preferred position for shooting, but it is also very easy to use regardless of the head position. By always using jawline as the base, then you can easily "draw" that imaginary perpendicular line and estimate where you believe the antler tips will be when the head is turned. If the jawline is the basis of your entire determination, and you then visualize a perpendicular line down from the antler tips to the jawline base...then it will never matter what position the head is in!
Let's look at a few examples of this method with the head NOT broadside. These illustrations will allow you to clearly imagine where the tips will be in relation to the tip of the nose:
1.5 years old: when this deer turns his head broadside that tip will be behind the eye, as it is a vertically oriented beam.
2.5 years old: note the slight downward angle of the jawline, so the perpendicular line leans forward. Even if you erred and made the perpendicular line vertical to the ground, this rack tip wouldn't venture past the middle of the snout.
3.5 years old: head slightly down, and clearly past mid-nose, and approaching the tip.
4.5 years old or older: These bucks are turned 45% towards the viewer, but you can visualize a line between the tips, then the perpendicular from the jaw & tip of the nose, and clearly see that when the heads come back to pure broadside, they each will be forward of the nose.
Note: If you can't easily visualize this, do you remember the Body Characteristics of Harry Jacoboson? Deep Chest, Loose Skin at neck and brisket, thick girth at belly, broad hips.....? This says mature animal older than 3.5!
It is always recommended that you look at the body and the rack in conjunction to get the very best possible overall impression by which to base your final determination of age...especially when you are looking at bucks with larger racks. Many high end 2.5 year olds are shot mistakenly for 3.5 year olds because hunters see a large rack and shoot without truly assessing the body for proper confirmation of age.
We could stop right here. The average deer hunter, the non-professional, could use only this indicator for judging the age of wild, free-ranging whitetail bucks and probably be correct 85% of the time and I think most hunters would be happy with that. But let's add a few things to it to round-out our ability to judge bucks on the hoof.
Going back to our "flowering antlers", we have covered the "growing forward" with each new set of antlers. Another helpful indicator is that the main beams are coming down from that upright position and, in my experience, by age 4½ are typically horizontal, virtually parallel to the jaw-line. For those of you looking for a much older buck this horizontal "look" is a key to what you're looking for in the field. Looking at the main beam, from G-2 to tip, determine its angle in relation to the jaw-line.
While this indicator is much less definitive than the first one, (some 3½ s still looking like 45 degrees), it is still a useful tool, with the "horizontal look" being a common characteristic of older age in New York State. And finally, from the front view, we are basically going to look for the same thing - antler beams that are developing out and down with each ensuing year of age. Looking at the part of the main beam from G-1 to G-2, (the portion most obvious to you as observed from the front) −
This is the basic field-judging technique I developed and is backed by hundreds of tooth-wear aging checks by certified agers, including myself. I am deeply appreciative of all the deer hunters across New York State who use this method and have taken the time to have their deer aged, confirming the reliability of this technique. I am hoping other deer hunters across the country try this method, have their deer aged by certified agers and give me some feedback.
If our true mission is to create a more natural buck age structure, we could get there much more quickly by understanding and using this technique as a part of any management program. We know that legal hunting is the greatest form of mortality on whitetail bucks. If a buck survives the hunting season he has a very good chance of being there next fall. The latest research proves this to be true.
Therefore, depending on what age classes you choose to protect, you can add older bucks in large numbers to your woodlot if everyone is on the same page. It is truly a case of "the more you save, the more you earn"! A natural buck age structure would have 2½ and older bucks at more than 60%, with 4½ s and older at more than 20%! If we chose to pass bucks unless their antler beams looked horizontal from side or front view and unless the antler tips were over the tip of the nose, we would quickly approach a natural buck age structure in our woodlots. Gracious - what an idea!
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