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You be the Judge

Introduction by John Jefferson
Text and Photography excerpted from Observing and Evaluating Whitetails
By Dave Richards and Al Brothers

Have you ever seen a deer and wondered if you had seen it before? Or how old it was? A new book, Observing and Evaluating Whitetails, will help you answer those questions. And practicing the illustrated techniques in state parks, or on your ranch or deer lease could add a new dimension to your deer appreciation.

The authors are Dave Richards and Al Brothers, both Texans; and the splendid photography is by Richards. Brothers helped originate TPWD’s technical guidance program and had a distinguished career as a private lands wildlife manager.

“The market is saturated with general-knowledge white-tailed deer books, but this one stands alone and raises the bar,— said Macy Ledbetter, assistant manager of TPWD’s James Daughtrey Wildlife Management Area. “It’s a must-have for serious deer managers.— And it’s just as useful to those only wanting to watch deer.

What makes this book unique is that it photographically tracked the year-by-year development of whitetail bucks’ bodies, antlers and unique individual characteristics — and did so in such artful fashion. Many of Richards’ pictures have been magazine covers — some in this magazine — and Brothers’ unquestioned expertise lends credibility to the accuracy of the evaluations.

The true value of the book comes in two packages. In sections on aging deer on the hoof, Richards has photographically followed 17 bucks through most of their lives, illustrating the characteristics that define each age. “Studying Dave’s pictures made us all better at scoring deer,— said Roy Hindes, on whose ranch many of the pictures were taken.

Richards was careful to show how a buck’s body changes from summer to late winter through the pre-rut, the rut and the post-rut periods. He was also able to picture how a buck’s appearance and behavior change moment-to-moment as other bucks, does or predators appear.

The other notable value of the book is the graphic pictorial guide to determining Boone & Crockett score of a buck’s antlers while it is still alive. That takes the guesswork out of evaluating a deer for both hunters and nonhunters. Since hunting helps pay the bills on the Hindes Ranch, actual Boone & Crockett score sheets were available and are printed alongside three or four pictures of each of 25 bucks. Readers can study the pictures, estimate the score and then compare that with the known score.

This book is available from the Quality Deer Management Assn. at (800) 209-3337 or the Texas Wildlife Assn. at (800) 839-9453. It sells for $29.95 in soft cover and $39.95 in hard cover.

After 30 years of hunting and photographing white-tailed deer, I am convinced this is an inexhaustible study. I wish we could include all the answers to questions about white-tails, but we are still learning more about this very extensive subject.

Under the best of circumstances, aging white-tailed deer on the hoof is a calculated guess. Even when all proper methods have been utilized and all available information analyzed, you will still make mistakes. It’s important to understand that every deer herd is unique and that numerous variables must be considered before you can consistently age deer on a particular property.

However, what will be evident through these pages are numerous insights that will enable the deer hunter/manager to become more proficient at aging, judging and analyzing white-tailed deer. – D. R.

Fawns

It is important not to mistake buck fawns for mature does. Buck fawns have flat foreheads, while does have rounded foreheads. These young bucks are often the first deer to appear at a feeding area or food plot. Thus, it is wise to never shoot a lone antlerless deer, especially at long distances.

1 1/2 Year Olds

As you can see, 1 1/2-year-old bucks appear dainty, with baby faces and thin necks. Their legs appear long and slender, and their torso is slim like a doe’s. In a photo of a 1 1/2-year-old buck, cover the antlers with your thumb and you will see that the body resembles a doe. Yearling buck antler development is highly variable, ranging from tiny spikes to 10 or more points. But even super 1 1/2-year-old bucks with multiple points will have small, thin antlers, and the lengths of the main beams will be short compared to older bucks.

2 1/2 Year Olds

The best way to describe the bodies of 2 1/2-year-old bucks is gangly and awkward. Their legs appear to be growing too fast for their body. Their bodies, while thicker than those of 1 1/2-year-olds, still have legs and necks that appear stretched in proportion. The head will appear long from the side. For the first time, their antlers will begin to catch your eye, which is probably why 2 1/2 is the average age of whitetail bucks harvested in many areas. Most 2 1/2-year-olds are big travellers during the rut, because they typically are not active breeders in herds with balanced adult sex ratios and good buck age structure. During the rut, their tarsal glands may be dark, but the very darkest area is usually very small and round in appearance.

3 1/2 Year Olds

A fuller neck and deeper chest are characteristics of a 3 1/2 year old. Their neck muscles are expanding from increased hormones and use during the rut but are still not as large or thick as a fully mature buck. Their chest is beginning to appear larger than their rump, but their back and stomach are still straight and taut. Also, their neck is still distinct by four or five inches from their brisket. Their tarsals will be dark during the rut but usually will appear small, and the dark staining from the urine usually does not extend down the leg to the hoof.

4 1/2 Year Olds

When bucks reach 4 1/2, they attain skeletal maturity and begin exhibiting many characteristics of full maturity. Their bodies have reached full size but are muscular and lean. This is the first time their legs do not appear longer than they should for their body. Their legs may even appear slightly short for the thickened body. The majority of 4 1/2-year-old bucks will have a significant increase in antler growth over the previous year. Focus your attention on the body and face when aging, especially if the buck has very good antlers. Bucks at this age can grow very respectable antlers, making them difficult for hunters to pass.

5 1/2 Year Olds

At 5 1/2 years old, most bucks will be carrying the largest set of antlers they have ever grown. Their bodies also exhibit some noticeable changes. Typically, their stomach and back have a noticeable sag. Their neck will swell considerably during the rut, making the neck and brisket appear to be one continuous muscle. Also, their neck, while being very big, will appear muscular and firm and not flabby. The tarsals will be noticeably large and very dark with many bucks having staining down the inside of the leg to the hoof. And 5 1/2-year-old bucks’ legs will appear short almost to an exaggerated extent, due to the fuller and fatter bodies.

6 1/2 Year Olds

At 6 1/2 years old, there is no doubt a buck is mature. During the rut, their neck will often be almost as thick as their body and will connect to their brisket as if one continuous muscle. Their face will appear small in proportion to the thickness of their neck from a frontal view. Their body will be heavy and appear rippled, especially in the chest and neck areas. Throughout most of the year, they will have a sagging stomach, except during the post-rut due to weight loss. Their back will also sag, making their front shoulders appear taller. Late in the rut, they may have a large, grayish-white area under the tarsal where it has been scalded from urine. Finally, many bucks this age will have testicles that appear larger and descended lower than normal.

71/2 Year Olds

The bodies of 7-1/2-year-old bucks appear huge. If they appear with younger deer, especially younger bucks, they will almost appear as a larger subspecies. Their bodies will have wrinkles and dimples, and their stomachs and backs will sag. During the rut, their necks will be so thick it is difficult to determine where they stop and their briskets begin. If moving, their necks will appear flabby instead of firm. Many 7 1/2-year-old bucks appear to have a rigid, slow gait when walking, showing the stiffness in their joints that is indicative of older age.

Post Maturity

Interestingly, as bucks pass 7 1/2, they can become quite a challenge to hunt unless you have patterned and can identify the particular buck. As bucks reach old age, their teeth can become badly worn, resulting in reduced nutritional intake and an overall decline in condition. Postmature bucks will often display knocked knees, noticeably sagging stomachs and swayed backs with a hump above the shoulders. Some very old bucks produce antler points that curl or appear crooked as if they were melted in a fire.

Aging Whitetails by Behavior

Often, after all of a buck’s physical characteristics have been analyzed, a question still remains as to his exact age. Observing an individual buck’s behavior and especially how he relates to other bucks can assist you in arriving at a more definite age.

Simply watching the heads of two bucks will enable the observer to determine which is dominant. The dominant buck will carry his head higher with his ears laid back and will continue doing so until the subordinate buck shows submission.

At feeding sites, the immature bucks typically arrive first. Shortly thereafter, the middle-aged bucks arrive and disperse the immature bucks. Then, just before dark, the mature bucks arrive and disperse any middle-aged bucks present. By watching the various forms of behavioral communication, much can be learned that will aid in placing bucks in their respective age classes.

Location of External Glands

Whitetails have a number of glands that perform different functions located on several areas of their bodies. All of these except the metatarsal gland are known to aid deer in recognizing one another. For instance, a buck is leaving scent — when he rubs his face on a limb with his preorbital glands or his forehead gland — for other deer to know he has been there.

A buck’s tarsals and hock area are helpful in aging because they are related to his level of involvement in breeding and, therefore, his level of maturity. The forehead gland is another area to pay close attention to. As a buck matures, this area of hair between his antlers will appear thicker and darker during the rut. Studying how these areas appear on different-age bucks will aid in placing them in their respective age classes.

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