The restoration of white-tailed deer populations across Tennessee, as well as the entire Southeastern United States, has been one of the most successful wildlife management programs in history.
Yet, now that deer herds have been restored to most areas, hunters have become interested in other forms of deer management beyond restoration management. Instead of managing for larger populations, sportsmen are now practicing more specialized forms of management intended to produce older and larger deer. Many of these programs, such as Quality Deer Management (QOM), involve protecting young bucks from harvest in the hopes they will survive to older ages. For those participating in such efforts, understanding deer age is critical.
The standard method for aging deer involves examining their teeth. Using the Severinghaus Tooth Replacement and Wear Technique, the approximate age of a deer can be assessed by examining a deer’s lower jaw and determining how many teeth the deer has, whether the teeth are baby (milk) teeth or permanent adult teeth, and the amount of wear on the teeth.
However, to use this aging technique, the deer must have been harvested and in-hand for examination. This doesn’t help those who are practicing forms of management that require protecting or harvesting specific age groups.
For those practicing QOM or other age-specific forms of management, it’s critical to know a deer’s age before pulling the trigger. This has led to the development of a specific skill, or practice, often called “field judging” age. It involves learning to recognize body shape
characteristics, especially for bucks. The ability to judge age by body shape is more an art form than hard science. As bucks age, their bodies become larger, more muscular, and the proportions of their bodies change-the size of one part of the body compared to another. The “art” of field judging buck age is best described as the ability to compare all of these features size, musculature, and proportion-to produce a “best fit” age.
Many hunters believe they can identify a buck’s age by the size of his antlers. And although it is true that-on average-bucks grow larger antlers with age, bucks of the same age can grow such a wide range of antler shapes and sizes that most identifiable antler characteristics cannot be used to assign bucks to specific age classes. For example, in Tennessee bucks with antlers scoring between 70 and 90 gross inches on the Boone and Crocket scoring system can be any age. This author has measured yearling bucks that scored more than 80 gross S&C inches and mature bucks that scored less than 80 gross inches. I’ve learned the hard way that using antler characteristics to judge age can lead to some embarrassing mistakes!
For most forms of specialized management, knowing the exact age of a buck is not as important as simply classifying bucks into one of three age-groups: young, middleaged, and mature. Yearling bucks are generally considered young bucks. Middle-aged are those that are 2 ½
or 3 ½ years old. Once a buck has made it to 4 ½ years old or older, he is considered mature. Exactly which age group hunters manage for is determined by their management strategies and goals, but learning to field judge buck age into one of these three groups is usually sufficient for most programs.