Making the Call: Field-Judging Skills

QDMA Articles:

By: Grant Woods, Bryan Kinkel and Robert Bennett

Dead deer don’t grow — young bucks do not become older bucks if they are harvested while they are still young.

This concept, which is not exactly rocket science, is the basis for deer management programs geared toward improving the local buck age structure. What can be more complex is the decision-making process that leads to young and middle-aged bucks being allowed to grow. That’s why learning to field-judge deer is an essential skill for any deer manager. If your management goals include producing more mature bucks, then learning how to age deer in the field and making intelligent decisions at the moment of truth are essential for success.

More and more deer hunters are becoming educated on deer management and deer nutrition. The results of this education include bigger deer and healthier herds where this information has been used to implement a well-designed management program. Those who have been properly managing their deer herd for several years will probably reap the fruits of their labor this coming season. Those who start now will see rewards down the road. Those who continue to shoot young bucks will never have mature bucks on their property.

We at Woods & Associates Inc. have participated in hunter/manager education through a variety of presentations at deer management seminars and short courses. However, after visiting and talking with literally thousands of avid hunters and managers, we are beginning to realize there is one aspect of herd management, and more specifically buck management, that many are having trouble mastering. That aspect is field judging middle-aged bucks.

A common presentation we give at these short courses is entitled “Shoot/Don’t Shoot.” This topic is designed to aid hunters in making quick field judgments as to a deer’s sex and age. The program consists of a sequence of deer pictures and video clips that include images of fawns, does, and different age classes of bucks. We then provide the audience with a hypothetical management situation — a club in which they are attempting to harvest adult does and bucks 3 1/2 years of age or older — and ask them to make a quick decision on whether each pictured deer could be harvested within those management guidelines. As each image is flashed on the screen, we ask them to shout out “Shoot,” “Don’t shoot,” or “Wait for a better look.”

As we repeatedly give this presentation, it is becoming obvious that hunters have learned how to successfully identify mature does. These animals’ long bodies and faces quickly give away their status as mature females. Hunters are quick to yell out “Shoot!” when they see these “nanny” does. Hunters are also quick to yell out “Shoot!” when fully mature bucks light up the screen. Their massive antlers and stout, robust bodies are hard to miss. Yet pictures of 2 1/2- and 3 1/2-year-old bucks are often met by dead silence. Although more and more hunters are striving to move bucks into the older age-classes on their property, this silence speaks volumes.

After giving this presentation many times and in many geographic regions, we are convinced that most hunters are having difficulty field-judging middle-aged bucks because they have not had enough experience observing and studying bucks in these age classes. It is not that hunters are poor woodsmen or women. They just don’t have the opportunity to take a good, long look at the characteristics that identify bucks of these ages, either in the woods or in the media.

Let’s face it, when most hunters see a middle-aged buck, they generally focus on the buck’s antlers and not his body characteristics. The next body part that the majority of hunters’ eyes are drawn to is an aiming spot. Many hunters, even those who have harvested numerous middle-aged bucks, are so focused on harvesting the animal that they don’t take the opportunity to study and evaluate the buck’s body characteristics.

As far as adult does are concerned, many hunters have viewed and passed literally hundreds of such animals throughout their hunting career and have spent many hours in the deer stand observing them. Through much practice, hunters have developed great search images for these animals. When it comes to fully mature bucks, the outdoor media inundates us with their images. Marketing directors don’t need Ph.D.s to understand that big bucks sell. Through this excess of marketing, we, as hunters, have seen hundreds of images of fully mature “trophy” bucks. We have all developed excellent mental images of these truly massive animals.

Unfortunately, hunters aren’t deluged with images of the most sought after animal on most clubs — the middle-aged buck. We hunters want to turn our hunting lands into a paradise full of huge-antlered mature bucks. However, before any of us ever come close to reaching that goal, we must first allow the young bucks to walk, and this requires experience in field-judging the age of 2 1/2- to 4 1/2-year-old bucks. We believe a lack of experience with evaluating body characteristics of middle-aged bucks leads to frequent harvest mistakes.

We have also observed that many hunters have developed the ability to identify “shooter” antler dimensions, but most hunters — even experienced hunters — do not know the body conformation keys to judging buck age. Identifying gross antler score is a great tool, but being unable to identify the age of the buck by body characteristics can lead to management mistakes. A wide range of gross antler scores exists within any age class of bucks.

Observing many mounted bucks at hunting shows and big-buck contests will aid hunters in developing visual images of 120-class antlers, 130-class antlers, etc. However, mounted bucks do not provide the entire body of the animal for study. To improve field-judging skills, hunters need to practice wherever they can on live deer. Just as avid golfers are constantly practicing their yardage estimation skills, hunters will need to practice their buck-aging skills if they want to develop the mental images required to make snap decisions while in the deer stand.

If the goal on your property is to move more bucks into the older age classes, you need to make intelligent decisions while hunting. As you can see in the table below, there is a price to pay for making mistakes, with time being the biggest cost. For example, if your goal is to harvest 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks, but in 2003 you accidentally harvested a large-antlered 2 1/2-year-old, then it will take four years to replace that animal. It will be replaced by a fawn this spring, which will become a yearling in 2005, a 2 1/2-year-old in 2006 (the break-even point), and then a 3 1/2-year-old in 2007. Four years must pass to replace that buck because you did not take a few extra seconds to identify him as a 2 1/2-year-old.

Whenever the opportunity presents itself, hunters need to assess every buck they see on the basis of age in addition to antler score. The hunters who take the time to develop mental images for 2 1/2-, 3 1/2-, and 4 1/2-year-old bucks are moving one step closer to becoming the ultimate deer hunter/manager. These are the hunters who will quickly make the correct decisions at the moment of truth.

A growing number of field-judging tools are hitting the market — everything from pamphlets to books and videos. Use these guides to develop body conformation images of 2 1/2- to 4 1/2-year-old bucks. Then spend as much time observing live bucks as possible. State parks, where no hunting is allowed, are excellent places to observe deer. Not only are there large numbers of deer in these locations, but the lack of hunting pressure usually means there is a good population of middle-aged bucks. These bucks often feel comfortable moving in open, viewable areas during daylight.

Taking the time to view bucks outside of hunting situations will give hunters the chance to study body characteristics in a low-pressure atmosphere. Hopefully, this study-time will also decrease any tendencies toward “buck fever.” While on the viewing trips, don’t forget to take your camera. Reviewing pictures away from the excitement of being near “shooter” bucks will allow for more-detailed examination. Better yet, take a video camera. Not only will this provide reviewable “live action,” but once body characteristics are memorized, much can be gained by studying the subtle aspects of deer social interactions. Often field judging age can be aided by watching body language and other easily missed posturing.

Once hunters train their eyes to look at buck body conformation and behavioral clues in addition to antler dimensions, they are on their way to becoming better managers who make better harvest decisions.

About the Authors: Grant Woods, Bryan Kinkel, and Robert Bennett are deer management consultants with Woods & Associates Inc.. Research by Woods &?Associates has focused on sex ratios, rub and scrape behavior, nutrition, and food-plot development. Grant is also a charter life member of QDMA.