I began working for QDMA in 2002, and that fall we implemented a record-keeping program at our Pennsylvania deer camp. Over the next 18 hunting seasons, we shot 299 deer on 700 acres – 249 were antlerless (210 adult does and 39 fawns) and 50 were antlered bucks, and we collected harvest data from every single one of them. I aged them all with the tooth replacement and wear technique, and we’ve sent incisor teeth from every buck over 2½ years old for cementum annuli (CA) age analysis. About a decade ago, I also started sending incisors from old does for CA testing too.
This record-keeping has allowed us to be far better managers of the deer using our farm, it’s taught everyone hunting our land about deer biology, and it’s provided tremendous enjoyment for nearly two decades. Many hunters pulled their first jawbone at our camp, learned to estimate live and dressed deer weights, learned to differentiate ticks from deer ked flies, and much more. We also all learned the amazing survivability of whitetails.
Imagine my chagrin to shoot a 13½-year-old doe and lose the oldest-doe contest that year!
For example, entering the 2008 season the oldest buck we had ever shot was a single 4½-year-old. That season I shot an 8½-year-old 8-point, and it completely changed our view of what was possible. I killed this buck in an area with extremely high hunting pressure and deer-vehicle accidents. It blew our minds that a buck could live that long in our neighborhood.
Several seasons later, I shot a doe in archery season that looked like most other does on our farm – until I pulled her jawbone. The tooth wear was severe, and she CA aged at 13½ years old. Not to be outdone, a camp mate shot a doe in rifle season that year that CA aged 15½ years old! Each year at camp we have an oldest doe contest. Everyone throws $5 in a cup, and whoever shoots the oldest doe wins the pot. Imagine my chagrin to shoot a 13½-year-old doe and lose the contest!
This past season, my daughter Katie won the oldest doe contest with a deer I estimated from tooth wear to be at least 8½ years old and possibly more than 10½. Well, we just received the CA results from Matson’s Lab, and the official age was 13½ years old. That doe was a few months older than Katie when she shot it! To shoot a deer in its teens puts you in a pretty rare club. Our camp was fortunate to have two members in that club, and I’m extremely proud my daughter makes our third.
During the past five seasons, we’ve shot 38 adult does (1½ or older), and the average age was only 2.7 years. This young average age structure is a result of our aggressive antlerless harvest program. We like to fill our freezers with antlerless deer and keep the deer herd in balance with the habitat. However, during this time that the average doe age was between 2 and 3 years old, we shot two does that were 13½ and one that was 15½ years old. Their survival skills are incredible, even when the deer using our land face hunter densities of about 15 hunters per square mile (Iowa averages less than 5 per square mile), an extremely high number of roadkills in our area, and high bear, coyote and bobcat populations. These predators take their share of fawns, but once a whitetail reaches its first hunting season, the sky (or at least the mid-teens) is clearly possible.
If you’re not collecting jawbones and age estimates from the deer you harvest, start this season. It’s a great way to learn much more about the deer you hunt.