Harvesting mature deer is an important part of deer management and having healthy herds. Just because a buck has eight or more points, doesn’t mean it’s mature. Depending on a variety of factors, one or two-year-old bucks can have a nice rack, but letting them go for a couple more years could mean that nice rack turns into a monster. So the best way to determine if a buck is old enough to be harvested is to look at the body, not the rack.
But before we get into field judging, let me quickly explain why deer management is important, and why every hunter should be concerned about it, even those who are not after trophy bucks.
Not all deer are born equal. Some are smaller, less healthy and more apt to get and spread diseases over time. But they can still live for several years, and while they are living they will breed and spread their poor genes throughout the deer population. Obviously one sign of a healthy buck is a good body with a nice rack (this isn’t always the case, there are some healthy bucks that just aren’t going to grow a good rack no matter what, but this is less common).
So, by watching deer herds and observing how certain bucks are growing, you can judge what bucks are going to be good, healthy ones, and those that are not.
But most of us do not have the luxury of observing deer herds on a daily basis. This is why field judging is important, because if we can determine the approximate age of a buck, we can make a good decision on whether we should harvest it or let it continue to grow.
Generally when a buck is three and a half-years-old you can determine if he is going to continue to grow into a big buck or if he’s reached his max size. Of course, there are always exceptions! There are plenty of examples of bucks that continue to grow in body and rack size for a couple more years, but generally three and a half is a good standard to go by.
So if we see a deer that we determine is three-and-a-half, regardless of its antler size we can feel comfortable killing that buck. FYI, sometimes people prefer to say “mature deer” rather than a specific age, but three-and-a-half is considered to be a mature deer. Either one works.
It’s important to know all this, because the ultimate thing in question is managing healthy deer herds. So if you see a mature buck that’s not growing good antlers, take him out. But if you see a mature buck that still looks like he has potential, maybe you should let him go this season. He’ll get to keep spreading his genes around, and there’s a good chance he’ll still be around next year.
Okay, so how do you field judge a deer’s age? By its body.
Does the buck look like a doe’s body with antlers? Then he’s young, and you should let him go. A young buck is going to have a slim body, legs that look too long for him, and the antlers will usually be thin as well.
A mature buck is going to have more muscle definition, his neck is going to be as wide or wider than his face, and his back and belly will be flat and straight. In general, a mature buck is going to look very proportional with his body and appendages.
Now an older buck is going to have a belly that sags a little in front. His legs are going to look short for his body. His neck and chest muscle are going to look like one, large muscle. These are the most impressive of the bucks. These dominate ones have lived a long time because they are smart and tough.
Hopefully these tips will help you judge bucks in the field. Like everything else, practice doing this year-around, not just when you’re in the woods to hunt.
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