Another deer season is almost over, and without fail, a flood of pictures of whitetail bucks on trail camera with the question, “How old is he?” has hit my social media feed.
At the expense of sounding like a jerk, every time I see one of these pictures with the layers of guesses I can’t help but laugh. Almost every time is a genuine question from someone, too, which makes me feel bad for laughing, but I find the humor in the comment section rather than the posed question.
Answers range from a solid guess based on certain features to absolutely absurd, and I only say this because I always ask myself, “Don’t these people know how hard it is to actually age a deer from a picture?”
You’ll never see me guess the age of a deer on Facebook or Instagram. You simply won’t. Why? Because I’m a journalist, a relatively new deer hunter and not a wildlife biologist. Although I’ve watched many shows with big buck kills, or follow people like Mark Kenyon and Andrae D’Acquisto on social media who chase big, mature bucks, truthfully it’s hard for me to make an educated guess on my friends’ trail camera bucks. The lighting is horrible, the glare from the flash is blowing out his features, and, many times, it’s only a shot of his head and antlers.
One book I couldn’t put down before deer season this past year was Whitetail Advantage: Understanding Deer Behavior for Hunting Success by Dr. Dave Samuel and Robert Zaiglin. Samuel is a former wildlife management professor at West Virginia University and owns the longest-running column in Bowhunter Magazine where he’s also the long-time conservation editor. He’s also one of my co-workers at The Dominion Post and has been pivotal in my fresh bowhunting journey, passing down his old Hoyt Katera XL to me before September when we met to talk about his life and views on crossbows. Zaiglin is a well-known and respected whitetail deer biologist, as well as a highly-published scientific writer. Further, Zaiglin earned his Bachelor’s degree from WVU and his Master’s from Texas A&M where he worked under Dr. Charles DeYoung.
The reason I lay out the mens’ credentials is simple: they know what they’re talking about. In one of their early chapters of Whitetail Advantage the two touch on the subject of this column – aging a deer on the hoof. Here’s just a snippet of the introduction to that chapter.
“Sportsmen are cognizant of the fact that antlers increase in size with age. Depending on their expectations, they are often willing to allow immature bucks the opportunity to reach their optimum antler growing years. Not all deer, however, have to survive six years in order to satisfy a high percentage of sportsmen. … Antler size and characteristics vary on a regional basis, but restraint can dictate just how big those antlers. … Unlike bass fishing, there is no catch-and-release scenario. In order to reduce the harvest of young bucks, hunters must be able to estimate the age of bucks in the wild.”
In the next section, aptly titled ‘Estimating the age of a deer on the hoof is extremely challenging’ the authors state this:
“It takes time to critique the rack and physical attributes of a buck, but time is often limited. Aging deer on the hoof remains an educated guess. Even seasoned hunters make mistakes.”
They go on to discuss regional differences and how hunters must pay attention to specific details, such as spring and summer weather conditions which can impact antler growth. With that, they employ the other two details hunters must pay attention to, behavior and body characteristics.
Without spoiling the chapter for you, I’d like to talk about what we’re missing here on social media. Trail camera pictures don’t paint the whole picture, obviously. We can see a deer’s antlers, this is true, but with grainy, mostly nighttime pictures, we can’t see everything about the deer. If you’re gunning for a 4 1/2- or 5-year-old deer, it’s easy to mistake it for a 3 1/2-year-old if you don’t have the proper history with the animal on those cameras. There may be certain circumstances where a deer’s entire body, which could certainly help you study the animal closer, but with relatively low-quality photos you’ll never truly crack the age puzzle. There are different things to study on a deer’s body: its chest, neck, stomach and legs.
For example, according to Zaiglin and Samuel, 3 1/2-year-old bucks have more defined muscles, but a “distinct junction between the neck and shoulders exist.” Further, their chest appears to be the same size as their rump and antler spread is usually more than 14 inches. As a buck approaches 4 1/2 and 5 1/2 years of age, the shoulder and neck begin to meld into each other more, the chest deepens, the stomach begins to sag (in 5 1/2-year-olds), the tarsal glands are darker and the back begins to drop. Further, a 5 1/2-year-old buck also has larger legs and a rounder nose. As for antler growth, 5 1/2-year-old bucks begin to reach their peak while 4 1/2-year-old bucks are at 90% growth. Something you may see on trail camera if you have video is a more aggressive behavior out of this age class, too.
So why do I cite this information? Because it’s science. Both Samuel and Zaiglin know what they’re talking about because they’re wildlife biologists and experienced hunters. This brings me to my next point: most of your Facebook friends are not scientists. Nor am I, and just because I’ve studied Samuel and Zaiglin’s work, read their books and spent time researching deer management doesn’t mean I’m at a point where I can tell you what age a deer is. This is why the best method available to us is tooth examination. Still, this isn’t 100% accurate. According to the National Deer Association (formerly the Quality Deer Management Association), the two methods, Tooth Replacement and Wear and Cementum Annuli analysis are subjective, yet still more accurate than aging on the hoof.
I don’t want to come off as chastising those of you who post photos online and ask, nor do I want to go after the folks who believe they’re helping out. I, too, have gotten excited over seeing a nice looking deer on my trail camera and have jumped to conclusions. The deer I killed in November is a great example. As soon as I knew I had a clean kill, I asked my brother how old he thought it was. The answer was simple, “I don’t know.”
I didn’t send in a tooth. Truthfully, I didn’t care to. The age of that buck didn’t matter as it was my first. I can speculate, but that’s it. Just as we all can when looking at a trail camera photo on social media.