Deer Hunter’s Guide To Aging Bucks Before The Shot (Episode 402 Transcript)

This is the video transcript. To watch the video for this episode click here.

GRANT: Oooo. It’s been hot here in the Ozark Mountains. But today, we’re getting a little shower. And I’m thankful because this little bit of moisture will result in tons of quality forage for critters here at The Proving Grounds.

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GRANT: We are receiving a lot of pictures on Facebook and Instagram from folks asking us to help estimate the age of bucks. Even though bucks will be in velvet for another month or more, most of the antler development has already occurred. They’ve been spending time moving primarily protein to the antlers through all the blood vessels, forming the structure. And about this time of year, they switch to transporting calcium, phosphorous and other minerals to harden the antlers.

GRANT: Given that antlers are about complete and, more importantly, bodies are starting to change from summer to fall look and characteristics, it’s time to make our annual hit list.

GRANT: I want to stress that the criteria for everyone’s hit list may be different. Here at The Proving Grounds, my family, friends and I enjoy chasing mature bucks. And mature here, we’re going to define as four years old or older. We’ve selected four years old or older because here at The Proving Grounds and our neighborhood – based on the hunting pressure and habitat quality – most bucks have expressed most of their potential by age four.

GRANT: If you're hunting row crop country and there’s unlimited quality forage, soybeans fields everywhere, bucks can live to 5, 6, 7, 8 years of age and still get larger each year if the neighborhood is allowing them to survive.

GRANT: On the flip side, if you're down in south Florida or the Appalachian Mountains or the coastal plain of some of the southern states, deer are making a living on acorns and hickory leaves – well, gosh – they may be expressing their full potential by the time they're 3 years old unless you're doing some habitat improvement projects.

GRANT: As a simple summary, it’s never just the acres of soybeans or quality forage. But it’s the number of deer competing for the amount of quality forage in an area.

GRANT: If there’s more quality forage than deer in the two stress periods – primarily late summer and late winter – then you can allow deer to grow longer because they will express more and more of their genetic potential.

GRANT: No matter of the amount of deer and habitat quality where you hunt, it’s beneficial for all of us to be good at accurately estimating the age of a buck.

GRANT: It’s one thing to understand the general body characteristics and how to estimate a buck’s age, but it’s another to do it in those few seconds we have when a buck steps out right before a shot potential. That’s why we like to use trail cameras throughout the summer and get to know the bucks in the area we’re hunting. So when they step out, we’re not under pressure but we can identify that deer and reflect back on the age we’ve already assigned to that deer and then make a good management decision.

GRANT: There is a buck on our property that has some non-typical points that we call Gumby. And he looked good. We’ve got a lot of pictures of him throughout the summer. But based on his body characteristics, we estimated he was 3 1/2 years old. On a cool morning during the fall, Gumby responded to a grunt call and came in less than ten yards.

GRANT: I was so pumped up watching Gumby respond to the call, that I probably would have tagged Gumby if I hadn’t known in my data library – looking at trail camera pictures throughout the summer – that he was 3 years old and probably could express a lot more antler potential.

GRANT: Having a hit list – if you will – served a very positive management role and allowed me the confidence to pass Gumby that morning.

GRANT: (Whispering) That was tempting.

GRANT: So, as we start our 2017 hit list here at The Proving Grounds, I want to share some of the tips and techniques we use to estimate a buck’s age. We pretty much discard pictures where the buck is a long ways from a trail camera or facing the camera.

GRANT: A lot of pictures like this are posted on our social media asking for us to help estimate the buck’s age but we can't offer an accurate answer because we can't see much of the buck’s body’s shape. We can't tell his body characteristics from a head-on position.

GRANT: Remember that body characteristics are much more important to accurately estimating a buck’s age than antler size. So, my first tip when estimating a buck’s age is to ignore antlers.

GRANT: Here’s an example of a buck with a body shape that’s probably the most common body shape of bucks any of us see on our trail cameras. Unless something funky is going on, we’re gonna get more pictures of yearling bucks than any other age class – anywhere in the whitetails’ range. Because each year more bucks of a specific age class, or cohort, have died to hunter harvest or natural mortality.

GRANT: This buck is clearly a yearling. His shoulders and hams look small and underdeveloped. His legs look too long for his body because his chest isn't developed and it’s not hanging down covering up a portion of his legs. If we cover up his antlers, and I do this often on my computer screen, if I cover up the antlers, he looks like a young doe.

GRANT: This buck’s body is more filled out; he has a larger body size than the first deer. But if we cover up his antlers, well, he looks like a doe. There is nothing that would make me look at this buck’s body and say, “Whoo. There stands a buck.”

GRANT: I use this technique all the time. If I cover up a buck’s antlers and I just take a look at it and I look at his neck, his shoulders, his chest, his hams, his back line and it looks like a doe, it’s almost always a two-year-old buck. I find this technique holds true from south Florida to Iowa. It’s usually easiest to accurately estimate the age – based on body shape – of yearlings and two year-old bucks.

GRANT: (Whispering) You got a good (Inaudible).

GRANT: Three-year-old and older bucks are a different beast. We’re getting into age classes where the shoulders, neck and hams look different than a doe.

GRANT: Three-year-old bucks tend to be very proportional, or balanced, if you will. Bigger shoulders, but bigger hams; full chest and body, but it’s not sagging. They don’t have a pot belly. And a great illustration is they look like a sleek race horse. It’s very rare that I look at a three-year-old buck and if I cover his antlers, the body looks feminine or like a doe.

GRANT: Even though their bodies are fairly well developed – especially this time of year of pre-rut – their neck will not be large enough to merge at the bottom of their brisket. Their neck will merge with their chest well above the brisket.

GRANT: Check out this buck. Even though he’s kind of facing the camera, you can tell his shoulders are much bigger, or better developed, than the first two bucks we showed you. His rump is larger and his chest and tummy are just rounder and better developed. This buck has impressive antlers, but his chest is not significantly larger than his rump. He’s got that sleek, fit look all the way through. This is a deer that I believe has a lot of potential. He’s three years old; he’s got, probably 25% or more of his antler growth to develop in future years. And here at The Proving Grounds, we’ll give him a pass.

GRANT: We believe the buck in this video is four years old or older. Check out how much more developed this buck’s shoulders are than his rump. It seems to me this buck’s neck is fuller, more developed at the same time of year and merges with his chest closer to his brisket, than the buck we just showed you.

GRANT: His chest is very developed; it’s kind of what I call a buffalo chest. In fact, it looks like there’s more mass, or more weight, if you will, towards the chest than towards the hams. He’s not balanced like the three year old. As we discussed earlier, everyone’s personal hit list is based on where they hunt and their personal hunting objectives. If you're a guest on someone else’s property, then I believe, you should play by their rules. If you're hunting public land or hunting on granny’s back forty and there’s really not a deer management program, then set your standards appropriate to what your goals and objectives are for that season.

GRANT: We know that management works much better when it’s based on the age of the animals versus antler size. As an example, let’s say you set your harvest criteria at four years of age.

GRANT: If you're a coastal playing South Carolina resident, but you draw a tag for Western Kansas, well, the antler sizes could be significantly different based on the habitat at each location. And you want to adjust your harvest based on body size and not antler size.

GRANT: Before season starts, I want to share with everyone that there’s been multiple research projects that have shown, clearly, we can't cull deer, quote / unquote, and improve the genetics of a wild, free-ranging herd. To make significant improvements in antler size based on genetics, you need a pedigree. You need to know the results of the offspring of different pairings. And we never know that with wild, free-ranging deer.

GRANT: So, basing your harvest on phenotype, or what you see, versus genotype, what they’ve produced based on pairings, is impossible. Culling simply doesn’t work.

GRANT: Recently, the interns, Daniel and I, had a neat opportunity to travel a couple of hours west of here and work on some properties owned by Mossy Oak Properties of the Heartland.

GRANT: Alright. Let’s just start down here at this one, then.

GRANT: Like normal, we met and started going over some maps to get a general lay of the land and talk about their management goals and objectives.

GRANT: So, if everyone comes in here and stays at the lodge and then you disperse out from there to go hunting this property.

JAMES: They usually go down the road and you can go down, you can down here and…

GRANT: Is this grown up pasture here or what is this here?

JAMES: Yeah, that’s grown. This is all clover here.

GRANT: During our conversation, their property manager, James, shared with us that their goal was simply to see more deer and their guests to see more deer and, hopefully, some larger antlered bucks.

GRANT: Is this production ag and production ag and?

GRANT: Once my team and I got an idea of how their farms are laid out and their goals and objectives, it was time to get some boots on the ground.

GRANT: To get better quality wildlife habitat, we’re gonna have to get on control of this, all this sericea lespedeza.

GRANT: Today, we’re touring some properties with James, Mossy Oak at Heartland Properties, and we’re here to design and help create better wildlife habitat.

GRANT: One of the first things we noticed on this particular property, James, is that we’ve got a lot of this sericea lespedeza. And it’s an extremely invasive weed. Now, it will make, later this fall, just literally, each plant, thousands of little black seeds. And a lot of folks will think, ‘Oooo. That’s great quail food.’ But quail do not eat this and it obviously spreads everywhere. Again, perennial, so this same plant comes back over and over and over again.

GRANT: And, and it just drinks glyphosate, or Roundup, and calls it Gatorade. That won't really touch it. So, we’re gonna use a different herbicide to take this out. And when we take it out, some of the other native plants – this was imported for erosion control. By taking this out, it frees up some of the native grasses and forbs to really grow up and be much better wildlife habitat.

GRANT: Here in the heartland states – Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas – sericea is a real problem. It’s wider spread than that, but extremely noxious weed. Again, imported. We didn’t have to deal with this.

GRANT: Folks, when you're moving stuff around, it rarely works out good. So, we want to get on control of this sericea. This could be a tremendous native pasture, hold a lot of deer, turkey and quail. But, right now, no chance of little quail making it through there. It’s just too thick – gonna be knocked off by a predator. This is not good quail habitat; not good turkey habitat; and not good deer habitat. But, we can clean this up relatively easy and drastically improve the hunting potential of this property.

GRANT: Once areas have been infested by sericea – plowing, burning, mowing, grazing – won't control it. You may be able to knock down the top growth, but it’s produced a huge seed base. And it almost always requires a herbicide application to gain control.

GRANT: After touring this property and moving on to the next one, I want to take just a little bit of time to share my thoughts and observations with the interns. Remember, my job to them is to share education and give them real world experience and their job is to help us complete tasks. That’s why I think, very candidly, the GrowingDeer interns make awesome future employees for anyone working on wildlife management projects.

GRANT: Because it’s taking over. It’s just an almost solid mass of sericea out here. The second thing I’d like to do, before it gets totally out of control, is treat the Japanese honeysuckle. Japanese honeysuckle is another, uh, plant that was imported and deer will eat it a little bit, unlike the sericea lespedeza, but only when they're hungry – especially in soybean ag country like this.

GRANT: We notice we hardly see any browse on it anywhere and there’s places where it’s 20, 30 feet up a tree and just going down the fence row and it’ll just pull those trees down. We’re kind of short of treestand trees as it is.

GRANT: And then, centrally located, I want to create some food sources. Right now, even if we sprayed all the sericea lespedeza, no doubt, we’ll get some quality browse – some quality native browse. But it’s homogenous. It’s all over. There’s no pattern for deer. So, let’s outline some food plots in here and do a really good job maintaining ‘em.

GRANT: And before we can even think about food plots, we’ve got to totally control the sericea or it will take them over. Just mowing it won't work; spraying it with glyphosate won't work. We will have to do a good job of controlling the sericea this year – this fall. Probably come in with food plots next year.

GRANT: In this property, we have one primary hardwood drain that runs almost stem to stern throughout the property. And there’s some S curves in it here and there. And on those S curves – usually on an S curve, will be the best place. Like right here, I can see where it narrows down; there’s a couple of places here it really narrows down. I don’t want to be here where it’s, you know, it’s x hundred yards wide. There’s too many chances for the deer to be out of bow range. But, just coming down this way 100 yards, and it narrows down to 50 yards or so for a little bit and then widens out. Well, that’s obviously a bottleneck, a pinch point, and it happens to be right in a curve. And why I like curves is there’s a better chance to be what I call “threading the needle”.

GRANT: So, I don’t want to hunt necessarily the wind is perfectly hitting me in the nose. When it’s 100% in my favor, it’s 100% against a big, mature buck. And he’s likely not to be there during daylight hours. So, “threading the needle” is I want a 45 degree wind; I’m right on the edge of being busted; he’s right on the edge of feeling comfortable. And that’s a perfect intersection for the success of a hunter.

GRANT: So, let’s set this up for the gun hunters to hunt out of a Redneck over these big feeding areas and the bow hunters – especially during the pre-rut/rut – to hunt this hardwood drain where those bucks are gonna be cruising.

GRANT: We want to spray this; maybe use a mower or a prescribed fire to put the duff down. The next year, we’re going to come in with a no-till drill and plant a Roundup Ready bean because really young sericea, we can knock with glyphosate. And if we plant Roundup Ready soybeans, we can control the weeds for a year or two and then go to the Buffalo system of a cereal rye; turn up the blend I’m using now and then come in with the soybean and have that mulch literally cover up the sericea seeds and be done with the weed base.

GRANT: This was a great property; it has a lot of potential. Let’s go on and write a plan for the next one.

GRANT: We’re in the middle of a 880 acre property and there’s an old field. Now typically, old field habitat can be fairly productive. But this one’s been left alone so long, we’re getting a lot of undesirable species. Of course, a lot of sericea. This has been mowed, but right around the edges, there’s sericea. And right behind me a huge sumac area that’s just totally shaded out underneath – nothing growing.

GRANT: And what we’re seeing is this is going from productive habitat to really low quality habitat. And I was brought in because this farm isn't hunting as good as it used to hunt. So, I can, I can see why.

GRANT: And my prescription for this area is pretty simple. We’re gonna get a front mounted – like a skid steer mower – a big, giant tractor with a big, heavy-duty bush hog on it and clean out about 10 acres of this. We’re gonna mow it; we’re gonna let it grow back about six inches or so. Spray it, because we can't kill some of these undesirable species without doing that and then no-till drill in soybeans.

GRANT: There are a few good native species in here and some clover and whatnot, but we may be getting a few hundred pounds of deer food per acre. If we convert this – not all of it – we’ll leave some cover around the edges. But convert this into a soybean field – now we’re talking 5, 6, 7 thousand pounds. And that will impact deer movement in a large radius around here.

GRANT: We probably won't hunt this big field – because it’s too big for a lot of bow hunters to hunt – but, there’s wooded fingers and whatnot going off here and we’ll know the travel corridors.

GRANT: And now – yeah – I’m sure bucks maybe bed in here during the rut or chase a doe in here or whatnot, but this will become the central hub, the focus area, the big feeding area. And we’ll leave enough cover around the outside edges for bedding and travel.

GRANT: But right now, this is going downhill, lower quality and we want to turn it around and make it back to high quality habitat.

GRANT: We walked into one of these big sumac groves and, of course, once we got in here, James, the vegetation is lower and just total weedy species. There’s not even really any high quality native species in here.

GRANT: So, it’s just – and this is gonna spread, of course. You can tell that this has spread out over time. These are shorter – the big ones in the center. This grove is spreading over time and, and, if we left it alone, eventually, it would take over the field. It will shade out and take over the field.

GRANT: You know, there’s nothing here for a turkey. A turkey comes in here, a bobcat or coyote is going to kill it. There’s nothing here for a turkey.

GRANT: Turn this into the food plot like I’m talking about, turkeys will be flying out of those trees in here like crazy. And more productive. More eggs, bigger clutches per hen.

GRANT: And beans are just so easy. They're just easy. Especially on a field that’s big where the deer aren’t gonna over browse ‘em. Oh my gosh, they're easy. Less fertilizer requirements. Easy to keep weeds out. Something like this where you’ve got tremendous weed seed base, planting anything but a Roundup Ready bean would be futile ‘cause you're gonna lose it to weeds.

GRANT: You can't – you don’t have enough time to be tilling. You don’t even have time to be mowing. You don’t have time to be tilling. You’ve got to go with the, a Roundup Ready product. The first year or two for sure until you get the weed base under control.

GRANT: As we continued throughout the day, we toured another farm that was primarily ag with a small habitat addition that a lot of folks think is beneficial.

GRANT: Hey, we’re touring another property here and, James, this one has a lot of potential but I want to share something I noticed. The farmer had left a strip next to the wood line or fence line, a planter or two wide, and let it go to native vegetation.

GRANT: This type of habitat where there’s really narrow band of cover – right on the other side of this wood line is an open pasture. So, we’ve got just a – I don't know – 40, 50 feet wide narrow band of cover and I call that a predator food plot.

GRANT: In a cover zone left next to an ag field that’s really small or a stream side management zone left in southern timber practices, a coyote, raccoon, whatever, can walk on the downwind side and smell every hen, every fawn, whatever in here. So, it becomes a predator feeding area.

GRANT: Of course, it’s the only cover around and turkeys are gonna nest there and does are gonna drop fawns here but the success rate or survival rate can be very low.

GRANT: I would rather crop a portion of this; take this same amount of acreage – it’s a long strip down through here – and take the back corner of that field; get a couple acres – 3, 4 acres, whatever – where I’ve got now, a big block where the wind isn't going through the whole thing so easily and the hen nesting in there or fawns dropping in there aren’t as obvious to predators walking on the downwind side as this narrow strip.

GRANT: Same acreage – not asking the farmer to give up any more, but putting it in a block, versus a long, narrow strip will have a much higher success of poult and fawn survival.

GRANT: After a fun day, I’m very confident the boys at Mossy Oak Properties of the Heartland will do a great job not only of managing these properties, but sharing these tips with future landowners.

GRANT: Whether you're out evaluating some habitat or simply taking a walk outdoors somewhere, I hope you take time to kind of decompress, reduce your stress, and you’ll probably age a little bit better just like deer.

GRANT: But most importantly, take time every day to be quiet and listen to what the Creator is saying to you. Thanks for watching GrowingDeer.