The main reason hunters manage for white-tailed deer is to maintain a healthy herd. Another benefit that deer hunters enjoy is that fact that healthy bucks are bucks that grow larger antlers. It’s one thing to say we all want bucks with more antler growth, but how can we manage for deer with improved headgear. Without a doubt, improving the buck age structure by allowing more bucks to mature into older age classes is one of the best methods for increasing antler size.
Improving the age structure of bucks will lead to better-antlered bucks because it requires no physical or monetary inputs. Rather, it’s based on just harvest management. Understanding the rate of antler growth relative to age is important when developing a harvest plan. Research has determined the average percentage of maximum antler growth bucks achieve at each age class. And this is some great info to have in your pocket when talking deer hunting and management around the campfire.
Percentage of Antler Growth By Buck Age
- 1 1/2 years of age = 29 percent of buck’s antler growth
- 2 1/2 years of age = 61 percent of buck’s antler growth
- 3 1/2 years of age = 79 percent of buck’s antler growth
- 4 1/2 years of age = 91 percent of buck’s antler growth
- 5 1/2 years of age = 98 percent of buck’s antler growth
- 6 1/2 years of age = 100 percent of buck’s antler growth
Buck Harvest Management: Bigger Antlers Await
Deer hunters and manager can use this information to avoid removing the younger, larger-antlered bucks. This practice is called high-grading, and it results in the best bucks being shot early. while the lesser quality bucks get older and get to do more breeding. High-grading is one of the most common white-tailed deer management mistakes made when the goal is grow bigger-antlered bucks. Itchy trigger fingers will postpone long-term goals.
For example, when hunters consistently shoot the biggest-antlered bucks when they are young and do not allow them to mature into older bucks, the herd is left with a larger percentage of bucks with lower antler growth potential. As a result, the local deer herd may have a 3 1/2 year old and a 5 1/2 year old buck that both score around 125 inches. However, the antler growth potential of these deer will vary, as the 3 1/2 year old would score about 150 inches given the chance to reach 5 1/2 years old.
High-grading bucks on a property, however, will not change the genetics of a deer population. Instead, the removal of the best bucks merely affects the genetics of the deer that are still on hoof, the standing crop so to speak. This improper harvest strategy can be corrected by harvesting the right bucks at the right time.
Aging Deer is Critical
The key to proper buck harvest management is being able to accurately age deer on the hoof. Each and every hunter on a property must either be capable of aging deer or must be accompanied by someone that can. Determining whether a buck is mature or immature, before harvest will ensure deer hunting and management goals are met. Managers must also be able to age deer by teeth in order to verify the harvested deer.
One of the best ways to ensure proper buck harvest is through the use of motion-triggered game cameras. They can be placed across a property to inventory most of the bucks found there. Then pictures of bucks can be studied at length, and from many different angles, to estimate the age of a buck. The deer may not be observed while deer hunting, but cameras do allow management-minded hunters to classify deer as “mature shooter” or “don’t even think about it” before the season even begins.