Sometimes I get to hunt for a trophy. Other times I simply need to fill the freezer. Although most hunters, including myself, make use of all the meat harvested from a trophy deer there’s a general opinion that doe meat is tastier. I find that to be true — unless you happen to know an amazing processor who can remove the “gamey” taste of a mature buck in rut. Oh and old does…stay away from those. It’s true a younger buck is better tasting than a mature buck but in some places you have to be fully aware of what’s involved behind the scenes before harvesting a younger deer.
Depending on where you’re hunting (e.g., a private ranch) you may not be allowed to harvest a young deer. Landowners work to keep the deer population on their property in top health. Aside from keeping an ideal habitat for deer on your property they need to remove a certain number of deer every year. (Landowners often use game cams to determine a property’s deer population.) They identify certain animals as “unacceptable,” and designate them to be harvested. These are so-called “management deer.”
If a landowner’s trying to grow bigger deer on their property they won’t want to take young deer out before they mature to the desired size. Yearlings, deer under two-years-old, usually have what we call “spikes” or one short antler on each side. These deer are too young to tell what kind of buck they will grow into.
Culling these deer ends the life of animals that may well grow into a 10-point buck. To build big bucks, the starting age to cull would be three-years-old, and in some cases two-and-a-half-years-old (if they’re not showing much progress in growth). If you follow the land management perspective, the closest you should get to culling a young deer is two-and-a-half years of age. And that’s cutting it close.
The ranch I hunted on for this article (and my freezer) directed me to harvest two deer in his age range. I chose to take a deer that looked to be about three-and-a-half years old. He sported four small points and looked to be the size of a doe. He ended up weighing about 120 lbs. — the small end for a buck. For this outing, I hunted with Matt Telveke of Tek Outdoors. Matt taught me how to age a deer by its teeth.
First, he cautioned that deer size is a small part of the age determination process; it should never be used as the method for aging. After the kill shot, he placed his finger inside the animal’s mouth and counted the number of teeth. By this age deer have all of their permanent teeth. Babies only have four teeth and adult deer have 32, 12 premolars, six incisors and two canines. After the age of two-and-a-half years deer begin to lose 1 millimeter of tooth height per year.
With dental verification, I was assured that the deer I took was at least three-and-a-half-years-old with antlers growing very slowly. Although at that age he had only reached 35 to 40 percent of his antler potential, he seemed to be on the smaller side.
Deer don’t reach their maximum growth potential until they’re between five and six years old. The deer I harvested was young, but not so young that I was doing the rest of the deer population any disservice by taking him. As I said, trophies are great but that’s not why I hunt. You must also understand the full scope of deer hunting to really call yourself a hunter.
I think Mark Kenyon said it best; “Maybe you take a buck you normally wouldn’t. Maybe it’s a younger age class. But if all things come together, you’ve worked really hard and an opportunity arises and you’re excited, you should be able to kill that buck and do it unapologetically.”