September 22, 2010
By Don Higgins
Each season, veteran trophy whitetail hunters set out with a goal of slipping their tag on a "mature" buck. Yet it seems to me that many hunters have different ideas (or no idea at all) about what a mature buck actually is. Many hunters even use antler score as a bar by which to judge the animals they seek. For instance, you'll hear a lot of bowhunters say they are looking for a buck that simply qualifies for the Pope & Young records.
Obviously, these hunters consider such a buck to be "mature," yet in many parts of the country (and especially in the Midwest, where I live), a 2 1/2-year-old buck can easily grow a rack that would exceed the 125-inch P&Y minimum. I think I can say with confidence that a 2 1/2-year-old buck is not a mature whitetail.
As the trophy whitetail hunting community matured over the past few decades, hunters began putting more emphasis on a buck's age vs. its score in determining whether or not that animal is mature enough to hunt. Since I talk to a lot of serious whitetail fanatics every year, I've noticed that more and more advanced trophy whitetail hunters are "age obsessed" when talking about the bucks they are hunting.
A good example of this comes from my own experience two seasons back when I walked away from the opportunity to hunt a buck that probably would have scored over 180 inches. I did so because I was absolutely certain that he was only 3 1/2 years old. That season I focused on and later tagged a buck that ended up grossing 152 inches. I targeted that buck because I was certain he was 4 1/2. Before you start thinking that I am nuts to think that a 3 1/2-year-old buck can score over 180 inches, let me say that this was a buck I had gotten to know fairly well, and I was (and am) confident of his age.
RELATED: At What Age is a Buck Mature, Pt. 2
I actually held in my hands one of his shed antlers that he had grown at age 2 1/2. I also have numerous trail camera photos of this buck, and I twice videoed him at less than 20 yards when he wore that 180-class rack as a 3-year-old. By the way, as a 2 1/2-year-old, his rack would have scored in the 130s (which would have qualified him for the P&Y records). Going into the upcoming 2008 season, he'll be 5 1/2, and I still hope to get a crack at him! And this year he could well be a B&C qualifier!
Even with the all of the advances we've made in "age appreciation" on the part of maturing whitetail trophy hunters (pun intended), I still see some marked differences in opinion regarding what age a buck has to attain to be considered mature. I've already hinted that I'll pass on a 3 1/2-year-old buck but have no problem harvesting one at 4 1/2. I'll explain my reasoning later in Part 2 of this series, but first I'd like to share some opinions of other serious whitetail hunters I greatly respect, whitetail hunters who have tagged more mature bucks than most hunters will ever see.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
Illinois resident Tim Walmsley has had his hands on as many monster whitetail racks as anyone I know. Tim is an official scorer for both the Boone and Crockett and Pope & Young clubs. He's also the founder of the Illinois Deer Classic, and he established the Illinois Big Buck Record Book. When Tim talks about mature whitetails, I listen, because I respect his vast knowledge.
In addition to his experience in measuring other hunters' trophy bucks, Tim and his wife Bea reside on a sizable piece of whitetail heaven where they've kept track of numerous individual bucks through sightings and through finding the shed antlers from those deer for most of the animals' entire lives. Both Tim and Bea have reached a stage where they are only interested in harvesting "mature" bucks. To them, that means bucks that are at least 5 1/2 years old.
This high standard certainly puts them in very rare company. I pressed Tim for reasons why he believes a buck is not mature until age 5 1/2 and he rattled off examples faster than I could take notes. A real-life example comes from two different bucks that once resided on Tim's farm. Neither of these bucks had more than 9-point racks during the first four years of their lives. For several years, each buck sported a rack that carried a G-4 point on one side of its rack one year and a G-4 on the other side of its rack the following year. But neither buck put G-4 points on both sides of their racks until they reached 5 1/2 years of age.
At 5 1/2, both bucks wore impressive 10-point racks for the very first time. Tim drove home a point that I've also believed for a long time: Whitetails, like humans, are individuals, and it's impossible to state a specific time and age when either will reach total maturity in body size or, in the case of the whitetail, body and antler size. Tim believes that 5 1/2 is the magic number in his part of the country for whitetails, and he believes that some bucks continue to grow larger racks for several more years while others may start the downhill slide.
AN ACTUAL CASE STUDY
Having watched numerous wild bucks mature over the years, Tim has also been witness to the fact that bucks 5 1/2 or older will often grow more abnormal points than they ever had in the past, sometimes a lot more. According to Tim, most bucks he's seen that qualify for the Boone and Crockett record book are 5 1/2 or older.
A perfect example of this is a buck that Bea shot a couple of seasons back. Based on its shed antlers from previous years, Tim and Bea are certain that the buck was at least 5 1/2, possibly 6 1/2. The only question is whether the first sheds they have from the buck were from his first-year rack or his 2 1/2-year-old rack. For a number of years, the buck maintained a basic 4x4 frame with occasional indentations that could have been the beginnings of G-4 tines.
When Bea finally wrapped her archery tag around the brute, he had a 5x6 typical frame with 4 extra stickers that grossed over 180 inches! In fact, Tim and Bea were not even sure this was the same buck until they matched the deer's previous year's sheds to his actual rack. Bea's great buck still ranks in the P&Y record book as the biggest archery typical ever taken by a female hunter in Illinois. Incidentally, if this buck had been shot two years earlier as a "mature" buck, he would have grossed 140 inches as a basic 4x4.
SETTING HIGH STANDARDS
Bobby Worthington is a name that should be familiar to most readers of this magazine. His quality articles detailing his success in tagging mature whitetail trophy bucks have been some of the best ever published. When I recently had the chance to discuss the subject of mature bucks with him, Bobby had plenty to offer. He believes that a buck should be a minimum of 4 1/2 to be considered mature. Also, like me, he absolutely refuses to shoot a 3 1/2-year-old buck no matter where he is hunting.
As Bobby explained, he wouldn't shoot a 3 1/2-year-old buck even in the hardest-hunted area in his home state of Tennessee, because his goal is to shoot a mature animal. To Bobby, a buck less than 4 1/2 simply does not fit that bill. In fact, Bobby's steadfast refusal to budge from his goal has likely kept him from being a celebrated TV or video star. He's simply not willing to compromise his standards just to get a "TV buck" on video.
"Some guys may be able to shoot a 2 1/2- or 3 1/2-year-old buck on camera and start acting like they actually killed a mature buck when they really know they haven't, but I can't do it," Bobby told me.
While a buck that is 4 1/2 years old may or may not be in serious trouble if he walks by one of Bobby's stands, Bobby realizes that many bucks are not going to realize their full antler potential until they are 5 1/2 or even 6 1/2 years old. "This is especially true when it comes to antler mass," Bobby noted.
EACH BUCK IS DIFFERENT
Bobby's opinion comes from actually having killed bucks in the older-age-classes that he was able to observe when they were 4 1/2 or younger. Bobby has also learned that a mature buck's antlers do not start to decline as soon as many folks believe they do. In fact, Bobby believes that some bucks reach at least 7 1/2 years of age before their antlers start to regress.
Bobby went on to say that whenever he is hunting an area that does not receive a lot of hunting pressure, he likes to hold out for a buck that is at least 5 1/2 years old. Bobby has taken a number of outstanding bucks in the older-age-class groups, and he strongly believes that most of the biggest trophies taken across North America are older-age-class bucks.
After our discussion about the physical maturity of a whitetail buck, I asked Bobby to share his thoughts about a buck's physical maturity. More specifically, I asked him if a 5 1/2-year-old buck was any harder to kill than a 4 1/2. I think his thoughtful response was right on the money. Bobby explained that the difficulty in killing a buck has less to do with his age than where the deer actually lives. In some areas where hunting pressure is extremely intense, a 2 1/2-year-old could be more difficult to kill than a 6 1/2-year-old that has lived his entire life with little to no hunting pressure.
It all comes down to an individual buck's experience in dealing with hunting pressure. Bobby tried to put it in human terms by explaining that even though a person may be "mentally mature" at 30 years of age, a 50-year-old who has been doing the same job longer than the 30-year-old will have more experiences to draw from and will know more about that job even though both individuals are equally matched as far as being mentally mature.
Likewise, a whitetail buck will be tougher to tag with each passing season because of the experience he gains along the way. Because of their experience in dealing with the dangers that exist around them, older bucks in a specific region will obviously be tougher to kill than younger bucks living in the same area.
For instance, Bobby believes that as bucks get older, they continue to get better at using the wind and their scenting ability to avoid danger. Bobby feels that this is partially a learned behavior and that it takes years of experience for a buck to master it. Using thermals, detecting and interpreting ground scents, scent-checking bedding areas both for danger and other deer . . . these are but a few examples of how a mature buck uses his nose to survive every hour of the day.
"Young bucks can certainly detect odors as well as older bucks can, but the difference is that older bucks have better learned how to deal with what their noses reveal to them," Bobby said. "That's why it's impossible to say that a 5 1/2-year-old buck is tougher to kill than a 4 1/2. It really becomes an issue of individual animals and their experiences and intelligence. One particular buck may have experienced a certain type of danger as a 2 1/2-year-old and learned how to survive that danger, while another buck may not experience that same kind of danger until he is 5 1/2."
For example, look at the nocturnal habits of some bucks. Bobby believes that certain bucks learn to cope with hunting pressure by becoming nocturnal, but becoming nocturnal is not necessarily something that all mature bucks automatically do. A mature buck living in an area with no hunting pressure may waltz around in broad daylight as readily as a doe would. Also, like people, some bucks are simply smarter than other bucks.
MORE ON MATURE BUCKS
Ohio's Adam Hays likely may be one of the few bowhunters in modern times, if not the only bowhunter in history, to have killed three bucks that have been officially scored at over 200 gross P&Y inches. To further set himself apart from the crowd, Adam was able to videotape all three of these monster bucks, and he even filmed himself harvesting one!
Adam is also a regular contributor to Lone Wolf's "Whitetail Addiction" television show, for which he works as the show's producer. Needless to say, Adam Hays knows a thing or two about mature bucks! When I asked him about his ideas on the age of mature bucks, he had some very interesting viewpoints.
Adam feels that a buck's body is physically mature at 4 1/2 and that a buck's best racks will be grown after that age is reached because the buck is no longer putting all his nutritional intake into body growth.
"Once a buck reaches the age of 4 1/2, it's nearly impossible for a hunter observing him in the field to know for sure how old that buck really is unless the hunter has watched the buck grow up from sightings in previous seasons," Adam said. "I'm always skeptical of hunters who give specific ages for bucks 4 1/2 or older when those hunters saw the bucks only one time and killed them."
Adam also offers some interesting thoughts about the "mental" maturity of whitetail bucks. To begin with, just like Bobby Worthington, he believes that a buck becomes harder to kill with each passing season because of that buck's experience in dealing with danger. As a buck gets older, Adam believes, his home range and core area within that range shrink. That buck may very well find a sanctuary within his home range where he never encounters danger, and he'll sp
end the majority of his daylight hours in that core area.
Adam also thinks that as a buck matures, he'll place survival higher and higher on his list of priorities. This amazing will to survive may eventually overpower even the urge to breed. In fact, Adam suggests that the majority of breeding is likely done by bucks 3 1/2 or 4 1/2 years of age. Although they have the physical maturity to successfully compete for the right to breed, these bucks do not yet have the "mental maturity" to stay hidden during daylight hours. By the time a buck is 6 1/2 or 7 1/2 years old, however, he could well become almost impossible to kill legally.
Adam has a theory concerning bucks that do make it to the older-age-classes. He feels that a high percentage of them were born to older does. When these bucks were fawns, they learned more refined survival skills by following their mothers for the first year of life. Things like using the wind and avoiding certain areas were instilled in them at an early age. While this is a theory that would be tough to prove, it certainly makes sense.
Adam has one final thought that I found very interesting. Of the three giants he has tagged, Adam has only one single trail camera photo of one of them, and that photo was taken the same day he killed the buck. And by the way, all three of Adam's giant 200-plus-inch bucks were believed to have been at least 5 1/2 years old. Adam bases this on the fact that he saw these bucks in previous years when they were younger.
I was very interested to hear this from Adam because I hunted for and eventually tagged a giant buck scoring over 200 inches during the 2004 season. Long before killing this buck, I knew of his existence, and I tried my hardest to get a trail camera photo of him. But it never happened. One thing is certain: When a buck is truly mature, he is a different critter than he was a couple of years earlier. Next month, in Part 2 of this series, I'll report on my interview with Dr. James C. Kroll about this same topic, and I'll follow up with some of my own observations.