So, What is a REAL Trophy Whitetail?
By Henry Chidgey
The most precise answer to this question is probably "Depends!" Just think back to your first deer. It really didn't matter whether it was a big one or a little one it was, for sure, a trophy. How about the first deer you took with a muzzleloader or bow? So the answer to the question "What is a REAL Trophy Whitetail?" depends a lot on your experience as a hunter and the limitations you place on yourself in harvesting the animal.
Now I'm going to speak to what I and many hunters like myself consider a trophy. I've hunted whitetails now for 45 years, all over the United States, with scoped rifle, iron sights (my Dad's old 30-30 Model 94), pistol, muzzleloader, compound bow, recurve bow, and an Osage self bow I made with a drawknife and file. My weapons of choice these days are a compound bow and inline muzzleloader. What constitutes a trophy for me today is a buck or doe, 5 ½ years or older, the older the better. So, why is this definition of a trophy for me? It is my opinion based on my experiences that the older a whitetail, the more difficult they are to hunt. I believe these older whitetails are just much better at avoiding predators and the evidence is compelling - they have survived much longer than the average deer. In the early fall, when I am bow hunting, the toughest deer to hunt and the one that busts more harvest opportunities is the old matriarchal doe. When she walks through the woods she is constantly testing the wind and scanning the surroundings - including looking up in trees. When I successfully harvest a 5 ½ or 6 ½ year old doe, I know I have a trophy worthy of mounting and hanging on the wall next to my Pope and Young or Boone and Crockett buck.
For me it is all about the age. Because I believe the age really defines the cunning and wisdom of the deer I harvested. Whitetails fall in several different age groups/ difficulty levels and therefore, for me, different trophy quality. First are fawns, of which the button buck has got to be the least challenging deer there is to hunt. The main challenge for a hunter is to never accidentally take one of these, mistaking it for a young doe. I smile when I think about the button buck, they seem to be the deer always asking the hunter "please take me!"
The next age group is 1 ½ - 2 ½ year olds. The great majority of whitetails harvested each year fall into this group. They are great eating, but certainly don't qualify as trophies for experienced hunters, regardless of choice of weapons. Now don't let me mislead you, most of the does I harvest fall in this age group, but I work very hard not to take a buck in this group.
Now we go to the next age group - 3 ½ -4 ½ year old whitetails. These are what I call mature whitetails - their chest is filling out, starting to look like fullbacks, they are active breeders, but are still not in their prime. What I mean by this is they have not yet achieved their full potential in both weight and rack development. The top end of this group certainly qualifies as a trophy for me when I have a bow in my hand, but with firearms, not these days.
The next age group is 5 ½ - 6 ½ year olds, what I call a whitetail in their prime. These does and bucks are very efficient at survival, are typically at their peak of body weight, strength, and antler development. At this age these deer represent what all hunters covet most, a challenging animal to harvest taken at the peak of their development.
The final age group is 7 ½ and older deer, what I call past prime . The does and bucks in this age group are the most difficult to harvest, but are beginning to go down hill in body size, strength, and antler development. Many hunters, in a lifetime of hunting, will never harvest one of these monarchs of the outdoors. They may not score big on P&Y or B&C scores, but on my wall they would and do go to the head of the line.
One of the challenges hunters like myself have had over the years is knowing, for sure, how old the deer they harvested was. I had bought all the books, wall charts, aging wall plaques that promised to teach and show an exact way of aging based on looking at the molars in a deer's jaw. Well, this seemed to work good for fawns and 1 ½ year olds, because the number and type of teeth seemed to accurately place these age classes. But starting at 2 ½ years old and beyond that, my confidence that what the charts, books, and "experts" told me could be accurately applied to the jaw I had in my hand was very low.
Later, I discovered three new pieces of knowledge. The first was that there had been formal studies done by at least two different organizations/ researchers to verify the accuracy (or lack thereof) of aging deer by looking at the molars and their wear. The one thing that both surprised and satisfied me about these studies was that the attempt by many folks over the years to accurately age deer by molar wear is not much, if any better than guessing. It certainly is not science. The second was that there was a physiological mechanism that occurred in almost all mammals that every year a layer of cementum is deposited around the portion of the teeth located beneath the gum. In addition to this there was and is a forensic laboratory method that allowed histologists to prepare these teeth so that the rings of cementum could be counted under a high powered microscope as accurately as counting the growth rings of a tree.
Last issue I proposed that a Trophy Whitetail for me was a 5 ½ year or older buck or doe, harvested with the most challenging weapon I am proficient with.
Now, let's talk about some other, perhaps more popular, definitions of a Trophy Whitetail. One is the Boone and Crockett or Pope and Young score, and does it "Book" according to the rules set forth by these two organizations concerning weapons used and "fair chase" followed, as well as the score in inches. Another is more subjective, but I think even more universally applied. That is the look or mass of the antlers. The old saying is "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" and that certainly applies here. I think both of these definitions of Trophy Whitetails are reasonable and easily defended. One of the great things about hunting whitetails is that once we have met the standards and rules of State and Federal Game Laws, we are free to design additional rules for ourselves to satisfy only us. We need please or seek agreement from no others.
Now, back to these more popular definitions of Trophy Whitetails I mentioned above. There are only three things that go into creating these kinds of Trophies. I like to talk about it as the three legged stool of whitetail trophy management. These are AGE, NUTRITION, & GENETICS .
Most of the time we have little we can do to influence the genetics of a Whitetail herd, other than the culling of mature bucks that don't have the antler qualities we desire. In practical terms this is a very up hill battle given that the doe (in which you cannot see antler genetic characteristics) has at least a 50% input into the next buck fawn.
We may have a great deal we can do to influence the nutrition available to this potentially Trophy Buck. First, we can reduce or keep the doe/buck ratio as closely balanced as possible to provide a larger carrying capacity of bucks on a given ecological system. We can use food plots and perhaps supplemental feeding to enhance the nutritional intake available to our whitetail herd. We can also provide supplemental mineral licks to make available minerals needed but not readily available in some geographical locations. (Please remember I am not advocating breaking any game laws in your area). All of these cost time and money, sometimes lots of both.
Now, how about age? The one thing we as individual hunters have complete say about, is whether we squeeze the trigger or loose the arrow at a deer that has not yet reached his prime (assuming we know what "prime" looks like). In my business (forensic deer aging www.DeerAge.com), I am asked many times, mostly by non hunters, why does anyone care or want to know the age of a deer they took. I tell them that the easiest way to understand is to think of a gardener growing tomatoes. Lets call this person a Tomato Garden Steward. This steward wants to grow the best tomatoes possible and in order to do that he/she knows they need to provide the best nutrition possible, don't have too many tomatoes for the garden size, and only pick the best fruit when it is ripe. The Tomato Garden Steward knows a tomato is ripe when it has reached it's maximum size, its color is deep red, and its texture is just so. But the way the garden steward knows these things is through experience, trial and error. I tell people that a Whitetail Steward wants the same things. Great nutrition for the whitetail herd, have the herd properly balanced for the ecosystem as it exists, and finally, but very importantly, harvest the Whitetail Buck when he is at his peak (ripe in tomato terms). That is the reason many hunters (especially real Whitetail Stewards) definitely care and want to know the age of the animals they just took. Over time they will get better and better at visually aging the whitetail buck and make better choices at harvesting a Whitetail Trophy at his prime (usually 5 ½ to 6 ½ years old). The challenge for hunters is that there is no way they can tell accurately that age without getting some help from a forensic lab that has equipment and experienced people to section the roots of the two center incisors and count under a microscope annual rings deposited on these roots (like the rings in a tree). No other method works to tell the actual age of a 2 ½ year or older whitetail. You otherwise will just be guessing and hoping you are close.
Last issue we looked at what I call the three legged stool of whitetail trophy management - AGE, NUTRITION, and GENETICS. We concluded that for most of us there is very little we can do to influence genetics, other than to allow our larger, heavier antlered bucks to live (and breed) as long as possible, at least until their prime- 5 ½ or 6 ½ .
What we do influence and/or control is 1) which deer we choose to harvest and 2) the type of ecological environment we create for our whitetails.
On the subject of ecological environment the best source of knowledge I have ever come across is Bob Coine of Heartland Studio's, Inc in Ohio, Illinois. Bob has produced a series of 5 DVD's, the BUILDING WHITETAIL PARADISE series that inform and educate, while providing great family entertainment. I think you will be as impressed as I was with Bob's straight forward, practical coaching on creating food plots, hunting plots, etc. Plus, the hunting and deer footage he shows on these videos is fantastic. I think Bob's mission statement says it all: "Our mission is to provide first class video to all who cherish our land and all things wild that share and depend upon habitat for survival. We strive to inform and educate, as well as provide full family quality entertainment." You can find Bob at www.HeartlandIllinois.com .
When we are choosing which whitetail buck is ready to harvest, it really is all about the age. In Part 1 of this series I talked about the different age groups of whitetail bucks. The 1 ½ - 2 ½ year olds, whose bodies are not yet fully developed (the legs appear long and the neck is like a doe), the 3 ½ - 4 ½ year olds (tarsal glands starting to get dark or black during the rut, neck getting larger), the 5 ½ -6 ½ year old prime bucks (like a big bull or NFL fullback- eyes kind of squinty, mean looking, belly hanging down), and the over prime bucks (body and antler size starts to go down hill, hair seems lighter than other deer, loose skin on face and neck).
As you can tell by these descriptions, there is a lot of judgment and interpretation going on here to identify what age this buck in front of you is. In any area of knowledge where judgment and interpretation are critical, two things are absolutely necessary to gain mastery of the subject. These are experience and accurate feedback. There is only one way to accurately determine the actual age of a whitetail and that is forensic cementum annuli aging. Every year that a mammal has a tooth in its jaw there is a distinct layer of something called cementum deposited around the root, analogous to the annual growth rings we all know about in trees. Histologists, with the proper knowledge and equipment can take the root of a tooth and slice it very thin, apply a specific stain, and count these cementum/growth rings under a microscope to determine the number of years this tooth was in the mammals jaw. Luckily for us as Whitetail Stewards the best teeth to use for this process are the easiest to get to in our harvested whitetail. The two center, front teeth in the lower jaw are permanent teeth (replacing the fawn teeth there when born) when the deer was 6 months old. You can learn to remove these teeth in two to three minutes with no danger to the cape on your freshly harvested trophy. My company, www.DeerAge.com (Wildlife Analytical Labs), now provides a prepaid lab test & deer aging kit that includes everything that you need (other than your knife) to remove and submit your trophy's two center incisors for a prepaid forensic lab test cementum annuli aging. The kit is enclosed in a DVD type case so that it fits easily in your hunting pack, as well as being very durable. There is no expiration on the kit, and we know you will enjoy looking at the clear instructions and photographs of how to easily remove and submit these two teeth.
Now, armed with accurate feedback about the actual age of your harvested trophy, you will be better equipped to make a better judgment about the age of the next deer in front of you before you let loose the arrow or squeeze the trigger. Thanks for taking the time to read this three part series on one man's opinion of "What is a REAL Trophy Whitetail". If you would like to contact me, my email is hchidgey@DeerAge.com and phone is 512 756-1989.