Harvesting Wisely

By Ryan Graden

Growing up, my deer hunting experiences consisted of the same group of guys gathering early at a farm for opening day of shotgun season. We’d plug in crock pots in the garage which would become the gathering area for the next four or five days as we hunted. A variety of snacks, main dishes, side dishes and anything else our wives had made were on display waiting for the noon hour after we had completed our morning deer drives.

After the food was started, we prepared for the annual pushes through the timber that were routinely done every year. Sometimes in the same order! The guys in our hunting group would change up their positions every year, but the same plan would be followed. And why? Because it worked!

Usually, after the first couple of days, we had most of our tags filled and the deer were hanging in the barn awaiting the processing that would be done by our team at the end of the season.

After years of hunting this way, I began to notice something. The age and the size of our deer always seemed to get younger and younger. You see, we were not the only group of hunters conducting deer drives in that part of the county.

You always hoped for a buck of your dreams, but truthfully, if it was running, size didn’t matter. It was meat in the freezer and we did our best to fill the tags despite the age of the deer.

Rarely did I see a buck mature into its third year of age. If it did, that deer was lucky!

When I moved and started a career, I had the opportunity to hunt a different property. One that gave me the chance to hunt in a different manner. I went from participating in deer drives to stand hunting. By stand hunting, I was able to be a little more selective in harvesting bigger and healthier deer. Choosing to pass on smaller deer seemed to show a number of positive results and thus, sold me on being a selective harvester in order to gain a healthy herd.

I’d like to share with you some thoughts on being selective in your harvest. As you hunt, consider some of these suggestions that might make your hunts in the future years better.

Aging a Deer
In order to begin to harvest more mature deer, you first need to be able to tell the age of a deer.

Now, there are a variety of beliefs out there in the whitetail management world on how old a deer is when it is “mature”. Some selective harvesting folks will say 3½ years and some will say as old as 5½ years. There are valid reasons for both beliefs and neither are wrong. Nevertheless, being able to age a deer is an important part of harvesting wisely.

In my preference, I like a deer, doe or buck, to be at least 3½ years old before I choose to harvest it. At that age, they have reached breeding maturity and their body size has reached a healthy average weight.

Bucks at this age will often have antlers that would be outside the width of their ears. Their body will take on a uniform barrel shape with the horizontal line of the back paralleling the line of the belly. Bucks, during rut, will have thicker necks and will often be legitimately competing with other bucks for the right to breed does. That is to say, they finally have a fighting chance!

Does will have the same shape and lines concerning their backs and bellies as well as a longer and slender neck. Their faces will have a longer nose ridge while still maintaining a petite and slender look.

Once you can age a deer accurately, you can then begin to decide if it is the right one to harvest.

Harvesting Mature Does
As a venison-eating hunter, I do desire a deer that is going to provide me with a freezer full of good and tasty meat. A doe will always taste better than a rutting buck. A younger deer is always going to be more tender than an older deer. However, we have to think past the taste of the meat to the survival of the herd.

Years ago, I read an article concerning a topic that I had never thought about. It was a report on a finding that had happened in an area where hunters routinely harvested younger does for their better tasting meat. Again, it’s great that they desired a freezer full of healthy great tasting meat. However, there was a negative side effect that began show in the herd as the years went on.

First, they noticed that the survival rate of fawns started dropping. Young does, (often first time mothers), were unable to “teach” their offspring how to find food. Studies showed that since these birthing does had mothers that were harvested prior to full maturity, they were not “taught” how to teach. It’s a strange thought and maybe a bit of a stretch for some, but the more I thought about it, I believed it could happen that way.

Having mature does that have reached ages 3½ or older have survived many seasons and have gained the ability to teach their young how to find the food and water that they need. Thus, their young learn, from being taught, how to teach their young. Follow?

Thus, letting does reach those older ages promises that the ability to teach will be passed on to their young. Enabling them to have a better chance of survival through a variety of situations that Mother Nature will throw at them.

Harvesting Mature Bucks
Letting a buck age to at least 3½ years old will give you a number of perks but some are more important than others.

First off, antler size. If you are a trophy hunter and like a bigger set of antlers to show for your hunt, the older a deer gets, the larger the antlers will become. Each year they will gain length and mass in their growth. A mature buck will reach his maximum antler size usually at 5½ or 6½ years. After that, antler size will begin to decrease. If you want bigger antlers, let them grow!

Allowing bucks to survive into older ages also promises a pool of good genetics! Bucks will finally gain breeding advantage at about 3½ years of age. What I mean by that is a buck younger than that will often times not be big enough to fight for breeding rights for a doe in heat. He will often be pushed out by an older deer. A 3½ year old deer will finally have the body size and antler size to effectively compete for a chance to breed does. A mature buck with good genetics who breeds many does, adds better genetics to the breeding pool.

If you can let them grow older, your herd, in the years to come, will show proof of those genetics.

More Meat
If you’re like me, it’s not just harvesting a trophy that gets me out in the woods chasing deer. I have fed my family off venison for years and I don’t plan to change that anytime soon. For us, venison is cost effective meat that is healthy and tasty to eat. To this day, my daughters, (I have four of them!), prefer a good stew with venison rather than beef.

In order for me to get the most out of my harvest, I desire to harvest a mature deer. Finding that perfect age is somewhat of a gamble and a personal preference.

Again, a deer has mostly reached its physical maturity when it hits that 3½ year age. Its body is bigger, healthier, and for the most part, has reached it’s “mature weight” for its lifetime. Deer will add pounds to their body just like humans in the form of extra fat, antler weight, as well as a few other things. However, for the most part, they are at their average.

When you get to ages of 6½ and up, deer will take on a new and less desirable taste. It’s not that they aren’t worth eating at that age. It’s just that the meat may be tougher. It may also take on a heavier “gamey” taste as it ages to older years.

If I’m going to fill my freezer with the most meat possible, harvesting a mature deer is the best thing to do. Again, a mature deer will give you more pounds of meat for the harvest. Harvesting younger deer will cheat you out of the pounds and your cost per pound will be greatly increased.

More Generations
Allowing both does and bucks to reach to maturity will give the gene pool in your herd a better variety of genetics. And a good, mature, and healthy doe will also produce multiple offspring.

Typically, a doe will give birth to at least one fawn for each pregnancy. Most young does in their first years of breeding will do just that. As does grow older and healthier, it has been noticed that in their pregnancies they will often give birth to twins or triplets! This indicates a good health to your herd and increased harvest opportunities for the future.

This spring and summer alone, I have noticed that the does in our area have given birth to quite a few multiples! Just think, if you let 10 does mature and gain a good and healthy status, through birthing multiples, your herd from those 10 could reach as much as 30 additional animals in one year!

In conclusion, if you want great hunting for the years to come, I would encourage you to become selective. Begin to do your best to harvest mature animals. Pass on the small does and bucks. Let them age, grow, and be a benefit to you in the years to come.

If you can have the discipline to do this, I promise you, you will see some whoppers in future years. You might even achieve some of those trophies that you have dreamed of! I know that I have.
Consider what you’ve learned and as always, good luck!