Managing Buck Age Structure

Our goal when managing a popular game species is to provide hunting and wildlife viewing opportunity while ensuring that the population remains healthy. When it comes to deer hunting, we want all hunters to be able to choose to take the deer that best fits their hunting values and the hunting experience that they are looking for; we don’t want to restrict someone’s ability to take the buck they want. We do recognize that a number of Maine’s deer hunters want to see more older bucks, so if you’re a hunter interested in seeing more older bucks in your area, consider letting a young buck walk this year.

While the effects of encouraging hunters to voluntarily pass up young bucks are less pronounced than what you’d expect with mandatory antler restrictions, other jurisdictions have seen very promising results from promoting the benefits of voluntarily passing up young bucks. If enough hunters are passionate about managing for an older age class of buck and willing to let young bucks pass, the effects will be noticeable in time. So, as the old adage goes, “Let them go, let them grow.”

With recent changes to the antlerless deer permit system, the Department now allocates antlerless harvest opportunity using antlerless deer permits, which allow for the harvest of additional antlerless deer. This means that many hunters will now have the option to harvest an antlerless deer and then keep on hunting for a buck. This is the perfect time to consider harvesting an antlerless deer to fill the freezer and then letting young bucks go while waiting for The Big One.

A lot of antler growth happens between a buck’s yearling and 2nd seasons. By 2 ½, a buck’s rack has added a lot of mass and begins to resemble its peak form.
Photo credit: National Deer Association

Impacts of Passing on Young Bucks

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of allowing younger bucks to grow for another year, starting with antler size and body mass. Looking at a year of biological data from deer in Maine, our average yearling buck sported between 3 and 4 antler points, and our average 2-year-old buck had just over 6 points. While the most significant antler development takes place between the yearling and 2-year-old age classes, it’s not until around year 5 that our Maine bucks begin to approach their peak antler growth potential.

A yearling buck weighed an average of 121 pounds dressed weight, and a 2-year-old weighed 145 pounds. Body mass continues to increase with age, and around years 4 or 5, our Maine bucks near their peak body mass. There’s a lot of growth between a buck’s 1st and 2nd birthdays!

Age Avg. Antler Points Sample Size
Yearling 3.7 385
2 Years 6.3 366
3 Years 7.6 149
4 Years 8.4 84
5 Years 8.7 48
6 Years 8.2 21
7 Years 9.3 12
8 Years 7.9 11
Age Avg. Dressed Weight Sample Size
Yearling 121.2 212
2 Years 145.3 239
3 Years 170.6 94
4 Years 187.5 62
5 Years 187.8 32
6 Years 189.7 16
7 Years 200.5 6
8 Years 175.5 2

While it is a commonly held belief that mandatory antler-point restrictions will increase rutting intensity and breeding behavior visibility, this has not been well-documented in practice and there are studies indicating that this may only be the case in the most extreme of circumstances and where additional management options besides antler restrictions have been imposed. While it’s not likely you’d see any visible change in breeding behaviors, letting some young bucks grow may increase the intensity of your individual hunt simply by providing more opportunity for heart-racing encounters with older bucks.

Identifying Young Bucks

A yearling buck will tend to resemble an adult doe aside from the antlers. Most yearling bucks have 3-4 antler points, but in some areas may grow up to a basket rack with 8 or more points. A yearling will have a relatively long, thin face and long legs relative to its body size.

By 2 years old, the neck and body appear more stout and well-muscled, and the face begins to appear more boxy. The rack still tends to be a bit thin but will begin to resemble its final form. The legs will appear more proportional to the body.

By 3 years old, the body frame continues to fill out, and you may see a more squared face and figure and a slightly sagging belly. The rack may be quite a bit thicker, and the neck may appear wider than the face.

By 4 years and beyond, you may begin to notice some swaying in the back, a very thick neck during the rut, a sagging belly, and a very muscly and blocky appearance.