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Shooter Bucks: How to Pick the Perfect Deer

It's important to pick the right deer before harvesting. But what size buck or age deer should you shoot? Read more on how to tell if a buck is a shooter.

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The end of summer is in sight, which means whitetail season is getting close—very close for some. By August, Florida has already begun its hunt and other early-open states are just weeks away. Cue the pre-season goose bumps and let the big-game planning begin. It’s time to sit down with that stash of trail photos and video you’ve gathered through the year and put together a deer hit list.

What deer are in your sites and how do you choose which to shoot? You’ve probably got some ideas and we’ve got a few more to consider. But first, let’s look at the stewardship responsibilities of ethically selecting deer to harvest during the hunt. 

Discipline and Deer Management 

For experienced hunters and deer managers, there’s more to harvesting a buck than bagging the one with the biggest antlers—though that brings its own reward and bragging rights. Picking the right deer involves discipline, stewardship, and aiming for a mature animal whose life cycle is complete. Which isn’t always easy for an eager hunter. 

One experienced Redmond deer manager noted, “The smallest tool in your hunting arsenal is the hardest thing to manage, and that’s your trigger finger. It takes discipline to look at a nice buck and say, ‘Hey, that deer looks good, but we’re not going to shoot him; he’s only 3½ and will be amazing in two years.’” 

It’s a deer manager’s job to know herd structure, buck-to-doe ratio, age classes, what your management plan is, and responsibly decide which deer on your property are harvest eligible. So how do you do it?

How to Pick Shooter Bucks

Responsibly harvesting a mature deer requires a little homework and preparation before you're in the field ready to take the shot. So how do you determine what is considered a shooter buck? Here are three important factors to weigh when putting together a hit list for yourself or guests on your farm this fall.

Mature whitetail buck

1. What Age Deer to Shoot

Age is the number one priority when picking which male deer to shoot—and antler size is not necessarily an accurate indicator of a buck's maturity. It's a fact young bucks may occasionally have larger spreads than older deer. Check out this Boone and Crocket buck age class chart on the National Deer Association website. It shows bucks of any age can display a range of antler scores, with rare 1-year-olds reaching over 100 inches in antler span!  

So what age deer should you shoot? A whitetail buck is considered physiologically mature at 5½, and that's your prime shooter age. However, not all areas have 5-year or older bucks. In that case hunters might consider a 3½-year-old as older or mature. Here are a few reasons you should pass up young bucks and harvest your oldest class of deer: 

  • You want deer to complete their life cycle; generally, that’s around 6 years old. 
  • Bucks reach their full genetic potential by 5½; by then their genetics are spread through your herd. 
  • A bigger-bodied deer means more meat in your freezer. 

This National Deer Association article notes putting solid effort into increasing the number of mature deer on your property is a goal that's challenging yet worth pursuing:

"Mature bucks are rare in many areas and it’s difficult to make them available to hunters. Producing them requires knowledge, skill and time, and harvesting them is usually more difficult. Just as big fish and big trees indicate successful fishery and forestry programs, the presence of mature bucks is a positive sign for a deer management program."

At the end of the day, each herd management program is unique. Your property is different than the hunter’s in the next county. Your herd dynamics are distinct. So establish the oldest age class of bucks available on your farm, whether 3½ or 5½, and look for that class when you’re studying pics and assembling a hit list of shooters. Then work hard to up the age of bucks till you've got physiologically mature animals in your herd.

How to Age Deer

So how do you determine if you have mature bucks on your farm? The best way is to follow individual age and growth over years using trail cam surveys, field observation, and good optics. The University of Missouri also has detailed info on how to age a deer in the field based on body characteristics and size. And this buck aging poster created by the QDMA is also a great tool to refer to.

Redmond Tip:  Use Trophy Rock and a trail camera at your mineral site to help you get perfect shots of deer that aid in the aging process. Just elevate Trophy Rock high enough that your deer’s head is up and body perfectly broadside to the camera.

whitetail age chart2. What Size Buck to Shoot

Once you’ve established age class of shooter bucks, it’s time to look at rack size. Yes, age comes first, but at the end of the day, what all hunters want to sit around the fire and spit ‘n whittle about is antler tines and rack span. 

So what size buck should you shoot, and how do you determine spread in the field? Most hunters know a big set of antlers on sight, but if you’re shooting for trophy potential, you need to look closely at overall height and width, the number of points, and mass. This Boone and Crocket page can help you learn how to tally the antler score of whitetail bucks and know if you’ve got a potential winner on your property. 

Redmond Tip:  Good nutrition and minerals can help bucks reach their genetic potential for antler growth. The 60+ all-natural minerals in Trophy Rock cover every trace mineral deer need for optimum health. 

3. Other Factors for a Good Buck Pick

After age and antler size, it’s up to you how to narrow the field on your fall prospects. Everyone's preference and experience on what constitutes a unique or harvest-worthy buck is different. However, here are a few final considerations many hunters look at to pick the perfect deer: 

  • Uniqueness. Has a shooter got a cool drop tine or some rare marking that sets him apart? Maybe that’s your guy. 
  • History. Been tracking a deer through trail cam pictures from a yearling on and now he's a prime candidate for harvesting? Good luck tagging him.
  • Huntable. Got a nice buck with consistent patterns that make him accessible and easy to hunt? It's game on. 

How to Track Nice Bucks

Establishing a mineral site on your property is a great way to attract deer to your trail camera. Using a mineral attractant like Trophy Rock or Cherry Bomb pulls deer in, provides deer valuable nutrition, and helps you get the most out of your site. Conducting a two-week trail cam survey will also produce a wealth of information useful for tracking deer year over year. Surveys help you monitor your herd through pictures, follow unique bucks, determine age, and select harvest-eligible shooters. 

In our next blog we’ll talk about using trail cam surveys to establish individual files on unique bucks, and the funny monikers hunters name their deer. Have you already honed in on your buck for fall? Does he have a unique nickname you identify him by? Click below to learn how to gather more intel on him—and to see if your buck's name made the hit list!

USING TRAIL CAM SURVEYS TO TRACK BUCKS

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