Judging Velvet Bucks is Tricky Business
I can see clearly now that the velvet is gone. I think there's a song that goes something like that. Well, maybe if a deer hunter wrote it. OK, maybe that's a bit too cheesy for an early morning, but I'm going to use that to begin illustrating my point in this post.
We are seated in early September and it seems as if half of the bucks across the whitetail's range are still holding strong to the velvet on their antlers. That will change by the day as bucks begin to shed velvet in mass by the middle of the month. Last week we wrote about the massive change that this triggers in deer behavior. This week we're going to tackle the issue of judging those final velvet trail camera pictures.
If you hang around for long with us here, you will probably hear me say that whitetails are different animals once the velvet comes off. Plenty of others have said it before me, and it's completely true. Even when it comes to appearance, which makes judging borderline bucks an incredibly tricky task at this time of year.
It's not too difficult to judge a massive velvet buck, of course. A buck measuring north of 150 inches or rocking dozens of tines is not hard to respect, regardless of the velvet. Borderline or average deer are a completely different story. Even those in that 150-inch range are difficult to put a finger on during the summer or early fall months. Let me explain why I believe this is so.
The number-one issue for me has to do with body composition. When I am judging whether a buck is worth a shot or a pass, I'm rarely focusing on his headgear. Now, I am a red-blooded American deer hunter, so it's not like I don't take a look at the rack. We all do. The body simply gives you a better picture of how old that deer truly is. This is true most of the time, and especially during the actual hunting season.
Back to body composition, or the bodyweight of a given buck. Summer whitetails can look downright scrawny. Even in the Midwest with the bigger subspecies of whitetail. You see those big velvet racks with skinny pencil necks holding them up. The rest of the body is lean. Making a 4.5-year-old shooter look like a young deer with a lot of deceptive headgear.
This deception is all about how a whitetail will eat based upon the time of year. It's really incredible how these bucks can regulate their bodyweight based upon the season. Warm summer months call for thinning out, while cold winter months and the rut beforehand calls for bulking up. Generally meaning that deer are currently packing on the pounds in preparation as we hit early September.
So that scrawny looking buck with big antlers today could turn into a real bruiser after he hits the all-you-can-eat buffet for the next month. That makes judging a summertime picture set pretty tricky in most cases. It's the main reason that you see so much disagreement on velvet buck pictures on social media. Short of those no-doubters we mentioned before. The body looks young but the rack looks mature on plenty of deer right now.
There are some fixes to the smoke-and-mirrors of velvet bucks. Some physical features just cannot change. One of my favorite things to look at is the position of the neck in relation to the body. A mature buck will always have that lower positioned or sagging neck as it meets the chest. The sway of the deer's back is also a good indicator. These are especially important things to look for if you are hunting a state with an early opener. That is if you're interested in harvesting bucks in the mature age class.
For most of us in states with late openers, we can take some relief in knowing that we won't have to make those heat-of-the-moment judgments until that buck is in his fall body. A time of year that I believe is the easiest to judge whether a buck is mature or immature. When that pound-packing process is just about wrapped up. We have all seen those no-doubt shooters with that classic fall look. Swollen neck, sagging belly, and that overall muscled-up look. This can also make a younger buck look a bit older, but we won't get confusing on you.
The moral of this story is that you may not want to write home on the trail camera pictures you are getting during the summer months. It is always best to get a well-rounded mix of information before making a call on a given buck. Get the most information that you possibly can. Summer pictures, mid-season pictures, and nothing beats that first look in the flesh.