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 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 (example on left) . The does and bucks in this age group are the most difficult to harvest, but are beginning to go downhill 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 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 two different organizations/ researchers to verify the accuracy (or lack thereof) of aging deer by looking at the molars and their wear. 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 easily and accurately as counting the growth rings of a tree.
So let’s look into these bits of new knowledge in more depth. First, the studies revealed that the molar wear technique did not work, even for trained experienced wildlife biologists that had looked at thousands of deer. The first study “Evaluating the Accuracy of Ages Obtained by Two Methods for Montana Ungulates” by Hamlin, Pac, Sime, DeSimone, and Dusek, all of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management 64(2):441-449. The study is copyrighted material and I know of no links to it on the web. The two methods studied were eruption wear (looking at the molars) and forensic cementum annuli. A quote from the abstract of this research says “ Ages assigned by eruption-wear criteria were not reliable for comparing physical measurements and population parameters by age among populations… The accuracy provided by the cementum annuli method is necessary to determine whether various physical and population parameters change significantly with age of the animal.” The other study I discovered was done by Ken Gee and others at the 2,947 acre Noble Wildlife Unit near Allan, Oklahoma. A telling quote from this study by Mr. Ken Gee is “ The results indicate that this widely used technique (sic teeth wear and eruption patterns) is very inaccurate for classifying deer into specific age-classes on the NFWU.”
Now, the second bit of new knowledge was around the thing called cementum. The following information comes from The University of Manitoba:
Dental cementum grows continuously during an organisms’ lifetime without resorbing (as bone and other dental tissues like dentine and enamel do). This means that dental cementum offers a complete record of individual growth. For this reason, dental cementum is particularly interesting to archaeologists.
Composition of dental cementum:
Dental cementum is a mineralized tissue closely related to bone. Both are composed of approximately 65% inorganic components and about 35% organic components, with relatively few cells per volume/mass of mature tissue. Cells in cement, cementocytes, are secreted by cementoblasts embedded in the tissue. The organic matrix which forms the basic structural component of bone and cement is composed of collagen fibres.
Cementum growth pattern:
Cementum growth, or deposition, is most simply described as a two-phase process: the first phase is the production of the organic matrix, followed by the mineralization phase. Growth is appositional and results in a banded structure, implying the existence of structural variations in the deposited tissues.
The layering observable in dental cementum corresponds to the presence of growth layers, composed of growth zones, annuli and lines of arrested growth, or LAGs. A number of possible explanations for the optical and physical expression of growth layers in bone and cement have been offered: changes in mineral density; cellular density; histochemical differences; and collagen fibre orientation. Organisation of the collagen fibre matrix is currently believed to be the source of the observed major structural variations between growth layers.
Biologists have investigated growth marks in a wide variety of vertebrate species from different environments. They have empirically identified a yearly cycle of cementum formation, consisting generally of a single paired growth zone + annulus/LAG. These empirical observations, based on studies of control groups of animals of known age and season at death, are supported by experimental studies involving the use of fluoromarkers as “benchmarks” to record the position of cement growth at precise intervals. The fact that several different types of bony tissue form incremental lines in synchrony, i.e., dentine, cement and periosteal bone, supports this identification.
I have left the hyperlinks in so you, the reader can research the original literature if you choose. Another piece from this work says:
“Stained, Histological Thin Section:
Demineralised, stained sections, thin sectioned while frozen with the use of a microtome saw, mounted in an aqueous medium, have also been used to investigate banding in bone and cement. When stained with Ehrlich’s haematoxylin, for example, cement and primary cortical bone show alternate bands of wide, poorly stained tissue and thin, darkly stained tissue. The thin, chromophile bands correspond to annuli or, more often, to LAGs. In stained, decalcified sections, the importance of the orientation of the fibre matrix in determining the characteristics of the increment is apparent. A number of different staining agents, e.g., Mayer’s haemalin and silver nitrate, have been used to produce dichromism highlighting the histochemical differences between annuli and growth zones in these tissues.”
So, we now know what cementum is and that there is a forensic laboratory histological process that allows me to accurately determine the length of time a tooth has been in a mammal’s mouth. We also know that most all mammals (humans too!) deposit discrete layers of cementum around the portion of the tooth located beneath the gum line. If you carefully slice the tooth in thin sections, stain these sections, and place them on a slide under a high power microscope, you can then count the rings (annuli) of cementum and know the length of time that tooth was in that deer’s jaw. It is just like counting the rings on a tree to determine it’s age. The teeth we choose to use in a deer’s mouth for aging are the two front center teeth (center incisors). The reason for this choice is that these teeth are in place by the time the fawn is 4-6 months old and remain in place throughout the deer’s life. These teeth and the first molar are the first permanent teeth a fawn gets. The center incisors are much easier to remove than a jaw bone and especially a molar out of the jaw bone. So, forensic cementum annuli aging is typically performed on the two center incisors, but may also be performed on the M1 molar, the fourth tooth from the front of the premolar, 3 molar teeth in a mature whitetail’s jaw.
The next part of this story is what I did next, armed with these new tidbits of knowledge. I went searching for a lab to age my trophies.
What I discovered was that there was only one private (not government or University) lab that did this commercially. Also, none of the labs seemed to be focused on quick reliable turn around. So I tried a lab (actually a middleman that used a state government lab) and was disappointed by the way the results were reported and the length of time it took to get the results. I sent the four specimens in the first week of February and received a call on July 18th in which I was told the results over the telephone. No e-mail, fax, or letter confirming the results, just a phone call and it took over 5 months.
Well, I decided that if someone was going to meet the needs of clients like me, I was going to need to do it. So, I obtained every research paper I could find on cementum annuli aging of any mammal, engaged an experienced histologist, set up a well equipped laboratory, and created Wildlife Analytical Laboratories—home of www.DeerAge.com —to meet the needs and desires of clients like myself. Those needs are – Accuracy of Results and Great Customer Service. We also have developed a service offering targeted to meet the needs of commercial clients and resellers of our services.
So, What is a REAL Trophy Whitetail? Depends, but for me it is that whitetail doe or buck who has successfully eluded predators and hunters for many years, taken with the most challenging weapon I have proficiency with. That is the buck or doe that goes up on my wall, with a Certificate of Aging™ right next to it.
Equally as important, I want to keep developing and fine tuning my skills at aging my deer before I squeeze the trigger or loose the arrow. That’s why I will be a lifelong student of aging. How I will do that is to forensic cementum age every deer I harvest and compare their actual age to what I estimated before the harvest. I am committed to mastery of this important whitetail management skill.
We have decided to offer some of the books and videos I have discovered and used in my own quest of mastering the skill of aging a whitetail acurrately before I harvest him or her.