As you read this installment of Happy Trails, the 2016–2017 deer season is either late in the fourth quarter or time has already expired.

It is now time to start planning for next season.

While this season’s happenings and results are still fresh in mind and our collected field data, such as trail camera photos and harvested deer jawbones, are still hopefully close at hand, let’s go over the finer points of on-the-hoof aging and post-harvest aging of whitetails.

There is no better way to hone and improve your skill at estimating the age of bucks in trail camera photos than ground-proving. This means harvesting bucks you previously estimated on-the-hoof and comparing jawbone age for confirmation.

Making age estimates on bucks by way of trail cam photos is way more of an art than an exact science, and it takes lots of practice and experience to become reasonably proficient.

I continually see hunters trying to make age judgements on bucks in iffy photos where bucks are not in proper position for accurate assessments.

It is only an educated guess, even when the photo is perfect — with the target buck in focus and standing broadside with his head up. It is truly a fool’s errand to try and accurately estimate a buck’s age from photos that show a deer walking toward or away from the camera, with certain body portions hidden or out of the frame, running, walking with nose to the ground, or standing stock still with the head and neck down. 

Are perfectly posed buck photos easy to come by? No, so excepting a one-off buck that is here today but gone tomorrow, try your best to get as many photos as possible of a buck to increase your chances of getting a perfect aging pose.

My strategy utilizes a web of cameras, with as many as two cameras — each from a different angle — on really prolific buck locations.

I also try and use cameras with the ability to take multiple-shot bursts for every triggering event, along with short re-arm intervals, such as 5 seconds or 15 seconds.

But, hey, Mr. Happy Trails, won’t this result in maybe hundreds to thousands of photos per week that I have to deal with? Yes, it likely will, but if you are really serious about managing your property and selecting bucks to harvest that meet your minimum age criteria, this is the price in time and effort that you pay. 

Over my several decades of chasing whitetails, the most consistently successful deer hunters I have come to know have always been the ones who work the hardest and leave the fewest stones unturned.

Basically, if you want to be really good at pretty much anything, you have to go the extra two miles and outwork your competition.

The final confirmation of age for any buck involves ground-proving your on-the-hoof age estimate with jawbone aging.

Over the years I have had my share of surprises when comparing jawbone-indicated age to my previous eyeball estimate by way of trail camera photos.

I keep all of my extracted jawbones as valuable data for future reference. My personal system involves retrieving the lower left-side jawbone on each harvested deer. By doing this, all of the jawbones in my data bank are easily and directly comparable to each other.

Each fresh jawbone section I obtain is de-fleshed, coated with borax and rolled up and taped up inside a section of newspaper to thoroughly dry it out.

After a few weeks, I unroll it and clean it up with an old toothbrush, and then I write the descriptive info about the buck, such as when and where, on the side of the jawbone section with a black Sharpie.

So, even if you are new to the techniques of jawbone aging, I strongly recommend you begin collecting a lower jawbone from every deer you harvest, both bucks and does.

Properly label the jawbones and learn how to age them. It is always a good idea to have your jawbones looked at by multiple trained individuals, including your local state wildlife biologist, if possible.

They will first use tooth replacement patterns to sort them into three basic age classes: fawns, yearlings, and adult deer.

Adult deer can then be sorted into two groups by tooth wear: middle-aged (3½ and 4½) and mature adults (5½-plus).

In future installments we will drill down on this subject in more detail.