From your perch in a deer blind, you see a buck come into the open. As you excitedly line up your shot, finger on the trigger, you take a moment to watch him. You don't want to take an immature buck. But you have only seconds to guess his age. Do you shoot?
Hunters face similar scenarios all the time. As landowners more carefully manage their herds, and give quality young bucks time to mature, the ability to age deer on the hoof becomes more valuable.
“Today's hunters know a lot more about aging a deer than they used to,” says Slade Priest, wildlife manager at Tatum Plantation in southwest Mississippi and owner of Country Boy Outfitting. “I attribute it to the outdoor TV channels. You can watch mature bucks being hunted all day, every day, if you want.”
Judging a Buck's Age
“Definitely any hunter can learn to do this,” says Dr. Mickey Hellickson, wildlife biologist and principal of Orion Wildlife Management Services. “There are some key characteristics that hunters can focus on.”
Developing the skill takes practice. “I tell hunters to age a lot of bucks on the hoof, and then after they've put them on the ground, age them by the teeth,” Hellickson says. “You will start to realize how close your visual estimate was. There will always be mistakes no matter how skilled you become, but you can increase your odds of accurately aging a buck and harvesting a buck at the right age.”
Priest, a Southern AgCredit customer, agrees: “I train people to be guides every year, and I tell them that the only real way to get good at aging deer is to do it often.”
Vernon Mosley, owner of Mosley Ranch near Crockett, Texas, and a customer of Capital Farm Credit, says that the skill becomes second nature after a while. “When you're around deer enough, you can glance at them and know about how old they are,” Mosley says.
Are Antlers a Good Clue?
When it comes to aging bucks, experts disagree most about using antlers as a criterion. As bucks age, their antlers get larger, and antler growth doesn't peak until somewhere between five and seven years.
“When judging white-tailed deer, most people tend to look at antlers first, but you need to focus all of your attention on the body,” Mosley says. With improved genetics, some deer will grow large racks fairly quickly, which can be deceptive when aging a deer. Plus, antler sizing will vary based on region, but other body characteristics are more universal across the entire whitetails range.
Other experts contend that antlers can be a valuable tool — but that they should never be the only characteristic you consider.
“I advise hunters that overall antler size is a good first characteristic to look at,” Hellickson says. “I will never use only antler size, though. You have to look at additional characteristics to verify your initial impression.”
Hellickson says he looks at the antler's overall mass, circumference at the base and the presence of abnormal or atypical points. Nontypical or abnormal points are usually found on older bucks, he says.
“If you've watched a deer and have already made the decision that he's a shooter, then if you see him come out, you don't have to hesitate. You can take the shot.” – Slade Priest
“People are starting to look at the horns less and at the body more,” says Priest. “For the most part, the older the deer is, the better his horns are. I think you can look at them as a tool. If you see a deer that's 200 inches, that''s probably not a 2-year-old.”
Priest, who hunts in different states annually, has noticed that antler size, hair and body size might vary regionally, but body conformation generally stays the same. “Deer demeanor is generally the same, too. You learn what a mature deer acts like.”
When you are aging a deer, one characteristic to use before the peak of rut is stomach girth — provided that you get a good, broad, side view of the animal. “The older a buck gets, the bigger his belly gets. If the bottom line of the stomach sags noticeably lower than the bottom line of the brisket, the buck is likely mature,” Hellickson says.
This characteristic does not work well after the peak of rut, however, because bucks can lose 25 to 30 percent of their body weight during this time. After rut, Hellickson prefers to look at how darkly stained a buck's tarsal glands are. As a buck matures, his tarsal glands appear darker.
Another helpful feature is the juncture between the neck and chest. As a buck ages, this area becomes broader, and his brisket becomes more obvious.
“Mature deer, 5½ years and older, will be much heavier in their bodies,” Mosley explains. “Their chests become very deep, and their stomachs become larger.”
With practice, aging a deer on the hoof can be done almost instantaneously. “I have an idea in my head of how old the buck is as soon as I see him. Then I spend the rest of the time refining that estimate,” Hellickson says. “You can make an educated guess about a buck's age in 5 to 10 seconds.”
However, he also advises not rushing a shot faster than you must. “If you can watch him interact with other deer, that will give you clues to his age, too. I'll take all the time I think that buck's going to give me,” Hellickson says.
Priest adds that motion cameras are playing an increasingly important role for managers, because they provide an opportunity to assess a particular buck's age ahead of time. “If you've watched a deer and have already made the decision that he's a shooter, then if you see him come out, you don't have to hesitate. You can take the shot.”
If you use all the tools available to you, Priest says, you can be right a lot of the time. “The more you can know about a deer, the more likely you are to make a good decision,” he says.
1½ years: These bucks appear dainty with baby faces and thin necks. Their legs appear long and slender, and their torso is slim like a doe's. In a photo of a 1½-year-old buck, cover the antlers with your thumb and you will see that the body resembles a doe. Yearling buck antler development is highly variable, ranging from tiny spikes to 10 or more points. But, even super bucks with multiple points will have small, thin antlers. Likewise, the length of their main beams will be short compared to older bucks. Their tarsal area will be small and lightly colored. Some 1½-year-old bucks will still be traveling with their mothers into the rut, but most will have dispersed. It is at this age that many relocate and establish separate home ranges from their mothers.
2½ years: Their bodies are gangly and awkward. Their legs appear to be growing too fast for their body. Their bodies, while thicker than those of 1½-year-olds, still have legs and necks that appear stretched in proportion. Their back and stomach area will appear very taut, and their face appears larger than their thin neck from a frontal view. Their antlers will begin to catch your eye, which is probably why 2½ is the average age of bucks harvested in many areas. The truth is their antlers are just starting to grow. Most 2½-year-olds are big travelers during the rut, because they typically are not active breeders in herds with balanced adult sex ratios and good buck age structure. Lack of breeding is not from lack of desire but due to competition and dominance from older bucks. During the rut their tarsal glands may be dark, but the very darkest area is usually very small and round in appearance.
3½ years: A fuller neck and deeper chest are characteristics of a 3½-year-old. Their neck muscles are expanding from increased hormones and use during the rut but are still not as large or thick as a fully-mature buck. Their chest is beginning to appear larger than their rump, but their back and stomach are still straight and taut. Also, their neck is still distinct by four or five inches from their brisket. Their tarsals will be dark during the rut but usually will appear small, and the dark staining from urine usually does not extend down the leg to the hoof.
4½ years: Bucks attain skeletal maturity and begin exhibiting many characteristics of full maturity. Their rump will appear full and rounded. Their neck will be more muscular and their body thicker and fuller but still trim. Their stomach and back will not appear to sag, and their jaw skin will be tight. This is the first time their legs do not appear longer than they should for their body. Their legs may even appear slightly short for the thickened body. During the rut, their tarsals will be noticeably large and dark due to repeated urinating and rubbing. In many respects, 4½-year-old bucks are similar to young athletes in their early 20s. Their bodies have reached full size but are muscular and lean. The majority of 4½-year-old bucks will have a significant increase in antler growth over the previous year. For the first time, much of the nutritional intake is directed to antler growth instead of muscle and skeletal growth. Bucks at this age can grow very respectable antlers, making them difficult for hunters to pass. Focus your attention on the body and face when aging, especially if the buck has very good antlers.
5½ years: Most bucks will be carrying the largest set of antlers they have ever grown. Their stomach and back have a noticeable sag. Their neck will swell considerably during the rut, making the neck and brisket appear to be one continuous muscle. Also, their neck, while being very big, will appear muscular and firm and not flabby. The tarsals will be noticeably large and very dark with many bucks having staining down the inside of the leg to the hoof. Late in the rut their legs may even appear slightly white under the tarsals where the urine has scalded their hide. Also at 5½, the forehead gland appears noticeably thicker and darker because of increased secretions from the specialized sweat glands underneath. Finally, 5½-year-old bucks’ legs will appear short almost to an exaggerated extent due to fuller and fatter bodies.