When I was a deer nut in his prime, my Uncle Lawrence—in his 70s then, but one of the best slug shooters I ever saw—offered $2.00 to any young man willing to wore his money. I was tending to a pretty six point that Lawrence had dropped when he scored the points on the shelf, smiled at me and announced “Six years old!”
Lawrence was joking, but I’ll bet a good portion of our hunting crew would have believed him. Remember, this was nearly 50 years ago, and what most deer hunters knew about whitetails was a) bucks were legal to hunt and b) they were good to eat. These days, hunters in my old stomping grounds pass most yearlings (like Lawrence’s 6-year-old buck) and many 2-½ year old bucks for a chance to hunt a more mature creature – hopefully that he who bears a great set of horns.
Today, many hunters are quite adept at judging the age of a buck by observation. However, it is an imperfect art and most of us can improve. With this in mind, I spoke to an expert; Kip Adams from the National Deer Association, who not only went over the basics of aging bucks, he directed me to a video with a $20 challenge that really tested my skills. Here are three basic rules for aging a buck on the hoof, as well as some guidelines for identifying each age class.
Three rules for aging a white boy
1) Ignore the Antlers of Buck you are trying to age
Ok, we’re deer hunters so that’s not going to happen and Adams accepts that. “I’m no different than anyone else,” he says. “The first thing I look at when I see a buck is the antlers. But when it comes to determining age, they can really fool you, especially when you’re far from where you’re used to hunting and the deer that live there. I mostly hunt Pennsylvania. If you take the antlers of a 2-½-year-old boy out there and put them on a smaller-bodied deer, that deer will look big. Conversely, put that shelf over a big-bodied Canadian dollar and it will look small.
Adams says that while there is a large variation in antler size, the overall body characteristics of bucks as they age are fairly consistent regardless of region. “That’s why managers focus on body features when determining age,” he says. “I only consider antlers when I’m on the fence around the age of a buck. A 3-½-year-old child may have similar body characteristics to a man a year older, but a thinner rack may give him away.
2) Age Whitetail Bucks During the Rut
If you don’t know a particular deer, Adams says both summer and fall are bad times to estimate age. “In the summer the bucks are thin and skinny, with little necks,” he says. “And in the back period, they’ve lost a bunch of weight from the rigors of the breeding season. But during the late precocious period and for several weeks thereafter, the bucks are at their physical peak and the body characteristics of the various age classes are more visible and visible.”
3) Take multiple views of a buck to determine its age
The more views you can get of an individual, the better, says Adams. “In some hunting situations, especially in timber, we may only have a few seconds with a buck to note body characteristics and estimate age,” he says. “It’s much better to see him in a field or food plot and spend some time with him. Some physical features are not visible unless, for example, the body position of the head does not allow us to see the neck, shoulders or buttocks, which are all critical to estimating age. Of course, the more time you have to watch the money, the better. Trail camera photos can also help.”
Year-by-year guide to aging whitetail bucks
Yearling (1-½-year-old) Bucks
Adams says yearlings are the easiest bucks to age because they basically look like antlers. Their skinny neck, long legs and thin body make them look weak. “There’s a definite dividing line between the neck and shoulders and very little muscle definition,” he says. “There will be little or no staining of the tarsal glands from friction-urination. While some yearling bucks can have as many as 10 or 12 points, the spread is almost always within the width of their ears.
“Two-year-olds have legs that still look too long for their bodies, and they still have an overall sleek look,” says Adams. “They’ve developed some muscle in their shoulders and slight swelling in their necks while scratching, but their waists are still thin. During the molt there may be some spotting on the tarsal glands, but it will not be as dark and prominent as it would be on an older deer. In well-fed areas, the spread of the horns may be as wide or slightly wider than the ears.
Bucks 3-½ years old
Adams compares 3-year-old bucks to football linebackers. “They’re strong and muscular, but still lean,” he says. He also likes to compare them to thoroughbred racehorses. He says that their shoulders are well muscled and there is tremendous neck swelling. But the sure way to tell them apart from older deer is to look at the waist. “A 3-year-old will still have a skinny waist. There will be heavy tarsal spots on the rump and a noticeable spike in antler growth. Some bucks will display 50 to 75 percent of their antler growth potential as a 3-year-old.
Bucks 4-½ years old
Two- and three-year-olds can be compared to men in their late teens and early 20s, but four-year-olds are approaching full maturity. “Because their stomachs, chests and necks are now fully developed, most 4-year-olds have legs that look too short for their bodies,” says Adams. “They have fully muscled shoulders, severe swelling in the neck when scratching, and their waist has dropped down to be level with their chest. In areas with good food, they will reach 75 to 90 percent of their antler growth potential. They also have many tarsal spots, and during rutting, the spot may extend below the tarsal gland.
Bucks 5-½ to 7-½-years-old
We are entering some rarefied air here. While the harvest of mature deer has been increasing in whitetail ranges recently (meaning more people are interested in older deer), bucks that grow more than four sets of antlers are real rare creatures. And once again, Adams says body type — not antler size — is the best indicator. “For me one of the biggest tips is legs that look too short for their body, a pot belly and a sagging back,” he says. “And of course, they’ll have a massive, bulging neck and heavily muscled shoulders, as well as heavy tarsal patches below the glands. I have seen bucks in this age class that remind me of a small cow.”
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8-½ And up
Now we are talking about jackalopes and chupacabras. Even on private Texas ranches or sprawling Midwest ranches, seeing an 8-year-old buck survive winters, predators, vehicles, and hunters (yes, we’re at least fourth on the mortality list when bucks are that old) is almost miraculous. How do you recognize such an ancient warrior? “These bucks are past their prime and regressing in both body size and antler size,” Adams says. “They generally have loose skin on their face, neck and shoulders—usually visible as a ‘chin crease’—and may have sharp shoulders and bones. Their horns may show age-related abnormalities, such as abnormal points or wavy or curved knots, and they have an overall weathered appearance. “