You’re out on a hunt, and through the trees, you see a buck show up. Now you remember that one of the best ways to age a buck is to look at its teeth. So, what do you do now?
Yes, you climb down from your tree stand and walk over to the buck and ask him to show you his teeth. He’ll patiently wait while you check them and then figure out that he’s around 4.5 years old. This makes him the right age, so you climb back up into your stand, grab your rifle, aim at the buck and finally shoot him. Then you thank the Lord for having found a buck that was so patient to wait for that long so you could appropriately age him and then shoot him… 😉
Well, real-life looks different, doesn’t it? In real-life you see a buck through the trees, and you have to guess. Based on his antlers, body build, the attitude you make a guess and then you do or do not shoot. It’s not an exact science, but some strong indicators help you estimate the age of a buck.
There are differences between each buck even if they are very similar in age. These differences range from antlers to behavior and attitude and even weight. However, one criterion can be pretty telling, and that is the overall body structure and proportions of the buck.
There will be a few that will not agree, and that thinks that the antlers are a good indicator. And to some extent that’s true. A buck that is not mature will not have a giant rack. No matter how much food there is, it just can’t match the antlers of a mature buck. Many of the nutrients that the buck consumes during the maturing phase are needed to grow the body, and thus there are less available for the antlers. A mature buck that doesn’t grow anymore has more nutrients available to develop his rack.
Body proportions can often be a better predictor of age. Similar to humans the body structure and relations of a deer change with the years. For example, the older a buck gets, the more his belly will be sagging. Not that different than a human growing a belly with age.
Bucks in that range are easiest to age. Their antlers are either just a pair of spikes or maybe small racks that usually will not exceed the width of their ears. In rare cases, the antlers can be misleading though.
With regards to their body build, they look pretty much like they’re all legs. Imagine the buck without antlers, and you could very well look at a doe!
You will see a slim torso with a slender neck. The back will have a sharp downward slope reaching from the rum to the shoulder.
Look at the side of the buck for the last validation. It looks like the buck has a lot more weight in its backside than its front. That’s another sign that you’re looking at a yearling.
The difference between a 2½-year-old buck to an even younger deer is not that striking. The antlers can be a little larger but are still overall on the small side.
The body structure is also very similar. At this age, it’s still mostly legs. The main difference is that you can start to see some muscles forming which is the overall most significant difference to a 1½-year-old buck.
Looking at the buck from the side it still seems very much that most of the weight is in the back half. If you’d lift the deer up just behind the front legs, then it would tip backward indicating that it’s a young 2½-year-old buck.
This is one of the harder ages to judge. The bucks matured from a year before and have started to build a lot of muscle. Their behavior might remind you of a teenage boy (young man), and you’re not that far off.
Their necks start to show some swelling during the rut. They can also show some staining around their tarsals. You will also see a noticeable divide at the point where the shoulders and the neck meet.
Having developed a lot more muscle, they also seem more bulked up and proportional. Their chest and shoulders are much larger. Their antlers can grow quite large at this age depending on their nutrition.
If you’d lift them up behind their front legs, they’d balance as the front and back are equally weighted. That’s a clear sign of a maturing buck as its weight distribution is pretty much even now.
If you’re managing the piece of land with suck bucks on it, then you want to avoid shooting one. These will be upcoming giants, and if you wait another year or two, it will be well worth it.
This is the age where hunters should start to harvest these bucks. Targeting and shooting a limited percentage of deer at that age will ensure a proper age distribution across all bucks within the managed area.
At this age, the bucks reach their prime with regards to their muscular and skeletal system. The antlers reach around 90% of their potential. There might be few points developing in the coming years.
From a body structure perspective, the main difference to the younger age group is that the neck and shoulder appear to be seamless. During the rut, the necks will also appear significantly swollen. The stomach will typically seem to be flat.
With the increasing body mass, the legs are starting to appear shorter. There’s also heavy staining to be seen around the tarsal glands.
Imagine again that you’d lift such a buck up right behind the front legs. It will seem balanced or might tip forward a little.
5½ Years and up
You should consider yourself lucky if you see a buck that age anywhere in the woods. The buck is fully matured, and neither the skeletal nor the muscular features are growing anymore.
The antlers reach their full potential at this age. You’ll typically see the most massive racks between the ages of 5 to 7 years.
It’s getting harder to estimate the correct age of a deer that hits the 5 ½ year mark. Physically, they look like they’re all chest with a head planted on top. The legs seem way too short at this age.
Harvesting such a buck is something special. These are trophy bucks. They grew that old because they have learned to avoid hunters and you should consider yourself very lucky if you were able to track one of these giants down.
At 5 ½ the buck might show some slight sway in the back and most likely will show some sag in the belly. The swelling of the neck will be very pronounced, and there’s heavy staining of the tarsals.
It’s rare enough to see a buck older than five years in nature. It’s even more rare to see a 6½-year-old or older. Consider yourself lucky if you see such a senior deer in the wild.
If you imagine to lift the buck up, then it will look balanced. This will look similar at older ages also.
The older the buck gets, the more the neck will swell, and the legs will look even shorter for the body. The tarsal glands will also exhibit heavy staining. The belly of a 6 ½ year old (or older) will show definitive signs of sagging. The sway in the back will be very pronounced.
Deer above the age of 6 or 7 years often also develop a bulbous shaped nose. It’s also called a ‘roman nose,’ and it will have a rounded shape between the eyes and nostrils. At those high ages, the bucks will lose body weight and muscle mass and often will appear younger than their age.
None of these methods will guarantee you to estimate the correct age of a deer. Similar to humans and all other animals they do develop at their speed and as such no buck is the same as the other. The guidelines laid out should, however, allow you to estimate a buck roughly, so you know whether or not to harvest him.