My mind rattled as my eyes bugged out: Is the buck mature or just a youngster with potential? The buck stopped. I had one window through trees to the buck’s vitals and I’d had just one glance at its face and rack. As adrenaline rattled me, I shot.
Minutes later I wasn’t disappointed with the buck’s rack, but I was disenchanted with my age-judging abilities. The buck was 2½ years old. It was well on its way to becoming a heavy-racked buck and, as I was on a managed property, I should have let it walk.
Hunting can be like that. If you’re managing a whitetail property, one of the quickest ways to get more trophy bucks on your land is to pass on younger bucks. In fact, Grant Woods, a consulting biologist and owner of Woods and Associates, says, “Age is the strongest correlation of antler size for a buck. If the object is bigger racks, food won’t do much without age to back it up."
So how can you tell the difference between a 2½-year-old buck and a mature 5½-year-old deer in those few tense seconds before you shoot or don’t shoot? For answers, you need to familiarize yourself with the ever-changing body features of the whitetail buck.
“Most animals change body shape as they age. I’m 48 and getting a bit of a pot-belly. Whitetails are similar. When they reach midlife they acquire a sagging belly. The older they get, the more that belly sags,” says Woods. “Any individual human or animal can defy that trend, but by looking at body shape you should be able to age deer to at least within a year either way.”
Woods again suggests ignoring the antlers. When you do, if it looks like a super-dominant doe, you’re likely sighting a 2½-year-old.
Since you’ll only have seconds to determine the age of a buck in the field, Woods has come up with this quick, mental imagery test: Imagine a 2x4 wooden board placed horizontally behind the front legs of a buck. Now imagine you and a friend lifting up on that board from either side as the buck stands on all fours. If the buck tips backwards, it’s a 2½-year-old.
During the rut, 3½-year-olds definitely sport a swelled neck and have staining on their tarsals. Keep your eye off the rack and scrutinize body parts to avoid shooting an up-and-coming giant. If you use Woods’ 2x4 test, a 3½-year-old will actually balance when the beam is lifted.
It’s at this age when a buck literally looks like his neck and chest are seamless, particularly during the rut. Legs now have a short, stocky appearance and the chest and stomach definitely have a common line. Many classify 4½-year-olds as mature bucks. As for the board test, 4½-year-olds and older tip backwards as they have a heavier rear end.
5½-Year-Old Bucks and Older
Their nose becomes bulbous or “Roman,” as some call it.
In addition to a large muscular structure 5½-year-old and older bucks portray a sagging gut and back line. Lastly, racks are definitely near 100 percent of their potential. If you think a buck is really old, use a tip from my good friend professional hunter and biologist Larry Weishuhn: Look for loose skin in its face, especially the skin below the jaw, which becomes flabby on 7½-year-olds or older bucks. At 8½ years or older, bucks start to nosedive in both antler size and body character. Most of us won’t have the pleasure to view such a senior citizen in the wild, but you never know.