Harvesting white-tailed bucks based on age is becoming an increasingly common management strategy. To implement this practice, hunters must have the ability to accurately age bucks on the hoof based on their body characteristics, an ability that most hunters considered impossible a decade ago.
Today however, hunters across the whitetail's range are estimating the age of bucks in the field as a means for selective harvest within QDM programs or merely for the fun of it.
There are many good reference books and DVDs available for in-depth instruction and practice on aging bucks, and this article serves to highlight the primary body characteristic differences for each age class from yearlings to mature bucks.
These body characteristics are subject to differing interpretation by different viewers, but the characteristics are relative to others in your area or region. Body characteristics also change by season.
The breeding season is the best time of year to age bucks because of pronounced neck swelling and tarsal staining. You can estimate their age at other times of the year, but many characteristics are viewed relative to what they will (or did) look like during the rut.
Antler size varies from location to location, but if your goal is to identify the most mature deer, here are 5 universal features to look for.
Look at how long the legs appear relative to the body. Young bucks' (1.5-2.5 years old) legs appear too long for their body. This is because these young animals haven't developed much depth to their chest, and it gives them an overall gangly or slim appearance.
At 3.5 years of age a buck's legs appear proportional to his body, and bucks 4.5 years and older have legs that appear short for their body.
Rump vs. Chest
Look at how large the buck's chest is relative to his rump. 1.5 and 2.5-year-old bucks typically have a rump that appears larger than their chest.
At 3.5 years a buck's chest is larger or heavier than his hind quarters, and by 4.5 years his chest and hindquarters appear proportional in size.
This is my personal favorite body characteristic as the amount of swelling during the rut and the location where the neck appears to connect to the brisket are excellent indicators of age.
Yearling bucks' necks are very thin and connect high on the chest. With each additional year of age a buck's neck gets larger and connects lower on his chest until at 5.5 to 6.5 years of age the necks appears to flow seamlessly into his chest. From my experience, of all the body characteristics you use the neck is the one most consistent with age.
This mature buck has a huge neck that connects low on his chest.
Look at how tight or rounded the stomach appears. In young bucks the stomach is very tight and gives the bucks a lean appearance. By 3.5 years the stomach is still tight, but when it's combined with a larger chest, it makes this age class easy to estimate age on.
At 4.5 years the stomach appears larger and the waist drops in front of the hind legs. At full maturity (5.5 to 7.5 years) the stomach appears large, full and rounded. It's sometimes described as "barrel-like".
Even in August this fully mature buck's stomach is rounded and "barrel-like".
The final tip is about the technique rather than a body characteristic. Aging bucks on the hoof is not an exact science so study the characteristics the best you can and estimate age, but remember it is just an estimate.
Also try to view multiple pictures before deciding on an age. Single photos (or observations) can easily fool you. Case in point â€“ look how large and rounded this buck's (below) stomach appears.
But is it really that large? No, it was a result of him turning while the picture was taken. Here's another shot (below) of the same buck taken literally within five minutes.
This second photo clearly shows how tight the buck's waist is and he appears younger in this picture. For practice, from the picture I see a buck whose legs appear in proportion to his body, his neck has moderate swelling and connects fairly low on his chest, his chest is larger than his hind quarters, and his waist is tight.
All of these characteristics suggest he is 3.5 years old. How about his antlers? They're pretty small for a 3-year-old buck, but that's why you look past the antlers and estimate age from body characteristics.
As you study age-specific body characteristics you'll notice there aren't age-specific antler characteristics (other than the range of antler potential that may be reached at each age class, and this percentage can't be accurately estimated by viewing the antlers).
Therefore, I suggest you don't rely on antler size when aging bucks. Large antlers on a younger deer and small antlers on an older deer can negatively influence your estimated age. I prefer to estimate age based solely on body characteristics with respect to location and time of year and then use antler size to "check" my estimate or to break a tie if I can't decide between two ages.
Aging bucks on the hoof is a lot of fun so whether you hunt them with a bow or camera, this information can make you a more knowledgeable whitetail enthusiast. Have fun aging bucks on the hoof in your area and good luck in the woods this fall.