It all happened so quickly. One minute I was enjoying an absolutely lovely early autumn afternoon, not expecting much action for at least an hour. The next, a big-racked buck was bearing down on the doe feeding in front of me. She bolted, but he paused momentarily in the spot where she'd been standing, stuck his nose into the short grass then lifted his head and curled his lips back.
I was already at full draw when he did, but I hesitated momentarily as my mind replayed the outfitter's pre-hunt speech. "We have a 140-inch minimum, outside the ears and we want you to shoot a mature deer, four-and-a-half or older."
I felt pretty confident this buck would meet the first two, but I wasn't certain about the age.
Fortunately, the buck gave me enough time to confirm he would indeed meet all three criteria. But how often does that happen? And in the moment of truth, would you be able to make that distinction? Having more time to look over a deer or being able to look at trail cam pictures in advance helps, but you still may have to make a split-second decision. Either way, it helps if you know what to look for.
Obviously, most folks are looking for antlers first, but if it's a slow day and you want to do a little herd management, you don't want to mistake a button buck for a doe, which gets easier to do as you get into the late seasons intended principally or exclusively for antlerless deer.
Fawn: The body is smaller and more squarish, with a smaller head compared to body size. They've got a more compact face (shorter nose compared to head) and bigger ears. Think of an eight-ounce soda bottle.
Doe: The body is larger and rectangular — longer than it is tall. You'll see a larger head, with a nose longer than head. Think 16-ounce bottle.
From this point on we'll address only bucks.
Body: Yearlings appear almost dainty with a thin neck, somewhat resembling a doe with antlers, and legs that seem long for its body, giving them a slender, lanky appearance with a thin waist.
Antlers: Development is highly variable, ranging from spikes to eight or ten points with thin beams that are relatively short. The spread is typically inside the ears. Tarsal glands are small and lightly colored, possibly with some dark staining.
Body: The legs still appear slightly long for the body, and may seem a bit gangly and awkward. You'll see a thin waist and relatively little muscling in the shoulders. They may show some slight neck swelling during the rut, and tarsal glands may be dark (moderately stained), but still quite small and round.
Antlers: Development varies, but typically they'll sport a rack of six or more points, with spread around the same width as the ears and moderate mass.
Body: A fuller, thickly-muscled (swollen) neck and shoulders will be present, but you'll still be able to distinguish the neck from the shoulders. The chest will be deeper than the hindquarters, but the waist is still thin for a "racehorse" appearance. Legs appear the correct length for the body, with back and stomach lines relatively straight and taut. Tarsal glands are dark and stained in the rut, but still small. Staining does not extend down the leg.
Antlers: Even with or outside the ears, with fairly decent mass and tine length.
While some folks, even deer managers, occasionally lump the previous age class in, and despite what you may have read or heard, a white-tailed deer is not mature until it reaches age four. For many hunters and managers, this is when a buck becomes "eligible" for the hit list, though bucks with a lot of potential are sometimes given a pass for a year or two.
Body: A fully-muscled neck blends smoothly into a deep chest and muscled shoulders. The formerly narrow waist is now even with the belly, forming a more or less straight line. Legs may appear slightly short for the body and tarsal glands are noticeably large and darkly stained with "scalding" down the leg. Rump appears full and rounded. Skin around the jaw and stomach is tight, and the back does not sag.
Antlers: Large with a spread typically outside the ears. Tines are long with good mass. Bases will be at least as wide as the eyes.
5 ½ - 7-1/2
Body: The look with be similar to that of a 4 1/2-year-old, but the stomach and back feature a noticeable sag for a pot-belly, sway-back appearance. The neck may show more swelling, while the legs seem shorter due to the deep chest. Tarsals are noticeably large and very dark with staining down the inside of the leg to the hoof.
Antlers: Variable, but 90-100 percent of antler growth potential for the individual.
Body: Loose skin is shown on the face and neck, with the possibility of a grayer face. A more "bony" appearance in likely, and shoulder blades or hips are more obvious. Other notes are knock-kneed, pot-bellied and swayback.
Antlers: Variable, but declining, and they may show more non-typical points or abnormalities and less mass.