Properly aging a whitetail buck on the hoof is something that takes time, practice and good optics. While determining a buck’s age before pulling the trigger is starting to become more commonplace in the deer woods nationwide, there are still far too many that should walk for another few years to achieve maximum antler growth being shot. This isn’t necessarily the fault of the hunter, but rather a lack of education about how to judge a buck’s age.
Bucks are often on the move, especially during the rut, and can sometimes be hard to identify as a shooter or a passer. Insert dense hardwoods into this equation and the judging can be downright difficult. Aside from young hunters, who are seeking that desired first kill, those of us who comprise the older guard should by now have a pretty good grasp on the makeup of a mature whitetail buck. That said, here’s a reminder to ourselves of what to look for before pulling the trigger this season.
Unless you’re hunting axis deer, if it has spots, don’t shoot. Identifying differences between males and females at this stage are a bit tougher, and many button bucks have been accidentally shot at last light, mistaken for a doe. A button buck sports a head that hasn’t grown into the ears and a flat crown, as opposed to a more rounded female head. Binoculars with excellent light-gathering ability will weigh heavily into the survival of button bucks that are victims of our “taking a doe at last light.”
One and a Half Years
This yearling buck is wearing his first rack, which is typically inside his perked ears. His frame is still slim and his legs will look like they’re too long for his body. Quite like a Labrador retriever in its first year, the yearling buck hasn’t developed the muscles that give proportion to the body.
Narrow spread aside, well-fed one and a half-year-olds may still have up to ten points on their antlers. Don’t be fooled. Let the body be the ultimate deciding factor if you’re still unsure.
Two and a Half Years
A two and a half-year-old with good genetics that lives in a heavily managed area doesn’t stand much of a chance during the season. We’re not pointing fingers; we’ve all done it. Perhaps it’s been a long season and he’s the best you’ve seen. Or maybe the leafless branches add volume to his rack, which can be high and wide, but usually without much mass. Again, let the body dictate your decision to shoot or not.
This buck is beginning to fill out, but still has noticeable differences from a mature buck. His body and coat are sleek. His tarsal glands are starting to show a light stain though it’s not the dark brown of seasoned bucks.
Three and a Half Years
As a buck gets older, identifying his age becomes more difficult. His body has further filled out and his legs look nearly proportional to his body. During the rut, his neck will swell up and the tarsal glands are dark brown and smell like they’re supposed to. However, the coat will still be rather sleek and untattered; unlike the rut veteran. This buck is so tempting to shoot, but if there’s any possible way for you to leave the safety on and let him live to see two more summers, then he’ll look great on the wall.
Four and a Half Years
The four and a half-year-old buck’s body is completely filled out. In fact, his legs may look like they’re too short for the body. The buck’s rack is nearing its peak though another year would be ideal to really get the most antler. He may show signs of a brutal rut with broken points and a scarred body. But at this age, nobody in camp should judge you too harshly for shooting this deer. In most heavily hunted areas, bucks don’t make it past, or even to, four and a half years old.
Five and a Half Years and On
For the next couple years, this is likely the dominant buck in his territory. That is, if he makes it to season five. These deer really only exist on large, well-managed private lands with few hunters. Their bodies appear round as they’ve reached maximum muscle capacity. Antlers are at their peak and will actually start declining in just a couple of short years. His coat during the rut will be tattered and very gray, his neck swollen and tarsal glands extremely dark and smelly. If this deer has had access to good nutrition throughout the course of his life, he’ll be the buck of your dreams.
Making it past this last age bracket is a real stretch though it does happen. These are the bucks that are rarely seen or caught on trail camera. We see their rubs and scrapes without realizing the creator is a real trophy. As bucks age, they get smarter. Their home range lessens considerably as they wait for does to find them during peak rut. They mostly move at night, possibly because there are fewer gunshots when the sun goes down.
Take your time when a buck appears, even if he’s chasing. Study him through your binoculars. Many of us regret shooting a young buck with lots of potential more so than letting him walk. Plus, when bucks with good genetics have the opportunity to spread their seed, it’ll only increase the number of shooters on your property over time.