Can you tell how old a buck is by observing him from afar or studying a photo? Many say they can, but others call BS.
From my experience, aging a deer “on the hoof” is an inexact science. With the right knowledge an estimate is possible, but estimates always come with caveats. They’re subjective, up to personal interpretation, and sometimes region specific. So maybe aging a buck on the hoof is more art than science. Either way, it’s a helpful skill to acquire. Here’s a useful method for guessing a buck’s age.
Is it Accurate?
Estimating the age of a buck is useful for any hunter trying to implement some form of deer management that protects younger deer. But how accurate can you really be?
According to a study published in The Wildlife Society Bulletin, aging a buck on the hoof is difficult to do with exact accuracy. They asked 100 wildlife biologists to study photos of 70 different whitetail bucks. Even these professionals were only able to tell the exact age of a buck 36% of the time. For 1.5-year-old deer, the rate was higher at 62%. For 2.5-year-olds, they had 43% accuracy. As the deer got older, aging success got lower. That doesn’t mean this method is junk science, though.
Per this study, and other anecdotal evidence, it is possible to accurately identify immature bucks that are less than 3 years old. If you’re simply looking to target older deer, this is all you need to be able to achieve that goal. So, while aging a buck on the hoof is never 100% accurate, it’s still a beneficial practice.
Aging a Buck
To estimate the age of a buck on the hoof, you need a clear look at a few characteristics that are most visible when the deer is broadside. Multiple photos, or lots of time to study the deer in person, are obviously preferred.
The key features you’ll be looking at include the length of the legs, sway of the back, the belly, the neck, and the chest. Antlers typically aren’t a reliable clue for age estimation, despite what a lot of hunters think.
The body characteristics are most easily identifiable leading up to and during the whitetail rut. Aging a deer in November is much easier than it is in May or January.
While there are no hard-and-fast rules, and regional variability does exist, here’s a breakdown of body characteristics that can get you in the ballpark for an age estimate.
A 1.5-year-old buck will typically look like a young doe with antlers. This means long gangly legs, a slender chest and stomach, and a long skinny neck. Their headgear will be noticeably smaller than the rest of the herd.
A 2.5-year-old buck is still going to be relatively slender. They’ll have a flat back with a neck width that is about equal to the width of their face. During the rut you’ll start to see some minor neck swelling.
When a buck reaches 3.5 years old, you begin to see some notable differences from younger bucks—particularly in the chest and neck. At this age the neck usually meets the chest farther down the body, and during the rut this front half of the deer will take on a more swollen appearance. The most common analogy is that a 3.5-year-old buck will look similar to a thoroughbred horse, with a bigger front end that tightens up as you move back on the body.
4.5-Year-Old Bucks and Older
Once you get to a 4.5-year-old buck, in most people’s minds, you have a fully mature whitetail.
“Given adequate nutrition, they’ll become structurally mature and can reach 75 to 90 percent of their antler growth potential,” said Kip Adams of the Quality Deer Management Association.
From this age on it’s especially difficult to discern between age groups, but for most hunters it’s enough just to know a deer has met this threshold.
A buck falling into this category will have an almost rectangular body shape: big and blocky in the front and in the back. These bucks have a very thick neck that meets the chest low on its body, and maybe even some extra sagging in this region. A drooping belly and swayed, concave back are common for deer in this age range, as well as legs that appear disproportionally short.
The best way to put this into practice is by estimating the age of deer with some kind of confirmation available. There are a variety of tools you can view or purchase online, such as the “Estimating Buck Age” poster from QDMA, which shows images of each age class with detailed descriptions. YouTube videos with example bucks in each class abound as well.
Do this enough and you’ll eventually develop a comfort level that will assist in achieving your deer hunting goals. But remember: It’s an art, not a science. Judge accordingly.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.