Passing up a good shot at a deer after logging hours of hard work and preparation can be gut-wrenching, but the choice can pay off if you know how to reliably estimate a buck’s age.
Holding out for animals in a certain age class is common among bowhunters who practice quality deer management, and also for those targeting bucks with the largest possible racks. However, setting a standard and waiting for a deer to meet it isn’t for everyone. If you’re new to bowhunting, you likely have a different goal. You probably want to harvest your first deer or any buck. Or maybe your focus is providing venison for your table.
Whatever your goal, know this: It’s worthwhile. Bowhunting appeals to diverse interests, and those interests vary by age, region and experience. Below we’ll discuss why it’s sometimes good to pass up bucks of a certain age, and how to field-judge a buck’s age “on the hoof” before releasing your arrow.
Why Pass a Buck?
Healthy deer herds have diverse age structures. Shooting too many young bucks makes older bucks a rarity, which creates an imbalanced herd. The same rule applies for does, but it’s difficult to focus enough hunting pressure on specific female age groups to tilt the herd one way or another. Either way, the long-term goal is to keep the buck-to-doe ratio balanced, which keeps a herd healthy.
Passing up a buck to let it grow another year can also improve its trophy potential. A white-tailed buck finishes growing its first antlers at age 1½, and typically reaches its full antler potential between ages 5½ and 7½. Even if a buck grows only “spikes” or a small rack at 18 months, it can turn into a trophy-caliber animal with age. This photo gallery follows a young buck’s lifespan.
How to Age a Buck
Precisely estimating a whitetail’s age is typically done by examining tooth wear, but teeth wear down at different rates, depending on soils and foods. Sandy soils, for example, cause faster tooth wear. A more precise method, which reveals a deer’s exact age, requires one of its teeth, which is cross-sectioned and analyzed under a microscope. Much like growth rings on a tree trunk, a deer’s tooth reveals its age by its number of rings. Both “toothy” methods typically require a dead deer, of course, although biologists conducting research on sedated deer often estimate their age based on the tooth wear.
One common misconception is that antler size indicates a buck’s age. Although antlers typically grow larger with age, they do not consistently relate to age. However, certain body characteristics make it possible to field-judge an animal’s age fairly accurately. Study the following criteria to help estimate a buck’s age while afield.
1½ Years Old
The buck’s body closely resembles a doe. The legs and face appear long, and the chest and rump slight.
2½ Years Old
Judging a buck at 2½ can be one of the most difficult ages to determine. Its body size is larger than a 1½-year-old buck’s, but the most marked difference is its chest, which is fuller and more developed.
3½ Years Old
As bucks get older, estimating their age typically grows easier. For example, bucks in the 3½-year-old age group are possibly some of the easiest to identify. They have significantly more muscle mass and a body profile that resembles a middleweight fighter. Their chest and shoulders also look thick and stocky, but their waist appears slender. The face and head are also filling in at this age, and look significantly blockier than those features on a doe or younger buck.
4½ Years Old
The most noticeable changes from age 3½ to 4½ is the buck’s filling midsection and deepening chest. Those changes make a buck’s legs appear shorter.
5½ Years Old
A 5½-year-old buck starts to show its age. Its chest and midsection fill in so much that its legs appear too short; almost as if they’re overloaded. The nose will also appear short because the head is growing even blockier.
6½ Years Old
At 6½, a buck’s body reaches its full size potential. With less nutrition needed to fuel a growing body, the buck’s system diverts more nutrients for antler growth. That often helps bucks develop their largest set of antlers. Identifying a buck at this age and older is fairly easy, given their hefty look. The back appears to sag, as does the belly. The nose also develops a crown, often called a Roman nose.
Setting Realistic Goals
If you intend to target bucks of a certain age class, make sure you choose a realistic expectation for the area you’re hunting. Some regions have whitetail herds with great age structure, making it possible to pursue older bucks. However, some areas hold so few deer or inflict such heavy hunting pressure on young bucks that tagging a 3½-year-old specimen is a great success story.
To get more experience estimating bucks in the field, use trail cameras to collect photos and keep track of deer from one year to the next. Also, scouting during summer can be a great way to see lots of deer and gain experience judging their ages. The more you learn and understand, the more insights you can apply to your bowhunts throughout autumn.