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How To Age a Buck

If you’ve ever wanted to know how to age a buck, here are some things you can look for.

Picture this scenario: you’re sitting in the tree stand or the blind, waiting patiently for a deer to cross your path, when suddenly, a monster buck does just that. He’s got a killer rack of antlers and looks healthy and large. He’s exactly what you’ve been looking for all day, but you are still hesitating on whether or not you should pull the trigger.

Whether you are trying to observe QDM (quality deer management) on your property to ensure successful and profitable deer seasons for years to come or just have a moral aversion to killing younger bucks, you have a vested interest in judging the age of that monster buck before you aim and fire a killing shot. The problem is, you can’t just walk up to the buck and ask for his birth certificate.

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Instead, you have to be able to make an educated guess about his age, you have to be able to do it from a fair distance, and you have to do it quickly – before the buck wanders off and makes your decision for you.

So how can you judge a buck’s age solely by looking at his exterior physical characteristics? Surprisingly, this process actually isn’t that difficult. You just need to know what you are looking for.

The first physical characteristic your eyes should catch – if they haven’t already – is the buck’s antler rack. Since most of us eye a buck’s antlers anyway in order to judge whether or not he is worth harvesting, this step should come naturally. Generally, a buck with greater antler mass, more points (in a non-typical spread), and a wider spread is an older and more mature specimen. A buck with a smaller spread and only a couple of points, on the other hand, is fairly obviously a younger animal.

If you see one of the latter whitetails, consider holding your fire. Chances are, especially if you own and operate your own deer property, that deer will grow to maturity and will reward you for your mercy with a more impressive antler rack and a more mature body years down the road. Besides, you’ll be back out in the woods next season, right?

Speaking of body type, that’s the next characteristic you should look at to judge a buck’s age. An older buck will be clearly bigger and broader – especially in the neck and shoulders – than a less mature buck. By taking both the body type and the antler rack of a buck into account, you should be able to easily categorize bucks into “older” and “younger” groupings. It’s never an exact science, and claiming that a deer is exactly 3 and a half years old isn’t really that accurate, especially with deer you are just seeing for the first time.

Image: Nadia van der Donk

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But, with patience and passing shots comes a familiarity with the same bucks, year over year. If you judge a buck to be younger than others, and potential for a harvest sometime in the future, take note of its specific characteristics. Head shape, coloration and facial features may allow you to keep track of the same animal. Then, when you know it was somewhere between one and four years old when you first saw it, you can add the years as you continue to spot it, and make a judgement based on the knowledge you’ve built.

While physical characteristics are the most foolproof method for gauging a buck’s age, you can also learn a lot from a buck’s hoof prints (if you are deciding which creatures are worth tracking down) and from its wakeful behavior patterns (if you are trying to choose an ideal time to hunt). As bucks get older, their hoofs increase in size, meaning that, as you track whitetails on your hunt, you can look at the length and width of a print to judge approximately how old a buck is. For instance, a track with about 2 inches of width belongs to a young buck. As the animal ages, their hoof print will surpass 2.5 inches in width and be closer to 3 inches.

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If all else fails, you can place a buck’s approximate age by assessing its wakeful behavior patterns. An older buck doesn’t get to maturity without learning a thing or two about how hunters operate and what he has to do to survive the hunting season. In other words, the bucks you see in the light of day will generally be younger, less mature, and less experienced, with the older veterans opting to stay out of sight until the sun goes down.

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How To Age a Buck