If you are interested in harvesting a mature whitetail buck or are hoping to implement Quality Deer Management principles on your land, you have to be able to properly age deer on the hoof. This is easier said than done, but with experience you can train your eye to find the key characteristics that can help you age that buck cruising in front of your stand. So let me throw you a few of my own quick tips and then I’ll offer some more in-depth resources.

So here are a few of the key things I consider when trying to age a deer in the field….

  1. Body size and shape is more important than antler size.
  2. Look at the deer’s face and nose. A long nose means an old deer. Fawns and yearlings typically have short stout faces, so don’t shoot those lil guys!
  3. A mature buck can be keyed out pretty consistently by taking a look at their neck and shoulder/stomach area. A big mature buck will have a very thick neck and broad muscular shoulders that almost seem to be a continuation of that massive neck. Look for a sag in the stomach on those older deer.

These are just the first three things I consider when aging a deer, but there’s a lot more to it than that if you really want to dig in. So check out these great explanations of typical characteristics for certain deer age ranges from a Texas Parks & Wildlife article.

1 1/2 Year Olds

As you can see, 1 1/2-year-old bucks appear dainty, with baby faces and thin necks. Their legs appear long and slender, and their torso is slim like a doe’s. In a photo of a 1 1/2-year-old buck, cover the antlers with your thumb and you will see that the body resembles a doe. Yearling buck antler development is highly variable, ranging from tiny spikes to 10 or more points. But even super 1 1/2-year-old bucks with multiple points will have small, thin antlers, and the lengths of the main beams will be short compared to older bucks.

2 1/2 Year Olds

The best way to describe the bodies of 2 1/2-year-old bucks is gangly and awkward. Their legs appear to be growing too fast for their body. Their bodies, while thicker than those of 1 1/2-year-olds, still have legs and necks that appear stretched in proportion. The head will appear long from the side. For the first time, their antlers will begin to catch your eye, which is probably why 2 1/2 is the average age of whitetail bucks harvested in many areas. Most 2 1/2-year-olds are big travellers during the rut, because they typically are not active breeders in herds with balanced adult sex ratios and good buck age structure. During the rut, their tarsal glands may be dark, but the very darkest area is usually very small and round in appearance.

3 1/2 Year Olds

A fuller neck and deeper chest are characteristics of a 3 1/2 year old. Their neck muscles are expanding from increased hormones and use during the rut but are still not as large or thick as a fully mature buck. Their chest is beginning to appear larger than their rump, but their back and stomach are still straight and taut. Also, their neck is still distinct by four or five inches from their brisket. Their tarsals will be dark during the rut but usually will appear small, and the dark staining from the urine usually does not extend down the leg to the hoof.

4 1/2 Year Olds

When bucks reach 4 1/2, they attain skeletal maturity and begin exhibiting many characteristics of full maturity. Their bodies have reached full size but are muscular and lean. This is the first time their legs do not appear longer than they should for their body. Their legs may even appear slightly short for the thickened body. The majority of 4 1/2-year-old bucks will have a significant increase in antler growth over the previous year. Focus your attention on the body and face when aging, especially if the buck has very good antlers. Bucks at this age can grow very respectable antlers, making them difficult for hunters to pass.

5 1/2 Year Olds

At 5 1/2 years old, most bucks will be carrying the largest set of antlers they have ever grown. Their bodies also exhibit some noticeable changes. Typically, their stomach and back have a noticeable sag. Their neck will swell considerably during the rut, making the neck and brisket appear to be one continuous muscle. Also, their neck, while being very big, will appear muscular and firm and not flabby. The tarsals will be noticeably large and very dark with many bucks having staining down the inside of the leg to the hoof. And 5 1/2-year-old bucks’ legs will appear short almost to an exaggerated extent, due to the fuller and fatter bodies.

A few more good articles you might want to check out…

Aging on the Hoof – Petersen’s  Hunting

Aging Bucks on the Hoof – Quality Deer Management Association