How to Age Whitetail Deer on the Hoof
At some point or another, a whitetail hunter will face a dilemma in the woods or fields. A deer steps out into one of your shooting lanes. It’s a buck – great. It has decent-sized antlers, but is it a truly mature deer? Shoot or Don’t Shoot? That’s the split-second decision that can haunt a person for years. Do you risk shooting an immature deer that could go another year or two, or do you risk walking away from a potentially great buck?
Sure, you can accurately get a deer’s age by examining its teeth from the lower jaw. But how many deer will let you play dentist before you decide to shoot? If the answer is anything north of zero, you may be hunting in a petting zoo, which I believe is frowned upon in most states. Thankfully with today’s information sharing and increased interest in quality deer management, there are several fairly reliable ways you can estimate whitetail ages in the field. Using certain characteristics of the body and with a little practice, you can estimate an age class with reasonably high confidence. Naturally, an age class guess will vary from one hunter to the next. But as long as you’re consistent with your own approach, it shouldn’t make much of a difference in the long run.
Before we discuss techniques, however, let’s assume you hunt for meat, and aren’t very interested in antlers. Why should you really care about this? The simple answer is that in most parts of the country, our deer populations are very skewed to younger deer. Intense hunting pressure and the “If it’s brown, it’s down” mentality has eliminated older deer over the years. Without a healthy and diverse age structure, breeding cycles can also be imbalanced, as younger deer are less efficient than mature deer. Additionally, it’s just not as exciting to hunt a population of younger deer, as the rut is less intense, and calling or rattling in a buck is more difficult to do without a couple big boys lurking in the forest.
Whitetail Age Classes
To break it down simply, biologists typically separate age classes into one year increments starting at 6 months (since fawns are born in the spring, but hunted and mostly estimated in the fall). Descriptions of the telltale characteristics for each age class are listed below.
Oftentimes, male and female fawns are mistaken for does and accidentally shot. This age class was born the spring prior to hunting season. As a result, they have many of the characteristic “baby” signs, including shorter heads, large ears, short necks, skinny legs, and smaller bodies. Buck fawns may have nubs on their head as well, though this can be difficult to spot unless you have binoculars. Behaviorally, fawns also can be playful and seem less nervous than adult deer.
1 ½ years
Whitetail bucks at this age are often referred to as does with antlers. Their bodies are very similar in shape and size to most does. They often have thin necks, tight stomachs, lanky legs compared to their body, and they have no noticeable brisket. Their tarsal glands may be slightly discolored during the rut, and they may sport antlers at 25% of their maximum size at this age. Behaviorally, they are likely pretty timid around older bucks.
2 ½ years
At 2 ½ years, whitetail bucks are still pretty juvenile-looking. Their legs still look a little long for their body, but they have started to fill out a little. Their stomachs will have a slight upturn approaching the rear end. During the rut, their tarsal glands may have slight discoloration and their necks may swell a little. The antlers are likely not as wide as their ears yet, even in areas with good nutrition. In skewed populations, this age class may be breeding does most often.
3 ½ years
At this age, bucks are starting to look more like bucks. Their legs should appear more proportional to their body size, and they generally will have more muscular bodies. Their briskets will have developed more fully and may appear lower. However, their stomachs will be tight and their backs flat. During the rut, their tarsal glands will be stained dark and their necks will swell moderately. Antler size should be roughly at 50 to 75% of its maximum size at this age. A 3 ½ year old whitetail buck will also act aggressively during the rut, make rubs/scrapes, and may even be the dominant deer in areas with unbalanced age structures.
4 ½ years
Whitetail bucks in the 4 ½ year age class start to really shine if you’re looking for a big and dominant deer. They are the strongest they’ll probably ever be, but they are not old enough to have physical limitations yet. Their bodies are muscular and filled out, which actually makes their legs now appear too short. Their stomachs will sag slightly, but their backs will be fairly horizontal still. During the rut, their necks will swell tremendously and there will be very dark staining on and around their tarsal glands. Bucks at this age will have reached 75 to 90% of their maximum antler size, which can be impressive if they have access to good nutrition.
5 ½ years +
In most areas of the country, you’d be hard pressed today to consistently find 5 ½ year old or older deer, unless you’re privileged to hunt in an area with little hunting pressure or high cooperation among landowners toward a quality deer management philosophy. Like the 4 ½ year olds, their legs will look short for their bodies, and they will have muscled bodies and swollen necks. However, their stomachs and backs will sag even more. They will have achieved 100% of their maximum antler size at this age. Past 7 ½ years of age, they will severely diminish in body and antler size.
Whether you hunt strictly for meat or big deer, knowing how to accurately estimate a whitetail’s age quickly in the field is a great skill to have. You can develop it fairly quickly if you just practice. There are several free resources online to help you do so.
Good luck deer hunting this upcoming season!