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Aging Deer On The Hoof
Estimating the age of deer on the hoof is challenging. It takes time to critique a buck’s rack and physical attributes, but time is often extremely limited. Even accomplished deer hunters make mistakes. Experience remains paramount to one’s ability to estimate the age of live deer.
Aging Deer Criteria
Yearlings: 1.5-year-old bucks
A yearling buck can be described as a doe with antlers. Its neck is thin and their legs appear long and thin because their body is slim. Yearlings normally do not develop a swollen neck or the muscular features of older bucks.
A yearling’s tarsal glands remain small and tan in color. In the relaxed or semi-alert position, the tip-to-tip measurement between the ears is approximately 13 inches. Seldom will a yearling buck exhibit an outside antler spread over 14 inches at least in Texas.
The number of antler points is not a reliable feature when estimating the age because some yearlings exhibit six, eight, sometimes 10-point antlers.
At two years of age, antlers are not large, but can attract your attention. Their body size is larger than yearlings, but their legs remain long in proportion to their body. Their belly remains firm with no sag whatsoever.
During the rut, neck swelling is minimal, yet obvious. The tarsal glands begin to get darker in color, but obviously less than older males. When observed broadside, the head appears elongated.
Middle-aged deer portray a muscled neck and deeper chest, yet a distinct junction between the neck and shoulder exists. Some describe their appearance as that of a well-conditioned race horse. Muscling absent in 2.5-year-olds begins to become apparent in the third year. Their chest begins to appear as large as their rump. Antler spread is often outside the ears and on quality habitat impressive antlers can develop.
Bucks mature at four years of age. The obvious junction between the neck and the shoulders dissipates as the neck becomes firmly muscled, appearing almost as large as the chest. The deer is muscled throughout, but their stomach remains taut, yet rounded, and their back remains flat. The legs appear shorter and no longer out of proportion with the rest of the body. Antlers can be large as they have attained 90% of their size. The tarsal glands become noticeably larger and darker, chocolate to black.
Bucks at this age are approaching maximum antler size. The principal characteristic defining this age class is a slight sag in the stomach and a slight drop in the back. Their legs appear thicker as well. During the rut their necks are extremely muscled, inflated-like in appearance, eliminating the juncture between the chest and neck. The neck and brisket area appears to become one.
Five-year-olds are in peak muscular condition with little sign of aging. The tarsals on some become obviously chocolate brown to wet-black, oftentimes extending down the entire inside of their legs.
At six, their physical appearance is similar to five-year-olds; however, one distinguishing feature to look for is obvious loose skin protruding from under the lower jaw. A prominent rounded belly and a sagging back also become obvious.
Although deer develop their largest antlers at six years of age in South Texas, it doesn’t mean that all six-year-olds will exhibit extremely large antlers because of variable factors such as weather conditions (rainfall) and the animal’s genetic potential, which ultimately determine antler size.
These overmature bucks are extremely rare and sometimes confused for younger deer because their muscular features begin to regress. Loose skin about the face and neck is obvious. Because these animals have reduced their breeding activities, recent battle scars are generally absent, but old healed-over scars are obvious. Although antler size generally decreases in the overmature age classes, exceptional antler growth can be exhibited under ideal range conditions. Behaviorally these deer are extremely reticent and often go unobserved until peak rutting activity is over.
Classifying a deer as a fawn is easy; but, distinguishing whether it’s a male or female can be challenging. One of the principle tenets of a quality deer management program is to balance the sex ratio which requires a doe harvest. Even when fawns are considered off limits to doe hunters, large bodied fawns, particularly males, will still show up in the harvest, and a nubbin buck removed as a fawn is one less roll of the dice towards developing a trophy. Some fawns, particularly males, late in the hunting season can develop an above-average body size and be difficult to distinguish from young doe. Deer hunters must employ quality optics but even then the barely visible antler pedicels on these larger fawns are difficult to see.
Awaiting several deer to come into view for comparison is recommended to circumvent this problem. Knowledge of deer behavior is the best method of avoiding a mistake.
Buck fawns are extremely curious and normally will remain in sight of a deer hunter much longer than a female. Some hunter's theory is “if it doesn’t run off, don’t shoot it.”
Physical characteristics collected from harvested animals can be employed to estimate a live buck’s age, thus sportsmen should become familiar with the average antler and body size by age class of deer on the particular landholding they hunt. By acquiring such statistics, deer hunters become more familiar with the scoring process as well.
Estimating the age of live deer improves with experience. The more bucks a deer hunter sees, both in the field and at the check station, the better they get at estimating age of deer on the hoof.