How sad would the deer forest be if there weren’t big old bucks roaming about? If only there were 8 hands chasing around a 2.5 year old basket stand? If at the end of your session in the fading light there wasn’t even a chance for a mature, dominant, brutal buck to step onto the field?
This was the reality in many corners of whitetail country not long ago when hunters were happy to see any deer, let alone a full grown buck. Thankfully, times have changed and so have our deer management practices. Today, there are healthy age structures across most of the whitetail range. This means that if hunters are patient, diligent, and know what they’re looking for, they have a real chance of capturing a full-grown buck.
Kip Adams, the National Deer Association’s Chief Conservation Officer, is here to help. The NDA recently released an excellent video on how to guess the age of a dollar.
Tips for aging a buck on the hoof
- Don’t focus on antlers
- Fall is the best time to appreciate old age
- The most important features include: neck circumference, shoulder muscles, leg length, abdominal circumference and circumference, back swing
- One-year-old bucks look like a deer with antlers
- If a buck’s hindquarters are larger than its shoulders, it is almost certainly a 1- or 2-year-old buck
- Three-year-old bucks are the middle linebackers of the deer world, tall and strong but also lean and fast
- Four-year-old bucks’ legs appear too short for their bodies and they have severe neck swelling.
- Older bucks have a large belly and hang or sway backwards. “Maybe they even look like a little cow.”
Why age matters more than score
Using age as a measure of which bucks are shooters for (vs. antler value) makes sense as antler size is dependent on a variety of factors and the opportunity to take down a giant buck is not equal across whitetail country. For example, in some locations in the Northeast or South, it is unrealistic for hunters to take down 160-inch deer, even if they carefully manage their property and herd. However, with good herd management, most hunters have the ability to capture adult bucks, even if they are not giants.
Plus, mature bucks display all of the interesting deer behavior that hunters love. For the best overall whitetail hunting experience (with that exciting rut action we all live for), the herd you’re hunting needs to be of good age structure with a few fully grown bucks running around, says Adams.
“Deer are a lot more social than many people realize,” says Adams. “They evolved with a very complex social order. Whitetails are about 5 million years old… So the social order they have, the way they communicate is really cool. It has evolved over thousands of years and works best when you have a full-fledged age structure of dollars and deer.”
After all, age estimation is fun. It’s just another way to learn about deer and keep the excitement going throughout the season.
How old is a mature buck?
What hunters define as a “mature buck” can be a little personal preference, says Adams. Some hunters will call a four-year-old mature. And while a four-year-old buck is certainly fully grown, having reached most of his antler size and body height potential, Adams counts five-year-old bucks (and older) as fully grown. He considers 3- and 4-year-old bucks to be middle-aged.
This does not mean, however, that every hunter wanting to focus on buck age should try to look for a five-year-old. Every hunter should do their best to assess the age structure of where they hunt and then focus on the highest age bracket. In some cases, on public or pressurized private land, that could mean targeting a three-year-old buck, Adams says. It all depends on where you hunt.
How to age your buck after the kill
Adams and his hunting team in Pennsylvania kill any deer they catch. They do this by examining the jawbone, examining tooth wear and replacement, and sending rabbit tooth samples to a lab.
“This is a perfect path to the field [aging] skills,” says Adams. “You think you know how old he is, now let’s grab this jawbone and see how old he really is. Then you’ll know if you need to adjust what your eyes are telling you [in the field].
To learn how to estimate a deer’s age from tooth wear and replacement, hunters can find articles and even take classes offered by the National Deer Association. However, this method is not an exact science for aging deer over 2 years old.
The surest way to age an older deer is to pull the two central incisors out of the jawbone and send them to a lab to count the growth rings in the tooth. There are two labs that Adams knows of that age deer for hunters: Matson’s lab in Montana and Wildlife Analytical Labs in Texas.
It costs $25 to $75 and takes about three months for results to come back. Well worth it for hunters who have spent years observing a buck and then marking it when it is old.