From the most-prestigious universities to the southern hunter’s armchair recliner, wildlife-management strategies vary tremendously. Over the past three decades, deer-management regimes have blossomed into a newfound order, with hunters honing their harvest to develop a mature buck with larger and more expansive headgear. The key component of trophy deer management is age; hunters need to learn to age bucks on the hoof in order to truly make harvest decisions in the tree stand.
Deer age in a manner similar to humans with respect to muscle tone, skin looseness, overall body shape and physical characteristics. Hunters need to learn which traits to look for in an adolescent animal compared to a mature buck.
The size of the antlers and body mass doesn’t always correlate with age. In fact, well-fed bucks with superior genetics will grow larger antlers at an adolescent age. At that point, many inexperienced hunters pull the trigger on these bucks, long before these animals got a chance to reach their full potential.
First, buck fawns may never be mistaken for older bucks, but they will often be mistaken for young does, leading to many premature button buck fatalities, especially if tiny button-sized antlers aren’t easily visible. Hunters should vow never to shoot the first animal that shows up on a feeding site. Buck fawns are often the first in a group of deer to leave cover.
The 1 ½-year-old class is the next grouping, winning the prize for the highest fatality rate among all age classes during hunting season. These young bucks are sexually mature and are just like a teen-aged boy who has just gone through puberty. Curiosity and the desire to breed definitely places these animals in danger. They exhibit a wide variation of antler compositions from spikes to well-developed 10-point racks, but their body characteristics will give them way as adolescents. These are slender, from end to end. They look like does with antlers.
Next, 2 1/2-year-old bucks exhibit more muscle tone throughout their body, especially in their shoulders and hindquarters. The front-shoulder region looks broader than the neck, however, their neck is still fairly sleek, without too much muscle definition.
As 3 ½-year-olds, neck definition during the rut increases dramatically and is well-differentiated between the neck and shoulder region. Additionally, the front half or the brisket area is much larger or deeper than their hindquarters. A 3 ½-year-old buck is beginning to reach his prime, with a significant increase in body mass from earlier years.
If bucks were racehorses, they would be considered to reach their prime condition at 4½. Deer normally attain their peak weights at this age, with solid muscle mass throughout. These deer have filled out considerably from their hindquarters to the brisket, enough that their legs appear short. But the line of their backs still runs straight from neck to tail. It is not until they exceed 5 ½ that their backs and bellies appear to sag some below their shoulders and hindquarters.
At 5 ½ to 6 ½, deer earn the sleepy face look. Their faces begin to exhibit a slight wrinkled appearance, especially around their eyes. Their sagging bellies are more pronounced, with a noticeable dip along the top of their backs. Their loosening skin will wrinkle more and sag around their necks and shoulders too.
As bucks exceed 5 ½ years, they become less graceful and will begin to show signs of aging throughout their entire bodies, but only a tiny percentage of the population gets past 5 ½, time when antler and body mass reaches its prime.
Discerning older age-classes can be tough for hunters even under the best conditions and with the most-developed optics on the market. However, the most-important age classes for hunters to recognize are 1 ½ to 4 ½. Hunters need to learn how to discern specific body characteristics of the different age-classes of bucks. If hunters will drop their binoculars from the antlers to examine body characteristics thoroughly, they will be able to make better harvesting decisions and improve the quality of their herd. And then, patient hunters can reap the rewards with a prime buck to hang in their trophy room.