Gerald Almy: Aging deer on the hoof
I sensed the buck was an old timer when he first emerged from the brush. My guide soon confirmed it.
The deer moved stiffly, pained with arthritis. His belly sagged and loose skin hung around his face and neck. The legs looked short because his body was so thick and deep.
That deer, which I was fortunate to harvest on a hunt in Texas, was one of the oldest I’d ever seen. My guide, who was also a biologist, estimated his age at 7 ½ years.
You will probably never see a buck that old in the Shenandoah Valley with its heavy hunting pressure. But if you want to try to hold out for a buck older than the average 1- 2-year-old buck that makes up the majority of the harvest, it’s important to know what the different age classes of deer look like. With bow and gun seasons swinging into gear, it’s time for a quick refresher course.
Racks can give clues, but the most useful way to age a buck is by its body characteristics. Learn the physical traits of each age class, and then you’ll know whether you want to pass it up, or take the shot.
The descriptions below will tell you how to age deer by their body characteristics. It’s not a foolproof system, since individual deer may not follow the normal trends. But it should work for most bucks.
1 ½ year old. Often these deer are described as looking like “a doe with antlers.” They have a feminine, delicate look with long legs, narrow hindquarters and a thin neck. They might have spikes or 4-8 small points. But these are spindly racks and not easily mistaken for those of a mature deer.
2 ½ year old. The hindquarters of bucks this age have filled out a little, and their necks swell ever so slightly during the rut. But their legs still look long. Backs and stomachs are flat with no sagging.
Faces have a narrow, pointed look. Outside antler spreads are typically still inside the width of the ears, meaning less than 16 inches.
3 ½ year old. These deer are getting heavy front quarters, but the neck is still distinct from the chest and does not blend together as it will in older, more mature bucks. The hind quarters become bulkier and more rounded than on younger bucks.
The chest will appear deeper than the hindquarter area. Biologists often liken these thickly muscled deer to a well-bred racehorse.
Noses are broader and squarer than the thin, pointed snouts of younger bucks. Three-year-old bucks have achieved over two-thirds of their potential antler growth. These deer tend to behave aggressively, often challenging older bucks.
4 ½ year old. The neck of a buck this old swells heavily during the rut. It attaches to the body low down, appearing to blend seamlessly into the chest. The neck looks thicker than the head during breeding season and tarsal glands become very dark and stained.
The waist is as deep as the chest, but the belly does not sag. The legs start to appear short because the body is so thick. On a buck of this age, the rack has achieved 80-90 percent of its full potential.
A deer this old is often mostly nocturnal in hard-pressured hunting areas such as the Shenandoah Valley. He tends to stay in thick cover during daylight hours, moving very little.
5 ½ year old. This is about the oldest age that can be distinguished on the hoof in most cases. From here on up deer will look largely the same unless they decline in extreme old age, meaning 7-10 years or more.
The back and belly tend to sag down. There is loose skin on the face and on the body. The nose is typically short and squat, often Roman-shaped. Eyes are sometimes “squinty.”
A 5-year old buck’s chest blends into the neck in one solid mass. Tarsal glands become extremely dark during the rut. Racks may begin to sprout kickers and non-typical points.
Often these deer walk stiffly from arthritis and wounds. Some of them may even shy from battle with younger bucks that are in their prime.
Antlers typically peak at either 5 or 6 years of age, or occasionally seven. After that, they often decline, sometimes dramatically.
Keep these physical characteristics of each age class in mind if you’re looking for a buck older than one and a half years. Far more than antlers, these body and facial traits will help you make a very accurate age estimate before you pull the trigger or release your arrow.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.