Last week we discussed how to age a deer by its jawbone and the many reasons for doing so. Although this is useful information to have, it can only be performed on a deer you have already harvested and are thus able to peer inside the mouth of that animal. Since there may come a time during which you would like to have some idea as to the age of a deer before a harvest occurs, it is useful to know how to body age a deer as well.
Many times hunters use the term 'let them go and let them grow.' It is when making such a decision that knowing how to body age comes in very handy. If you're able to tell an approximate age of a buck based on physical description, you can make a decision as to whether he is good to harvest this year or you would be better served to let him grow up a little more. Being that a growing buck is not going to simultaneously grow his best rack while his body itself is still maturing, it is sometimes best to let that one go and wait for another, more mature buck.
Photo: Buck Manager
Although there is no set in stone rule for body aging deer, there are many factors to take into consideration that will give you a good age estimate. The main places to look when aging a deer are the head, ears, neck, brisket, legs, belly, back, tarsal gland, and rump. Although racks get a lot of attention and it is mostly true that they grow bigger each year, the rack itself is not a good indicator as there are too many variables to use a rack alone to judge age. This is especially true because after a certain age, a buck's rack will actually start to thin out, possibly tricking an unexperienced eye in regards to age. Instead, stick to the following characteristics when determining age.
Fawns will have long ears but a short nose with long, skinny legs. On the top of their heads, pedicels will be present and tarsal glands will be small and white in color. The body size of a fawn will be smaller than an adult doe and they often have a prancing type gait when moving about.
Upon reaching 1 and 1/2 years of age, bucks will look a lot like a doe bearing antlers. Their necks will be thin, tarsal glands white, legs long, and gait still somewhat prancing in nature. In their backs, a dip will have begun to form and their waist will taper near the rear legs.
At 2 and 1/2 years of age is when bucks start to fill out a little bit and their faces elongate. Their necks will thicken and a brisket will begin to appear. Belly still has that tapered appearance and rump starts to take on a square appearance. Tarsal glands will begin to change color.
At 3 and 1/2 years of age, the nose will have taken on a broader look and they eyes will be round as the head reaches its full growth potential. The rump will have rounded and the belly lost most of it's tapering with a slight brisket appearing. The deer will at this point appear to have grown into its legs and the tarsal gland will be dark in color.
By 4 and 1/2 years of age, you should be looking at a well-formed buck. The back will have a very slight dip, the rump will be round, and the belly will be even at chest level. Legs will be sturdy and straight, bearing tarsal glands that are black in color during the rut. At this age you will start to see the appearance of nontypical points on the rack.
Upon reaching 5 and 1/2, the brisket will be very obvious and the belly will have begun to sag. The eye will begin to take on a more almond shape and nontypical points will be present. Gait will have changed to acclimate aging knees that may bend inward slightly.
At 6 and 1/2 years of age, a buck will exude dominance. That deer will be the focal point of others in the area. He will have a full neck, brisket, and rack with inward bent knees. Belly will sag and rump is rounded. His rack will be as rich in nontypical points as it ever will be and this is the deer you want to harvest.
After surpassing 6 and 1/2 years of age, a buck starts to experience a downhill decline. This is when another buck can step up to challenge him and dominance may shift. Muscle tone will start to go and loose skin will be present, especially in the rump. The body overall will appear more angular and coat may appear coarse or even lighter in color than in years previous. At this point, a buck is pretty much over the hill and starts to resemble a younger deer in appearance and has a lesser presence overall.
When aging deer, you are going to find the best overall package around 5 to 7 years of age in terms of both body condition and antler spread. This of course varies based on health, which in turn is based largely on climate and readily available food sources throughout the year. With the combination of age and rack in mind and the goal of getting the best overall buck, the old adage of letting them go to grow makes a lot of sense. Why settle for a buck when you know he's a regular in your area and will be that much better next year? Good bucks come to those who wait, after all.
Have you ever waited out a buck and been pleasantly surprised to see him the following year? Or did you not take one and wish you would have? Tell us your story in the comments.