There’s more to judging a trophy than antlers. Body characteristics can tell you a lot about a buck.
The buck that stood before me was a real tempter — not huge, but the best I’d seen in an 11-hour vigil.
I knew he would meet many hunters’ definition of a shooter, even my own under different circumstances. But I knew this piece of southeast Ohio ground well enough not to be hasty.
It helped that I wasn’t rushed. The buck had been feeding in the food plot in front of me for quite some time, perhaps 30 minutes or so. Each time my trigger finger started to itch, I picked up my binoculars and gave him a good look, studying antlers and body. Each time, he came just a little short of my personal objective.
Then the buck’s head jerked up and he stared intently behind and to my right.
Seconds later, another buck walked into the plot. This time there was no hesitation. One quick glimpse was all I needed. My cheek went down on the stock of my crossbow, and I quickly found the buck in the scope.
I followed his progress for maybe 15 yards before uttering a loud “blaaaa!” The instant his forward progress stopped, I applied pressure to the trigger. The buck raced across the plot in what I knew was a fatal flight.
Even under the best of circumstances, doubt has a way of creeping in after the adrenaline rush subsides. I’d looked the first buck over for nearly half an hour and still wasn’t sure whether to shoot or not. I’d looked at the second one for half a second before making up my mind. Had I been too hasty?
Thanks to our readers and Buckmasters.com fans, the Ask the Biologist section of our website has been immensely successful. Not only do your questions provide an opportunity to inform thousands of hunters who might wonder the same thing, they also provide inspiration for some of the articles that appear in this magazine.
Last year we received a batch of questions about field-judging deer. That prompted a feature called Judgement Day (Buckmasters November 2012), which offered guidelines for estimating the rough antler score of a deer on the hoof.
That article neglected a rather important part of the field-judging formula, however. With the growing interest in quality deer management, more hunters are just as interested in a buck’s age.
What follows is, as Paul Harvey used to say, the rest of the story.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
Being able to properly field-age deer using body characteristics is an acquired skill that must be honed through time and experience. Even then, it’s not entirely reliable. You’ll tend to be more accurate judging deer in areas you hunt regularly.
I’ve been hunting deer for more than 30 years. Being a Northerner, I still sometimes struggle with properly aging bucks in the Southeast and Texas, despite making annual trips to those locations.
Time of year is another factor. In early fall, bucks look thinner. They haven’t grown thick winter coats or piled on muscle mass, particularly in the neck and shoulders. As a result, they tend to look younger. Just before and during the breeding season is the best time to age bucks because of pronounced neck swelling and tarsal staining, two key aging characteristics.
According to Kip Adams, director of education and outreach for the Quality Deer Management Association, “You can estimate age at other times of the year, but you must consider what the particular characteristics will or would have looked like during the rut.”
Despite those difficulties, using body characteristics to make a guess about a deer’s age can be an important tool in managing whitetails.
Fawns: You might think it’s pretty hard to mistake a fawn for an adult deer. Early in the season, it is. But the later into winter it gets, the more difficult it is to distinguish the two. Obviously, you wouldn’t mistake a fawn for an adult buck. But you could mistake one for an adult doe, especially if you consider that by the end of November, a fawn in northern states like Maine, Minnesota or even Iowa could be approaching 90 pounds on the hoof — darned near the size of its mother.
The long winter coats of northern deer make it more difficult to identify a button buck, which could be nearly the same size as a 1 1/2-year-old doe.
Fortunately, there are a few clues for distinguishing fawns from adult does.
The body of a fawn is smaller and more square, while that of an older deer will be more rectangular — noticeably longer than it is tall. Think of a fawn’s body as a briefcase and a doe’s as a suitcase.
Fawns have a smaller head compared to their body size, which also gives them the appearance of a more compact face and bigger ears. Think of the fawn’s head as an 8-ounce soda bottle and the doe’s as a 16-ounce bottle.
With a little practice, you might be able to distinguish fawn sex, although I wouldn’t bet my tag on it. The head of a doe fawn tends to be more rounded between the ears while that of a buck fawn can appear flatter.
From here on out, it gets harder.
1 1/2: Entering its second fall, a young buck is now considered an adult, but is often referred to as a yearling. He will appear almost dainty with a thin neck, somewhat resembling a doe with antlers. His legs appear long for his body, giving him a slender, lanky look with a thin waist.
Antler development can be highly variable at this age, ranging from spikes to eight or 10 points. A buck at this age usually has about 15 to 25 percent of its antler growth potential (AGP). Beams are thin and relatively short, and spread is usually inside the ears. During the rut, tarsal glands are small and lightly colored, possibly with some dark staining.
2 1/2: If you’re working under any type of management program or you’re selective about what you shoot, this is the age when bucks start entering the shooter category. Antler spread will be around same width as the ears, and bucks will be somewhere around 25 to 50 percent of AGP.
Their legs still appear slightly long for the body, and bucks might seem a bit gangly and awkward, although not nearly to the same extent as yearlings.
More reliable cues are a thin waist and relatively little muscling in the shoulders. Like high school boys, their skeletal frames are nearing full size, but they’re only just beginning to lay on muscle.
They might show slight neck swelling during the rut, and tarsal glands can be dark, but they’re still small and round.
3 1/2: This is probably the most easily mistaken age class in areas with some type of minimum restrictions, particularly for those not accustomed to looking at a lot of deer.
For the first time, bucks start to look mature, and some folks even refer to them as mature although they are not. These tempters look big and muscular. Antlers can be even with or outside their ears, will carry decent mass and be between 50 to 75 percent AGP.
These bucks have a fuller, thickly muscled (swollen) neck and noticeably muscled shoulders, although you can still distinguish the neck from the shoulders.
Their chest is deeper than their hindquarters, but the waist is still thin, giving them what is often referred to as a racehorse appearance. The legs don’t appear too long and seem about right for the body, while the back and stomach line are relatively straight and taut.
Tarsal glands are dark and might show a lot of staining in the rut, but they’re still small, and staining does not extend down the leg to the hoof.
4 1/2: Entering his fifth fall, a buck can now properly be referred to as mature. He’s achieved somewhere between 75 and 90 percent AGP and is ready for harvest under most management schemes.
He has a fully muscled neck that blends smoothly into his deep chest and muscled shoulders. His formerly narrow waist drops down to even with his belly, forming a more or less straight line.
His legs appear slightly short for the body, and his tarsal glands will be noticeably large and darkly stained with scalding down the leg. More subtle cues include a rump that appears full and rounded and tight skin around the jaw.
5 1/2 to 7 1/2: This buck has reached his prime but might soon decline if he has not already begun to do so. He has achieved 90 to 100 percent of his AGP and is ready to harvest under virtually any management scheme.
Only under extremely controlled circumstances would you consider letting him go another year. From this point on, chances only increase that he will decline or you’ll never see him again.
He has many of the same characteristics as a 4 1/2-year-old, but the stomach and back have a noticeable sag, giving him a potbelly and swayback appearance.
The neck might show more swelling, and the legs seem even shorter because of the deep chest.
Tarsals are noticeably large and very dark with staining down the inside of the leg to the hoof.
8 1/2-plus: Somehow this buck slipped through. Maybe he was a recluse or never had much AGP. Regardless, antler growth and body condition are both on the decline.
He will have loose skin on his face and neck and possibly a grayer face. He has begun to lose body mass as well, giving him a bony appearance, possibly with shoulder blades or hips more obvious.
He’s knock-kneed, potbellied and swaybacked. Behaviorally, he’s in much less of a hurry and might even act subordinate to younger bucks.
The above clues are intended as general guidelines to give you a reasonable estimate. Keep in mind, especially in nature, there are exceptions to every rule. Drought, poor feed or disease could affect body characteristics, making it harder to properly age bucks.
Some exceptions are due to aberrations in anatomy or physiology. Bucks with damaged or malformed reproductive organs might not put on as much muscle mass in the neck and shoulders. Occasionally, the opposite occurs and a buck over-produces testosterone and bulks up like a weight lifter on steroids.
I witnessed this once in Saskatchewan. Based on facial features and antler growth, I guessed the buck to be 2 1/2, although he could have been 3 1/2. His body was so round and swollen it looked like a 50-gallon drum on legs. He easily outweighed any of the other bucks I saw, including older deer, and was by far the most aggressive buck.
Then there are individual differences. Individual deer vary in size and stature at least as much as humans do. Some have short legs, others long ones. Some are heavier and some lean. I’ve harvested different 2 1/2-year-old bucks from the same area that varied in weight by as much as 40 pounds. And some simply look younger or older than we think.
Just a few weeks prior to the Ohio hunt that opened this story, I experienced my first real case of ground-shrinkage. The buck came in head-on, giving me only seconds to decide. I focused on the rack and its relative proportion to the body, failing to account for the diminutive body size of a western Oklahoma buck.
It wasn’t until we started tracking my Ohio buck that it occurred to me. I really hadn’t looked at the rack, but instead focused on the body. There would be no ground shrinkage this time. The Ohio buck was everything I had hoped for and more, a fully mature whitetail in his prime. And he sported a pretty darned good rack, too.
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This article was published in the July 2013 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.