Age | 1 ½
Yearling bucks have doe like features – they are small, slender, and have thin necks. Their backs will likely have a slight dip and their legs will appear very long compared to the body. Their age will also show in their behavior as they play and act more juvenile. 1 ½ year old bucks will generally have spikes or forks for head gear, although they can sport small baskets, as well.
Age | 2 ½
2 ½ year old bucks still have small bodies with legs that appear disproportionately long for their body. However, distinguishing them from their yearling counterparts will be muscle which they will have more of. At this age, they will look like a doe with antlers. They will have a flat back, tight stomach, and their necks may swell slightly during the rut. Their antlers generally won’t be as wide as their ears, but the rack itself will have a more developed look than that of a yearling’s.
Age | 3 ½
Bucks in this age class start to make some big changes when it comes to maturity. 3 ½ year old bucks will begin to look and act more like a mature buck rather than an awkward adolescent. Their bodies will be more filled out as they are reaching skeletal maturity and muscular maturity. The long legs won’t stick out anymore as they will now appear much more proportionate to the larger, more muscular body. A 3 ½ year old’s back will be flat and their stomachs will be tight and curved slightly upward. At this age their bodies should resemble that of a racehorse – a flat back, no sagging in the stomach and a neck that isn’t very full, yet. There should be visible lines that separate the neck and shoulder. When it comes to antlers, 3 ½ year old’s begin to develop more mass and you may start to see some character points or defining rack features. Their antler spread may also begin to grow outside the ears.
Age | 4 ½
The most active and aggressive of all the age classes during the rut, 4 ½ year old bucks are at the top of their game. At 4 ½, bucks will have reached skeletal and muscular maturity. Their body will take on a rectangular shape. Because of their mature and muscular physique, a buck’s legs may begin to appear short in proportion to their body. Their backs will be relatively flat or have a slight dip and their stomachs may begin to show a slight sag instead of a tight upswept look. Generally, the stomach will not sag below the chest. A 4 ½ year old’s chest and neck should look well developed. The neck and chest often visibly merge together showing no obvious signs of where one ends and the other begins. At this age, bucks can grow impressive racks, reaching 90% of their potential size. However, antler size does not indicate age as there are a lot of different factors that can influence antler development.
Age | 5 ½ and Older
When bucks start to reach 5 ½ years old and older, they can become more difficult to age accurately, however, age will begin to show on the body. A 5 ½ year old buck will start to develop more of a noticeable dip in the back. In addition, their stomach will start to hang a little lower as well, often even with or below their chest. The chest and neck should be substantial and appear almost as if the buck’s huge neck connects directly to its shoulders with virtually no sign of definition between it and the chest. A 5 ½ year old’s face will also begin to change as the skin on the head will loosen a bit and they’ll begin to develop a rounded roman nose, rather than the squared off nose of younger bucks. A 5 ½ year old has the potential to produce a huge rack, however this is where antlers can be deceiving. A big rack does not mean an old buck. A 4 ½ year old that lives in the right conditions, with the right diet, limited stress and genetic capacity may be able to produce a rack every bit as large as that of a 5 ½ year old. As such, it can be very difficult to determine whether a buck is 4 ½ or 5 ½ based on the rack alone. Defining body characteristics will give you a far better idea of age than the rack.
Whitetail bucks that live past 5 ½ are more of a rarity, especially on public land. Thus, because many hunters haven’t seen bucks this old, they may not be familiar with the physical traits that define this age class. Bucks 6 ½ years and older will have backs with large sways, stomachs that sag and legs that bow inward under the weight of their mature physique. On their head, the skin will be loose, their eyes will be less rounded and appear more squinted, their nose will continue to round out and their ears will sag downward instead of perking upward. They’ll also have loose skin around the neck and under the jaw.
It’s almost impossible to age a buck with 100% accuracy without first looking at its teeth. For that reason, hunters have to do their best to hone in on the details of individual deer, gather as much information they can, and age them with what they know. Look to the body for those clues that will help you determine age class - legs, back, stomach, neck, muscle definition, skin and more.
Good luck out there this fall hunters! It’s not all about the size of a rack, shoot the deer that makes you happy.