Antler development is one clue to the age of a deer, but can be highly variable depending mostly on nutrition and genetics. Many will sport spikes or forked antlers but some may carry a rack of six or even eight points. Marcus Constance/U.S. Forest Service via AP

When most folks talk about aging deer they’re referring to venison, and the process of hanging a deer for an extended period to improve flavor and tenderness. However, with the rise in popularity of trail cameras, increasingly more hunters are sharing photos on social media and asking, “How old is this deer?”

When it comes to the answers you have to consider the source. A lot of well-meaning keyboard biologists offer their opinions, often of questionable accuracy. Fortunately, there are some fairly reliable – though not foolproof – methods for properly aging deer on the hoof, or from a photo. Let’s start with does as they can only be reliably divided into two or three age classes. Early in the season it’s easy to distinguish does from fawns but as the youngsters grow it becomes more difficult, especially if you don’t have multiple deer present for comparison.

First, look at the head and face. A fawn’s forehead and nose will appear much shorter (think: 8-ounce soda bottle) in comparison to the adult doe’s longer nose (16-ounce soda bottle) and larger head. Next, look at the body. Fawns also have short, square bodies, short necks and less muscle development. An adult doe’s body will be larger and more rectangular-shaped. Necks appear longer and older does may have swayed backs or sagging bellies.

Yearling does look somewhere in between and are best judged in the presence of older and/or younger deer. It’s not uncommon for female deer to travel in family groups consisting of several generations, often a mature doe, her fawns and her yearling female offspring from the previous year. The same guidelines apply to buck fawns, though they may show a more square head than a doe, and sometimes you can distinguish tiny nubs or buttons that will eventually become antlers.

Now for the antlered bucks. Yearling bucks appear dainty, with thin necks, somewhat resembling a doe with antlers. Their legs appear long and slender compared to their body. Antler development can be highly variable depending mostly on nutrition and genetics. Many will sport spikes or forked antlers but some may carry a rack of six or even eight points. Regardless, main beams and points are usually thin and short.

Two-year-old bucks generally look somewhat gangly and awkward, though a healthy Maine buck could fool a lot of folks into thinking it’s older. Legs also appear long for their body, and they’ll have a thin waist and shoulders and limited neck swelling. During the rut, tarsal glands may be dark, but very small and round. Rack size also varies but six-, eight- or even 10-point racks that score in the 120s and even 130s are not unusual, and a 2-year-old might dress out somewhere between 140 and 180 pounds, possibly more further north. Antler beams will still be relatively narrow at the base but thicker than a yearling and possibly have more rounded points.

Three-year-old bucks will have a fuller, thickly-muscled neck. The chest appears deeper than the hindquarters, giving a “race horse” appearance. Horizontal lines of the back and stomach are still straight and taut. Another good characteristic is that you can usually distinguish where the neck meets the shoulders. Tarsal glands during the rut will be dark but small, and staining does not extend down the leg to the hoof. Antler beams become thicker and could be 3 1/2 inches in diameter at the base.

At age 4, bucks reach maturity. Skeletal structure stops growing so they can direct more nutrition to body weight and antler mass. Their fully muscled neck now blends seamlessly into a deep chest. Their rump appears full and rounded and legs may appear slightly short for the body. The stomach and back do not sag, yet. Jaw skin is tight and tarsal glands will be noticeably large and dark. Rack size still varies but most of these deer will fall into what most hunters would consider the trophy category. The base of the beams will be thick, about the same diameter as a deer’s eye, and may show more dark staining.

Not many deer make it that long in heavily hunted areas but a few do, more so in the big woods where hunting pressure is less. Their neck and brisket will appear to be one continuous muscle and their neck will show heavy swelling. Now the legs really appear too short for the big, blocky body. Their waistline will be even (parallel) with the chest and they may start to show a pot belly and sagging back. Tarsals appear noticeably large and very dark with staining down the inside of the leg to the hoof during the rut. Again, rack size varies but even if they don’t carry a crown of thorns, beams will be thick and heavy, especially at the bases.

There are objective criteria for what distinguishes a trophy buck, but for most hunters it’s a personal and very subjective judgement. A yearling might be a trophy for an inexperienced or unlucky hunter. Many 2- and 3-year-old bucks eventually make their way to the taxidermist. And a gnarly old north woods buck that won’t score well in the record book but will pull the scales down well past the 200-pound mark might make the grade for big woods hunters. Still, if you plan to be selective, it’s nice to know what to look for.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and Registered Maine Guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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