The Art of Aging Whitetail Deer

The rise of whitetail deer breeding has taken hunting in Texas to new levels of excellence.  Within the past decade, the deer breeding industry walked right into the perfect storm of scientific and technological advancements.  The breeding business thrives because of innovations such as highly specialized DNA certification and advanced inoculations to combat ever-changing strains of lethal diseases.  The maturation of the Internet has been the biggest boon to the breeding industry, providing for online databases that store generation’s worth of information on whitetail genetics as well as websites for breeders to showcase their trophies.  But even in a time when hunters can jump-start their property’s whitetail genetics with a phone call to a streamlined, top-tier breeding program, the improvement and sustainability of each property’s whitetail population hinges on allowing young bucks to mature into trophies.  The outcome is in the hands of the hunters, and something as basic as accurately aging whitetail deer through your scope could make all the difference.

It’s true.  To fully impact the genetics of a whitetail population, hunters must reevaluate their approach to the sport and start thinking in terms of age instead of antler size.  Properly aging whitetail deer in the field before firing a shot is the culmination of this thinking, and the most direct way hunters can influence sustainably improved whitetail herds.  You could purchase a herd of blue chip stocker bucks, seamlessly introduce them to a quiet, fertile property and truck in protein feed until its ankle-deep from fence to fence, but if those hunting the land are improperly aging whitetail deer and harvesting 2 ½ - 3 ½ year-old bucks just because they like the look of their racks, your fantasy deer program isn’t likely to get far off the ground.

A whitetail buck takes time to mature into a trophy.  Up until around five years of age, the majority of the buck’s nutritional intake is directed towards bone growth and body development.  Only after the deer’s body is mature can nutrients and minerals start affecting full antler growth.  This is why competently aging whitetail deer from the blind should be a top priority for hunters, allowing younger bucks to mature and reproduce, positively affecting the genetics of the entire herd.

Aging whitetail deer on the hoof is an inexact science, to say the least, but there are some distinguishing indicators if you know what to look for.  Physically, the body of a 1 ½ year-old male looks very much like that of a female.  By 3 ½ his body is filled out, tarsal glands have darkened and his nose has begun to elongate and broaden. 

At 4 ½ and older, aging whitetail deer by body characteristics becomes tricky.  With each successive year their coats and antlers grow darker, their necks become thicker and more muscular, and their torsos transition from a sleek “greyhound” figure, gradually becoming thicker, broader and more substantial.  By 6 ½, bucks begin to show their age.  Their backs, bellies and briskets sag, and gray hair may show up in their elongated muzzles and drooping ears.

Aging whitetail deer via body characteristics is hard enough on paper, harder still when looking through a 3x9 at dusk.  But this is where practiced hunters will be able to discern certain things just by watching the deer’s body language.  Younger bucks are flighty, exhibit limited economy of motion, and are less tentative in reacting to their immediate environment.  At 5 ½ years old and up, aging whitetail deer using body language is actually easier.  Mature bucks move with measured purpose, walking deliberately and slightly knock-kneed from years of supporting so much weight.  They are seasoned and cautious and usually stick to close to cover.

So the next time you’re in the great outdoors, take some time out to just observe and practice aging whitetail deer.  Honing this skill is such an important, yet largely overlooked aspect in trophy whitetail hunting.  Train your brain to think in terms of “how old” instead of “how many points,” and it won’t be long before your whitetail population starts to show it.