How old is that deer? Now you can tell.
The Quality Deer Management Approach
Rapid growth of deer populations, the overharvest of bucks, and the
underharvest of does have created overpopulated deer herds with highly
unbalanced sex ratios. These conditions result in a large number of female deer
and a limited number of older aged bucks.
Deer overpopulation causes damage to forest vegetation and agricultural
crops, threatens human health because of deer-vehicle collisions, and creates
unhealthy deer due to inadequate food supplies. Because antler development
increases dramatically with age, lack of older bucks translates into fewer
large-antlered bucks available for harvest.
Correcting overpopulation and unbalanced sex ratios is a goal of many deer
managers, hunters, and the general public. Maintaining deer populations within
the available food supply and at a more balanced sex ratio becomes a long-term
Recreational hunting experiences are improved when hunters take a more active
role in making harvest management decisions. Letting young bucks "walk" becomes
a rewarding experience and often leads to observation of previously unseen deer
behavior. This approach to deer management is generally referred to as "quality
Managing deer population numbers and sex ratio requires selective harvest.
Hunters must refrain from harvest of young bucks and choose to harvest
approximately equal numbers of bucks and does. In the early stages of a quality
deer management program, harvest prescriptions often require higher rates of doe
harvest to compensate for past harvest strategies. Fawn production often
increases as overpopulation is corrected, which means there will be more buck
fawns that could be mistakenly harvested as does. To be successful in selective
harvest, hunters must be able to roughly estimate age of bucks on the hoof and
avoid the harvest of buck fawns during doe harvest.
The goal of this publication is to provide a few general physical criteria
for aging and sexing deer before harvest. Individual deer variation ensures
these criteria will not apply in every case; however, using these criteria will
help provide a reasonable expectation of making a correct harvest decision.
A few "mistakes" are expected when applying selective harvest to an
intensively managed deer herd. Land managers and hunters should treat honest
mistakes as opportunities for learning. The net benefit of a quality deer
management program greatly exceeds any ill effects from a few selective-harvest
Identifying Does and Fawns
An adequate doe harvest is essential to maintaining population densities
within available food supplies and balancing sex ratios. Unfortunately,
well-intentioned hunters often mistake buck fawns for does. Harvesting "nubbin"
or 6-month-old buck fawns will reduce future antlered-buck numbers, so it should
be kept to a minimum. Fortunately, there are several ways to differentiate
between does and fawns.
Early season bow hunters regularly see spotted fawns. The fawn's spotted coat
is normally shed and replaced with a brownish or grayish coat by mid-autumn,
although areas with late fawning may still have spotted fawns even during gun
season. The fawn's forehead and nose are shorter in comparison to the adult
doe's head. The relative shortness of a fawn's face is the most critical
Fawn behavior differs from the adult doe; fawns are more playful, naive,
inquisitive, and in the buck fawn's case, more aggressive. A buck fawn may be
the first anterless deer you see because he is less wary and more inquisitive.
The "nubbin" buck has developing antler bases or pedicles (immature antlers)
that are difficult to see early in the season but are easier to detect later,
particularly from the side.
Use these tips to harvest an older doe and avoid harvesting a buck fawn:
- Do not harvest an antlerless deer that appears alone. Adult does rarely
travel alone. Does and fawns normally travel together in social groups, although
it is often the buck fawn that enters an opening first. Wait until several deer
are together and then look for obvious size differences. Harvest one of the
larger antlerless deer.
- Later in the hunting season, it is not uncommon for "orphaned" twin fawns to
feed in food plots. Probability dictates one will be a buck and one a doe. In
this situation, it is easy to mistake the buck fawn for an adult doe, since it
is normally larger than the doe fawn. The doe's head normally is more rounded on
top between the ears, because the buck's head is flattened by the presence of
the pedicles. Close inspection with binoculars looking for the pedicles or
antler bases helps avoid harvesting the nubbin buck.
- Watch the behavior of deer. Fawns are playful, curious, and not as wary as
- Examine the head of deer; check for pedicles on buck fawns, particularly
from the side view. Pay attention to obvious fawns throughout the season; look
for indications of pedicle development. Do not wait until you are ready to
harvest a doe to look for differences between fawns and adult does. Do not
harvest antlerless deer with short noses or foreheads.
- Look for "wear and tear" signs that typify mature does (for example, ears
that appear too short for the head, a swayed back, and a sagging belly). The
snout of an adult doe is relatively longer than a fawn's. An adult doe's body is
rectangular shaped, while a fawn's body is square shaped.
- If you are not sure of the ages, wait to harvest an animal when you can make
a more positive identification.
Antler Size Characteristics
Antler size is difficult to judge in the field, particularly under hunting
conditions. Harvest decisions often are made hurriedly. You might mistakenly
harvest a young, immature buck unless you can determine age and antler size with
some measure of accuracy. In the Southeast, 1½-year-old bucks rarely exceed 12
to 13 inches inside spread. Not harvesting bucks with less than 13 inches inside
spread effectively protects the entire yearling age class. Requiring a minimum
number of antler points, as practiced in some states, also protects a
significant number of yearling bucks. Restricting harvest of bucks not meeting a
minimum inside spread criterion and number of points is a common management
Use the following tips to judge antler size:
- Ear width -- In the normal or relaxed position, the tip-to-tip distance
between ears on a buck is about 15 inches. An alarmed deer orients his ears in a
forward direction to focus on noises; this alarm behavior reduces tip-to-tip ear
width down to about 12 inches. Use ear width to estimate inside spread of
antlers if the buck looks in your direction.
- Ear length -- The length of a buck's ear from base to tip is about 6 to 7
inches. Use ear length to estimate antler tine length directly. Beam length is
difficult to estimate accurately and requires a frontal and side view. If inside
spread exceeds the relaxed ear tip-to-tip width, then look at the side view. If
the antler seen from the side projects forward beyond the midpoint between the
eyes and the tip of the nose, you have a buck with beam length exceeding 20
- Number of antler points -- It is almost impossible to see all antler points
clearly from any one perspective. Use frontal and side views to get a full count
of antler points. It is difficult to see brow tines except from the frontal
position. From the side, count the number of points projecting upward from the
main beam. If you see two on each side, it will likely be an 8-point buck. If
you see three points projecting up on each side, it will likely be a 10-point
Whitetails are like people in the sense that the overall body appearance
changes with age. The general appearance becomes "more mature" as the buck ages
from year to year. By judging the general overall appearance and then focusing
on specific body characteristics, it is possible to place bucks into one of
several age classes.
Selective harvest to meet the specific needs of individual deer management
programs requires that bucks be aged based on general physical characteristics.
Specific antler characteristics such as minimum inside spread or minimum number
of points can greatly help protect yearling bucks. Antler characteristics alone,
however, may not provide the needed level of resolution for all selective
harvest applications. Even general appearances change during rut; an older buck
may lose up to 25 percent of its body weight due to increased activity and
decreased food consumption.
The 1½-Year-Old Buck (Yearling)
It is often said a yearling buck resembles a "doe with antlers," which makes
it relatively easy to discern. The 1½-year-old buck will not develop the swollen
neck and muscular characteristics of older bucks. These bucks tend to have thin
hindquarters and long, thin legs. Think of a teenaged boy, not yet reaching full
height and not nearly "filled in."
Almost all yearlings have an antler spread less than 13 inches. These
"teenagers" have not learned to be as secretive as their older associates are,
so they often enter food plots earlier than older bucks and tend to be in the
vicinity of doe family groups. The average size of a buck's antlers doubles
between 1½ and 2½ years of age, so it is a good decision to let a yearling buck
grow at least another year.
The 2½-year-old group is more difficult than yearlings to judge. The majority
of this age group still have antler spreads inside the ears, but some
individuals may produce a good set of antlers. During rut, this age class
produces a limited amount of neck swelling due to muscle development, and the
waist, or area just in front of the back legs, is relatively thin. Their
hindquarters are much more filled in than the yearling's, but their legs appear
to be "long and lanky." This age class has lots of growing to do before reaching
full maturity, so it is best to let them grow at least another year. Their racks
are only about 60 percent of the size they will be at 5½ to 6½ years.
The ability to distinguish 3½-year-old age group is important to a management
program emphasizing harvest of mature-aged bucks with maximum antler
development. During the rut, the buck's neck is thickly muscled, yet there is
still a distinct junction between the neck and shoulders. Some biologists
compare its look to that of a well-conditioned racehorse.
The chest region may begin to appear deeper than the hindquarter area; inside
spread of antlers typically is at or outside the ears. These bucks can develop
impressive antlers, especially on well-managed properties in productive
habitats; they are easily mistaken for "mature" deer. In reality, they have
reached only about 75 percent of maximum antler development.
A white-tailed buck physiologically matures by 4½ years of age. By this age
they have almost all of their adult body mass and have lost the racehorse look.
Its neck region is fully muscled, giving the appearance of blending into the
shoulders, and the waistline is as deep as the chest. Buck activity patterns may
have changed by this age due to an increased wariness; they may not venture into
open areas until about dark. Physiological maturity is closely associated with
the maturing of a buck's antlers. By this age, the average buck will have grown
about 90 percent of his total antler size.
5½- to 6½-Year-Old Buck (Mature or Prime)
Fully matured bucks have a distinctive look that is undeniable once
experienced. This publication groups deer 5½ years old and 6½ years old into one
age class, because few hunters or managers will want to try to differentiate
animals. Antler size typically is maximum at 5½ to 6½ years of age and may
deteriorate thereafter, depending on forage conditions.
During the rut, the buck's neck blends completely into his shoulders, and his
front half appears to be one large mass. His legs appear shorter than legs of
younger deer, but this is an optical illusion because his chest is taking up
more of the viewing area. Just as people in middle age, most mature bucks
exhibit a sagging belly. Their eyes are squinty in appearance. Mature bucks
often show battle scars such as torn ears, broken antler tines, and scratched
7½-Year-Old and Older Bucks
Overmatured bucks are often mistaken for younger animals because some body
characteristics tend to revert. Muscularity is lost in the neck area because
these animals may not participate as frequently in normal rutting activities. A
swayed back and a prominent potbelly are other signs of this aged buck. Loose
skin develops on the neck and head areas as muscle tone declines. Recent battle
scars may not be visible, but old scars such as slit ears are evident. A buck's
antler size tends to decline with advancing age.
Hunter as Manager
Deer hunters and mangers have a wealth of reliable information to incorporate
into their management plans. Deer biologists recognize that the future of deer
populations in the Southeast depend on the willingness and ability of hunters to
make rational and informed harvest decisions. Adequate harvest of does and the
use of discretion in harvest of bucks are among relevant management decisions.
Although the harvest process is more of an art than a science, harvest must
be based on the best science available and the art practiced with diligence. One
of the objectives of this publication is to provide additional insight into the
art of aging and judging live deer and to be a guide to help sharpen skills
needed in making harvest decisions.
Ultimately, the deer hunter becomes the deer manager. Maintaining a healthy
deer population needs to be a goal of any deer management program, whether or
not it is based on the "quality deer management concept." This is the
responsibility of all hunters, who must consider that, with each harvest, they
contribute to the future of this magnificent game animal.
By Stephen Demarais, Ph.D., Associate
Professor, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; Dean Stewart, Extension
Wildlife Specialist, Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, and Robert N.
Griffin, District Administrator, Mississippi Department of Wildlife,
Fisheries and Parks.