Is It A Shooter? How To Age A Deer.
How do you know when to release your arrow at a certain deer? Hunters are constantly debating the term “shooter” when referring to which type of deer to harvest. Hard and fast rules are difficult to identify, as herd sizes and regional populations play a part. The best way to determine what constitutes a shooter is to learn how to identify a deer’s age.
This concept isn’t as difficult as you may think. Rather than examining a buck’s rack, you can determine a deer’s age based on body characteristics. Best of all, this applies to bucks and does, so you can identify mature deer ready for harvest and young deer who will develop later. Once you know how to age a deer, you can aim for deer that will provide the best opportunity for a freezer full of meat.
Yearling deer are the easiest to identify. They are born just a few months before the opening of archery season. Although their spots have faded, they still appear different than the rest of the herd. Yearlings often stand near their mother, but it’s important to know how to spot them when they’re alone. They have a very short snout and legs, compact body and floppy ears. Yearling deer haven’t developed much muscle definition, causing their backside and shoulders to appear small compared to the rest of their body.
Moving into their first full year of life, 1½-year-old deer look long and lanky. With minimal fat and muscle definition, these deer have a streamlined appearance and flat back. They have a slim midsection paired with a long neck and snout, and their legs look abnormally long compared to the rest of their body. At this age, bucks sport small racks with only a few points and the widest spread between the ears. Although significantly larger than yearlings, 1 ½-year -old deer still have a few years before reaching maturity.
Deer begin to express more of their genetic potential once they reach 2½ years old. They keep their flat back and narrow midsection, despite developing more muscle definition. These deer still boast a sleek appearance with long legs and a narrow face. Antlered deer generally have small racks with a spread at or slightly wider than the ears, but they start to form the overall antler shape and frame that they’ll carry throughout life.
Deer reach prime physical condition at 3½ years of age. Their rectangular shape and beefed up shoulders and backside are telltale signs of a 3½-year-old deer. They have a full neck that meets a blocky chest at a brisket coated with a thick layer of fat. Gone are the days of a streamlined midsection and flat back, as the stomach has transformed into a gut that hangs as low as the chest, and the back begins to droop. Because overall body size of these deer has increased, their legs appear proportionate to the rest of their body. Bucks display about 75 percent of their antler potential at age 3½, and their necks also swell during the rut.
At age 4½, deer are still identified by their general rectangular appearance. The major difference from years 3½ to 4½ is the deer’s low-lying gut, which sags lower than the chest. Comparatively, the back continues to dip lower and an increasing body fat percentage means the brisket sags from the chest. Does are entirely aware of their surroundings after raising fawns at least three consecutive years, making them a very wary target. Bucks show off impressive racks that highlight their full genetic potential, while their necks enlarge to body-builder status throughout breeding season.
A 5½-year-old deer is a true monarch of the woods. This deer’s body is as big as it will ever be. As the back continues to sway, the chest deepens, and the potbelly is noticeably rounded and enlarged. The deer’s rectangular shape is never more noticeable than right now, and the legs look short compared to the rest of the body. On average, bucks express 100 percent of their antler-growing potential at age 5½. Their jaw-dropping body size makes them a sight most bowhunters only dream about.
It’s very challenging to determine the exact age of a deer beyond 5½ years old. These deer are in their twilight stage of life, and begin to deteriorate significantly. Backs will sway lower than ever, and in some cases, deer start to lose weight. Necks, chests and rumps that were once covered in a thick layer of muscle have shrunk, exposing the spinal cord, hip bones and shoulder blades. Buck antlers begin to diminish with each passing year. It is extremely rare for deer to live beyond 8½ years old in most wild situations.
Now that you understand the physical traits associated with each age class, it’s up to you to determine what the term “shooter” means. In most places where whitetails are common, a 3½-year-old deer is a true trophy. However, places with high deer density naturally produce a more mature age class. In these areas, some selective bowhunters strive for deer ages 4½ years and older.
The opposite is true for areas with fewer deer and poor habitat conditions; in those cases, a 2½-year-old deer is a significant accomplishment for any savvy bowhunter. Ultimately, it’s the hunter’s responsibility to understand the herd structure in their area and target their harvest goals accordingly.