The white-tailed deer strode forward, suffering from arthritis. Her stomach was sagging and there was loose skin around her face and neck. The legs seemed short because her body was so thick and deep.
This deer, which I was lucky enough to collect on a Texas hunt, was one of the oldest I have ever seen. My guide, who is also a wildlife biologist, estimated his age at 7.5 years.
It would be rare to meet such an old male in the Shenandoah Valley. The cover is not thick enough and the flushing pressure is too strong. But if you want to try and resist a deer older than the average 1-2 year old male taken locally, it’s important to know what the different age classes of animals look like. Here is a short refresher course on aging males “on the hoof”.
Racks can give clues, but the most useful way to age a male is through his body characteristics.
1-1Â½ years old. These deer are often described as resembling “a doe with antlers”. They have a feminine and delicate appearance with long legs, a narrow hindquarters and a slender neck.
They can have spikes or 4 to 8 small dots. But these are spindly racks and not easily confused with those of an adult deer.
2-2Â½ years old. The hindquarters of goats of this age have filled up a bit and their necks swell very slightly during the rut. But their legs still look long. The back and stomach are flat without sagging.
The faces have a narrow, pointed gaze. Exterior wood spacers are usually always inside the width of the ears, which means less than 16 inches.
3-3Â½ years. These deer have heavy forequarters, but the neck is always distinct from the chest. The neck and chest do not blend together, as they will in older, more mature males. Hindquarters are larger and more rounded than in young males.
The chest will appear deeper than the hindquarters area. Biologists often compare these muscular deer to a well-behaved racehorse.
The nose is wider and more square than the thin, pointed muzzle of young males. The three-year-old males have reached over two-thirds of their potential antler growth. These deer tend to behave aggressively, often challenging older males.
4-4Â½ years old. The neck of a goat of this old man swells strongly during the rut. It attaches to the lower body, seeming to blend in perfectly with the chest. The neck appears thicker than the head during the breeding season, and the tarsal glands become dark and stained.
The waist is as deep as the chest, but the belly does not sag. The legs seem short because the body is so deep. With a male of this age, the rack has reached 80-90% of its full growth potential.
A deer of this age is often predominantly nocturnal in high pressure hunting areas such as the Shenandoah Valley. He tends to stay in a thick blanket during daylight hours, moving very little.
5-5 and a half years old. This is the highest age that can be distinguished on the hoof in most cases. From there, deer will look largely the same, unless they decline at an extreme age, which is 7-10 years or more.
The back and stomach tend to sag. There is loose skin on the face and on the body. The nose is generally short and stocky, often Roman in shape. The eyes are sometimes “squint”.
The breast of a 5 year old male goat merges into the neck into a solid mass. The tarsal glands become extremely dark during the rut. Racks can start to sprout kickers and atypical points.
These deer sometimes walk stiffly due to arthritis and injuries from fighting other males. Some of them may even be reluctant to fight with younger males who are in their prime.
Antlers usually peak at five or six, or sometimes seven. After that, they often decline, sometimes dramatically.
Keep these physical characteristics of each age group in mind if you are looking for a male over the age of one and a half. Much more than antlers, these body and facial features will help you make an accurate estimate of age.
Award-winning outdoor writer Gerald Almy is a resident of Maurertown