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Estimating buck age during the rut and beyond

A mature buck is more likely to break cover in daylight during the rut.
Photo By Butch Cooper

The middle of October is the beginning of the peak of the rut in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Any such statement needs to come with a caveat that weather fluctuations can greatly affect deer movement, but that’s why they call it hunting! When judging the age of a buck should one judge the antlers or the body type? Deer hunters looking to add their name to the big buck harvest roster will be paying attention to both, plus the buck’s behavior.

During the rut, deer hunters sitting in a deer stand should be ready for just about any type of whitetail to appear out of the woods. Bucks are on the move, and they will be checking scrapes, scent posts, running trails, and, most importantly to hunters, they will be making some mistakes. Rather than waiting for the last little bit of daylight in order to view a buck, hunters may see increased daytime movement which will aid their need to ID the buck’s approximate age.

In general, a whitetail buck will look in prime physical condition at the start of the rut, but, after a few peaks and valleys of non-stop activity, they will begin to change appearance. The physical exertion bucks go through can cause them to slim down and drop plenty of pounds from their frame.

A young buck won’t have much of a rack, but, more importantly, its legs will look too long for the rest of the body. At the other end of the spectrum an older over-sized buck may appear not to have enough legs, which should serve as a subtle clue to a buck’s age.

A buck’s neck tends to swell during the rut, and serves them well during the all out antler clashes for dominance that they must endure in order to become a breeder. Bucks that are 1.5 to 2.5 years of age will not have much neck swelling at all, hence the nickname ‘pencil neck.’ Bucks older than this age class can have very rounded necks that will draw attention away from the rack of antlers. A small rack and a big neck during the rut can send conflicting signals to a hunter, and restraint must be practiced at such times in pursuit of a wall-hanger buck.

Besides buck body characteristics, hunters should consider buck behavior. Years ago, during a hunt at Chessie Creek Plantation in Mashawville, I was watching a doe being chased by a young buck. Either deer would have been an easy harvest, but I waited on something better. Just then, an 8-point buck jumped out of the swamp, and began a very ‘bucky’ type of walk, running off the other buck. Before the rest of the drama could play out, my .270-rifle made an accurate shot.

Dominant bucks have an air about them that says they are the king of the ground that they are walking on. While experience can play a role in noticing such behavior, in many cases, the whitetail buck actions are so primitive that it signals a human that this is the correct quarry, and that the Hunt is On! Precious rare moments are these when a hunter interacts with a mature whitetail buck, and they usually result in a tale of stupendous success or a tale of great woe. Good Luck Hunting!

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com

Jeff Dennis, Contributor (230 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com