When I first started hunting, people didn't seem to think much about how old a buck was. Although most hunters had some idea that age could be determined by teeth, few knew how to do it.
A good many hunters still don't know how to age a deer. Some tie age to body size, but the well-fed offspring of a big mom and dad can be bigger than his peers.
Some think the grayer a deer's muzzle, the older the deer. Although a very old deer might acquire some grayness (just as you and your family dog might), a young deer might also be gray. Some are reddish, some are dark, some are light. Color variations are a genetic trait, as is albinism (white) and melanism (black).
Other hunters think that the longer a deer's muzzle, the older the deer. That might sound like it makes sense because fawns have short faces, and as a deer gets older his muzzle gets longer to accommodate more teeth in his jaw. But teeth aren't all the same size, and a mature buck can have a short, broad face, just as some people do.
Some connect age to antlers - they point to traits such as gnarly tines, or the "beading" around the bases, and claim a buck is an old timer. Still others focus on pedicel size (the "stalk" from which an antler grows). Perhaps a few still remain who naively think a buck's first rack is a spike, the next year he grows a four-point rack, then a six, and on.
That would make a 10-point 5 years old in the fall, but the truth is that a well-nourished doe with good antler genetics (at least half of a buck's antler genetics come from his mother) can produce a buck that has 10 points on his first rack.
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Some hunters think body size is a factor of age, but last season a 4-point and an 8-point hung around me for two hours and I examined both closely. The 4-point was clearly bigger than the 8-point, but age might have nothing to do with the difference.
Some believe older bucks will grow non-typical points and drop tines, but that's not necessarily true. A year and a half old spike sporting his first set of antlers might have a non-typical point sprouting from the base.
Through the years, magazine articles, seminars, TV and the Internet have made deer science more accessible to the average hunter. We've learned that aging a deer based on observation isn't easy, and age-related characteristics are displayed in many ways.
Body proportions give clues to age. A deer with small shoulders is likely a young deer, regardless of how big his antlers are. It takes until a deer's third year before his front end matches his back end, and ultimately his caboose might end up small compared to his shoulders.
Along with the shoulders filling out, a deer's girth increases with age. His belly, when he's young, slopes upward into his groin. At about three it will be more parallel with the ground, and as he gets older it will probably sag a little.
Checking the number of molars and how much they're worn is a way to determine the age of a deer, but even that can be misleading because of an individual deer's chewing habits, and the type of soil where the deer feeds.
The only sure way to determine a deer's age positively is to extract a front incisor, cross-section it, stain it, magnify it, and count the number of rings in it - yes, just like counting the rings in a tree.
One sign that times have changed since I began hunting is that today, one of the biggest deer camp debates is "How Old Is That Buck?" This year, when you or your friends shoot a deer, have a good time debating the issue.