Anyone wishing to grow trophy whitetail deer knows one of the main ingredients of getting a buck to maximum size is age. From a fawn until a deer reaches 3.5 years old, the deer’s body is still developing so a large portion of its nutritional intake goes toward growing muscle and bone. Think of a 3.5 year old buck as being a teenage person. Once the buck reaches 4.5 years old, its frame is basically through growing and now most of the bucks food can be funneled towards antlers. Bucks that are 4.5 years old deer = 21 year old man.
It’s pretty obvious, even to a rookie hunter, the difference between a 1.5 year old deer vs. a trophy is pretty obvious–no brainer. It is also pretty easy to determine a 2.5 year old buck from an older one. The problem lies in the average hunter being able to make a fairly sure estimate on a 3.5 year old buck vs. a 4.5+ year old buck. This is where most mistakes are made. A landowner or ranch manager has invested 3.5 years into a nice looking buck with eye-catching antlers but that deer needs that extra time to really bloom into a heavy, dark antlered trophy. Most hunters look at antlers, and if excited, fire away. What a shame. That buck was almost there regarding antler potential but he certainly won’t grow more with a bullet through his lungs.
There are a lot of indicators to help determine age, and most of them require focusing on the animal’s BODY. Neck size, how the neck relates to the shoulders, sagging stomach, swayed back and loose facial skin are good clues but most of those traits really take practice and a keen eye. The average person that hunts casually a few times a year lacks the expertise to use many of the above methods.
The one trait I use more than any other when trying to determine the age of a whitetail buck during the hunting season and when the rut is either over or taking place is the tarsal gland. The tarsal gland is on the inside of what most laymen would call a deer’s back knee. (The true knee is actually higher on the leg bone).
Part of the courting ritual for whitetail bucks is making scrapes. Scrapes are basically areas about the size of a small welcome matt at your back door where a deer paws away grass and weeds making a clean spot on the soil. He next hunches his rear legs together and semi-squats while urinating over this gland on the inside of his back leg. His urine mixed with glandular secretions is the olfactory fingerprint of each buck. I will not go into the rut ritual at this point but simply wanted to give a background to this gland.
Here is what you should remember –
A 2.5 year old buck will have a tarsal gland that is tan and might even have white edges.
A 3.5 year old buck will have a tarsal gland that is dark but probably has a few light hairs around the edge. There may be faint staining below the gland but not heavy.
A 4.5 year old buck will have a black gland. There will be absolutely no white hairs along the fringe of the gland. The gland itself will appear larger plus there will be a very noticeable staining streak running down each rear leg under the gland itself. The streaking is important. If there is a stain running down that buck’s leg, he is mature.
A 5.5 and 6.5 plus year old buck will have a very black gland. It will be large, about the size of the bottom of a soda water can. The stain running down each leg will be very prominent and the discolored hair will reach all the way to the deer’s hooves. It often appears as a black line down the back of each leg.
This gland is one of the easiest indicators of age. The appearance of the buck’s tarsal gland has never proved me wrong.