Should You Shoot a 3.5-Year-Old Buck?


For 95% of America’s whitetail hunters, especially those of you who hunt on public land, the answer is YES.

Trouble is, too many young and/or inexperienced hunters watch too much television. A great-looking 8- or 10-pointer steps out and some guy or gal whispers into the camera, Nice buck, but he needs another year…or he’ll be shooter in a year or two…

BTW, I hate that overused saying, He needs another year…

Anyhow, the young hunter plays off what the TV “expert” says and does, and passes up a 120- to 140-class buck that he or she should have shot.

I was glad to see my friend Lindsay Thomas of the QDMA put the right perspective on it. The QDMA sometimes gets a bum rap as promoting only the growing and managing of trophy bucks, but that is not the case. Lindsay wrote:

A middle-aged deer is a nice buck for any hunter. For many good reasons, a lot of hunters choose wisely to take bucks at 2½ or 3½ years of age. This is perfectly within the goals of QDM; anyone who says you have to wait for full maturity when practicing QDM is flat wrong. Moreover, these hunters are taking a really nice buck. At 2½ a buck is likely displaying 60% (the majority) of his lifetime antler potential. At 3½ he’s likely displaying 80%. At this point, he might have been “a good one next year” but likely not a whole lot better. A buck that scores in the 120-class at 3½ is unlikely to become a Booner, and most hunters (if they are totally honest about it) turn into wobbling jelly when they see a 120-inch buck. I know I do!

Of course which buck to shoot is entirely up to you. If you want to pass a 3-year-old 8 in hopes an older and bigger brute will walk by later, more power to you. If you are fortunate enough to hunt a well-managed, lightly hunted property with a good buck age structure and a good number of fully mature bucks in the herd, you probably should wait.

But for most of America’s 15 million deer hunters: If you see a solid 3-year-old buck shoot him and don’t think twice.

14 thoughts on “Should You Shoot a 3.5-Year-Old Buck?

  1. I agree, but most of us regal the big boys, but I know I don’t judge a deer on the sixe. A deer downed by me will always be remembered as a trophy- big or small, doe or buck.
    My most hated words are “He’s just not what I/We want. That is what irks me most on shows.,IMHO Practice. Practice, then do some more.

  2. Over the years, I’ve passed on 2.5, 3.5 and 4.5 year old bucks. Why? Because I had as good or better on the wall. I once let a really old buck walk because I figured if he’d made it that long, he’d earned the right to keep on walking.

    But all of those choices were mine to make. Nothing gets under my skin more than having someone else try to push “their” standards on other hunters. And I mean “their” standards on bucks, does, equipment choices and seasons.

    If a person wants to kill a year and a half old buck with a crossbow (and it’s legal) good for them. Or if a person wants to kill only 4.5 year old (or older bucks) with a longbow, that should be their choice too.

    As hunters, we need to support each others choices and quit going back and forth about when/where/how we hunt as it only serves to divide us.

    And a divided group of hunters is a weak group of hunters.

  3. ….and if this year, I see a buck that I want to take and he doesn’t meet the criteria others think it should….well tough. It’s my tag and my choice and I’ll fill it any legal d*mn way I choose to.

  4. In my neck of the woods, anyone who says that they would pass a 3 1/2 year old buck is a flat out liar. On my property, I personally try to let all 2 1/2 and younger walk. But, I have no problem at all if one of my nephews kills a young deer. Now do I encourage them to let the young deer walk, sure. But, I myself have plenty of “scrubs” that I took as a young hunter that I am still proud of.

    That 2 1/2 year old 8 pt that comes charging in during the peak of the rut still gets my blood boiling. But, I just choose not to take him now. It’s more about the experience than the kill.

  5. How great it is to see that there are so many hunters that have the right idea about the buck they shoot. I have to be honest…I don’t put a ton of emphasis on age on the bucks I shoot. However, it turns out that for a buck to trip my trigger, he has to have at least a 17″ inside spread and good tine length and some mass to it. That is just my criteria. Each person has his own agenda and should be his only judge. I once got into a pretty heated argument with a certaoin Deer Dr. who shall remain nameless but all of you have seen on T.V. or read in deer magazines when he scolded Indiana hunters about their deer selection. He claimed that there was no excuse for shooting a year and a half old buck and that until Indiana learned to let them walk, we would never have deer with shooting. I told him that the 4 pointer shot by a 12 year old hunter that was his first deer would mean more to that young man than any deer the veteran would shoot that year so how could that be wrong in that case. In my book, the thrill of each deer is a personal experience that should be enjoyed by each person, and if they decide to take the deer legally, be proud of it and enjoy it. That is really why we all hunt. ‘Nuff said, time to get off my soapbox.

    • Great addition to the topic! The experience is really why we hunt, and in my book, what makes the trophy. Going into the woods I follow a 125″ standard, but this past season the 119″ 3.5 year old buck I arrowed was as memorable and enjoyable as my biggest buck. I shared the experience with my aging father who had already harvested a buck himself that day, but decided to stay put on the all day hunt so, I too, could harvest a deer. Tracking, dressing, laughing, and hugging, made that deer one of my best trophies and it had nothing to do with his spread, length, or mass.

      • Same number to the tee of my archery buck in 2013…119″ 3-1/2. I’m not ashamed or regretful for killing it!

  6. Prior to just recent seasons a 3.5 was about the best you could expect in my part of Indiana, and I’d take one in a heartbeat here. Now, there are more 3.5s in the herd, and my own experience has improved and I look to kill at least 4.5 year old bucks. I just like to hunt mature bucks and I like seeing them in the herd, taking part in their rutting activities, etc.

    Now, if I’m hunting in Iowa, that number can and will be bumped up a bit. Even on public ground in Iowa (during archery season) you can expect to see several good bucks that are truly mature, so that is what I hope to kill there.

    I am only speaking from my own personal experiences, of course. I just love seeing truly mature bucks in the wild, doing there thing during the rut, etc. The more of them in the herd, the better. If this means passing up 3.5s where I hunt, then that is what I choose to do.

  7. Not trying to “dis” anybody, but if any of you can age a deer on the hoof w/ 100% certainty, you are better than I am & any wildlife biologist I know and I know a bunch. Too many factors that influence the deers growth and maturation. Kepp em sharp and shoot straight.

  8. Mack, I understand where you’re coming from. But, and again, not to “dis” you, or anyone else; I think people can judge deer from birth to 3.5 years of age with fair accuracy. Keep in mind, many folks are watching deer in their hunting areas with trail cameras also. Through the years you can learn what the body sizes, antler mass from the pedicels, etc. are through observation (both live and on cameras). Although many people think of a 3.5 year-old buck as mature, I don’t. When they finally hit their 4th birthday they (esp. their skeletal and overall physiological growth) are completed. This is why most biologist will contend that a true 4.5 year-old buck is now fully mature. This is why the growth of antlers (all things being equal and normal) makes its highest percentage of antler growth after its 4th birthday. At that age the skeleton has reached maximum growth and much of what the buck eats after that is sent to antler development; hence the explosion in growth. There are truly signs of older age in bucks besides body size and antler mass too. A mature look in their faces, sagging bellies, a shorter appearance in the legs, etc. If a person can study images and deer on the hoof, he/she can begin to understand the factors that go into growth in deer. No, it isn’t easy. And, to be sure, there are folks who are aging bucks incorrectly.

  9. If your going to even wait for a 3.5 year old in our area you may be waitin a very long time or not at all. So the answer is no way would I pass on one. I pretty happy with anything 2.5 or older. I’ve only seen a couple in the last 10 years that would be 3.5 or older

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  11. Dean, Agree with you.We can most likely tell up to 3.5, but from lab experience- even tooth dentition can vary within a state with food, soil, and other factors. Deer on barrier islands and coastal plain areas where the soil is sandy will have excessive tooth wear due to the sand that invariably is taken in with browse and graze.
    Cameras give us a look that has never been available and we can watch the critters as they grow and mature from birth. Also agree on the body size/shape and your clear description of the body, skeleton, antler relationship. You need to teach Wildlife Biology. I believe you are a teacher from past threads. Also, I have relatives in NW IN- Valpo, Crown Point, and Lafayette. Son in Elwood, IL, and Bro in law Crete, IL. Some BIG deer in the forest preserves. I have spoken before what I know about how they “Control” the pop. up there……………
    Have a good one.

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