How to assess bucks on the hoof to manage deer and avoid fines.
Boredom, fatigue, lack of sleep from two days of travel and the agonizing cold of northern Saskatchewan were taking a toll.
I’d been staring at the same empty spot of woods for several hours with little to show for my mostly mental effort. I lowered my chin and closed my eyes, just for a moment. When I looked up, there stood the king of the forest. Rather than walking in, he seemed to materialize into the space he now occupied just under 100 yards away.
The word popped into my head instantly, and I frantically fumbled for my rifle. After propping it on the shooting rest and putting my cheek to the cold, synthetic stock, I thought, Wait!
Anywhere else, I wouldn’t have hesitated a split second. After 30-plus years of chasing whitetails, I knew instantly this was a mature buck, and a Jim Dandy at that. But the outfitter on this particular hunt had a strict 150-inch minimum — and a healthy fine for violating it.
I was fairly confident the buck would exceed it, but I needed to be sure before pulling the trigger.
Fortunately, he gave me time to look at his body and rack size, and the relative proportions of both. When I was reasonably certain, I lowered my head to the stock again, took a good long look through the scope and pulled the trigger.
The buck scored well above the minimum and turned out to be one of my best ever.
Being able to accurately field judge whitetails is a helpful skill. And it has taken on more importance with the popularity of quality deer management and both voluntary and mandatory buck minimums.
Big bucks don’t get that way by being stupid. You might only have a second or two to determine whether a deer meets a certain standard. Either shooting too soon, or waiting too long could result in disappointment or even a fine.
WHAT’S YOUR GOAL?
The first step in field judging whitetails is setting goals. You need to know your objective. I consider any mature buck a trophy, regardless of antler size. This proclivity has earned me the nickname Cull-Buck Bob at more than one sporting camp, a moniker I wear with honor.
If a mature buck is among your criteria for a shooter, you’re best off looking at the body instead of the rack. There are several body characteristics you can use to estimate a buck’s age. None are 100 percent reliable, but all can help, especially when considered in total.
Most folks are more concerned with the score, which can be harder to judge, particularly under hunting conditions. Antler score is derived from measurements of the spread, mass, and tine and beam length. To make a snap judgment, you need to know what to look for in each.
One characteristic that’s often part of mandatory antler restrictions is outside spread. A buck’s ears are approximately 6 to 7 inches long, as is the space between them. A spread just at the ear tips in the alert position will be about 16 to 18 inches.
Main beam length is another good cue. From a profile view, if the tip of the main beams extend to the nose tip, beam length is at least 20 inches. Also look for beams that curl inward or upward at the tip and extend well beyond the last tine, which will add inches to the score.
Tine length is an important component of total score, and one you can compare to ear length. At a minimum, you want an average length of around 6 inches. If brow tines and outer points are only 3 or 4 inches, you’ll be looking for P2s and P3s of 8 to 10 inches to compensate.
Although tine length is what drives the score, mass is a factor, too. A good way to judge mass is by comparing the diameter of antler bases to the eyes. Antlers with bases smaller than the eyes don’t have much mass. Bases equal to or larger than the eyes indicate an older buck.
This should also get you at least one circumference measurement of about 4 inches. Even if the beam narrows after that, you should have an average circumference of about 3 inches for the four circumference measurements on each antler.
Putting it all together, you should be looking for a spread outside the ears, long main beams, at least eight points with a minimum average length of 6 inches and an average circumference of at least 3 inches.
If a buck has all those, it should score about 130 inches, which meets most mandatory minimums, and many hunters consider a trophy.
Obviously, features like more than eight points, extremely long tines or beams, or exceptional mass are going to add to the score.
There are some specific things to look for that can diminish antler score. Brow tines often are overlooked, particularly when other points are somewhat longer, but short or missing brow tines can really hurt a score.
Try to see both sides of the rack to make sure it is symmetrical and intact.
A fellow hunter at the Saskatchewan camp from the opening passage had to make a split-second decision on a buck standing broadside that appeared to be a 10-pointer. Instead, it was missing a tine on the far side. As a result, it just missed the minimum, and the outfitter levied a hefty fine.
While mass doesn’t add significantly to the score, thin antlers seem to take inches away quickly. If the rack looks thin, it’s a good indication of a younger deer.
If a thin-racked buck has good tine length and symmetry, you might want to let him grow another year, especially if you’re hunting under tightly controlled or well-managed conditions.
I also caution against trying to judge a deer as it’s going away. It could be psychological because of the vanishing opportunity, but it seems bucks always look bigger from behind. If you’re still not sure, you can always follow the old hunter safety course axiom: When in doubt, don’t shoot.
Considered alone, body or antler characteristics can be fairly reliable ways to field judge bucks. They’re even more helpful when considered together. When in doubt about one, look at the other.
If a buck looks like it scores 140 inches but it’s only a 2½-year-old, it might score only 125 inches.
Meanwhile, a 150-inch rack on a mature Midwestern whitetail might not look all that impressive.
It’s also important to consider the time and place. Body size varies on a gradient, with average body size getting larger as you move from south to north. The massive body of a Canadian whitetail can make a big rack look small. Conversely, even a modest rack can look huge on a diminutive West Texas buck.
Early in the season, a buck’s neck and shoulders are still thin, making the rack appear larger. The opposite is true later in the fall when bucks swell up during the rut.
Age and management also can influence relative size. A mature buck could be 100 pounds heavier than a yearling on the same piece of ground. Well fed and well managed deer could be noticeably larger than deer on poorer range, even within the same county.
If you hunt the same piece of ground regularly, scouting cameras can give you a leg up. They afford the luxury of limitless time to study pictures of the bucks you’ll be hunting.
You can even take it a step further by using a software program called Buckscore, developed by Jeremy Flinn at Mississippi State University’s Deer Lab. The program incorporates your trail camera photos with some basic information to calculate the rough score of a given buck.
When you see and recognize a particular deer, you know immediately whether or not to shoot. Flinn also has developed an age estimating program that should be available soon.
DON’T FORGET THE DOES
There are several reasons why being able to differentiate adult does from fawns can be helpful. You might be hunting managed property where the owner or manager has specific objectives, or you might want the biggest return from your investment in an antlerless tag.
There are several ways to age does, and the easiest is by relative comparison.
An adult doe is much bigger than a fawn, and noticeably bigger than a yearling, although the disparity diminishes later in the season.
The relative shortness of a fawn’s face and nose is the best identifying feature. A fawn’s forehead and nose will appear much shorter (similar to an 8-ounce soda bottle) in comparison to the adult doe’s head (similar to a 16-ounce soda bottle).
Again, this distinction is much easier if you have several deer present to compare. Fawns also have short, square bodies, short necks and less muscle development. Adult does have larger, rectangular-shaped bodies, long necks and swaying backs or sagging bellies.
If your objective is an adult doe, don’t shoot the first deer in the field. First, you have nothing to compare it with to judge relative size. Second, the first deer in the field is quite often a button buck which, in many cases, resembles an adult doe in size.
As deer grow their winter coats, it becomes difficult to make out buttons, particularly under less than ideal conditions like the low light of dawn and dusk.
Finally, keep in mind that the definition of a trophy can vary considerably from one hunter to another. You might be holding out for the record books while someone else defines his success by the events more than the outcome.
If you had a quality hunting experience and you’re happy with the buck you shoot, then you should feel confident in calling it a trophy, regardless of age or antler score.
FOR MORE INFO:
One of the best books on the subject is “Observing & Evaluating Whitetails,” by Dave Richards and Al Brothers.
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This article was published in the November 2012 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.