Field Judging Deer

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Some might call it buck fever. In my opinion it was just plain misjudgment. Sure, my heart races the same as the next guy when I get a big buck in my crosshairs, but I've usually got it well under control. No, this particular instance was a result of poor judgment and a split decision. Too many variables and too little time, that's what this one was all about. Had I been afforded another 30 seconds to evaluate the buck's antlers, I'm certain my decision to hit the switch would have been stifled.

Have you ever experienced ground shrink? You know, that heartbreaking moment after the shot when you realize your buck isn't as big as you thought he was. Hunt long enough and it will eventually happen.

It happened to me on a mule deer hunt two years ago. The old bait and switch thing happened. At first light I had my crosshairs trained on a buck that I estimated would score well over 180 B&C. Problem was he was skylined and I didn't want to risk a runaway bullet. Opting to wait, the regal buck disappeared behind the hill. Sneaking around the base of the hill I soon picked up a massive body feeding away from me. He was less than 100 yards away at that point, a chip shot for my 300 Win. Mag. Wondering if there could have been more than one nice buck in the field, I'll admit some doubt did enter my mind. But given the circumstances I convinced myself that it had to be him. Then he allowed me a fleeting glimpse at his antlers as he lifted and lowered his head only for a brief moment. To add more pressure to the moment, he then began moving toward the trees. Making a snap decision I took the shot as he began to vanish into another dip in the field. As I approached, that gut-wrenching feeling overwhelmed me as I realized it wasn't the big one but a smaller 160-class buck. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't make his antlers any bigger. That was undeniably the worst case of ground shrink I've ever experienced.

If your hunting is about more than just the venison then I'm guessing you pay close attention to the bottom line score. Field scoring, or judging the size of antlers on live deer, can be a tricky thing. Invest enough time watching deer and you'll soon learn to evaluate the number of tines (points), mass, width (spread), and height relative to body size. Add to the mix variables like the change from early season velvet antlers along with short hair versus late season hard antlers along with long hair, and the appearance of antlers can be dramatically different. Following are a few tips for you to consider as you estimate the gross score of deer on your next outing.

Number of Tines (Points)
Deer hunters universally talk about the number of tines or points a buck has. In Canada hunters generally refer to the number per side, i.e. a mainframe 4x4 or 5x5. In the states hunters typically reference the total number of points, i.e., a mainframe 8 or 10-pointer. On a whitetail this includes the eyeguard, but this is not the case with mule deer. A a rule, the more tines or points a set of antlers has, the higher the score will be. With a little practice it becomes easy to field judge the number of points a typical buck has at a glance. Those with typical headgear, i.e., a rack that is relatively symmetrical and without non-typical points, can be straightforward to identify. Add drop-tines or sticker points protruding in a non-typical fashion and suddenly that buck becomes much more difficult to field score. A good rule of thumb is that if the buck has at least five tines or points on one side and also has at least one double eyeguard, chances are he's going to be a higher scoring deer. If the antlers have any odd points or asymmetry, those oddities may be counted as deductions in calculating the bottom line score. Scoring clubs like Boone & Crockett or Pope & Young have different criterion by which deer are considered eligible for the typical or non-typical categories. For more information, consider visiting their websites at and

Non-typical point on antler

Antler Mass
Antler mass can really mess with a hunter's head. The greater the mass, the higher the antlers will score in gross inches. Both whitetail and mule deer antlers grow in all shapes and sizes. Typical mainframes have similar configurations, but some are heavier than others. Most of us drool at the thought of heavy racked deer. That's one of the reason trophy hunters target places like Alberta, Saskatchewan, Iowa and Kansas for whitetails for instance.

Mass refers to the overall girth, or in scoring terms, circumference of the bases, main beams and points. When you see a live buck, take notice of his antler mass. Do your best to guess the circumference of his bases. An average buck in the 120 to 130 class will often have bases measuring between three and four inches. A heavy racked buck will usually have circumference measurements at the base of his antlers measuring over five inches. The biggest I've seen measured almost seven inches at the bases. If you see a buck matching that description in the field, I can pretty much guarantee it won't take any further evaluation before you take the shot.

Width or Spread
Side-to-side spread between the right and left antlers is considered the width, generally taking into consideration the widest distance between the main beams. This can be tricky to determine as well given that you need a head-on or hind view in order to get a true picture of the buck's spread. Whether the buck's ears are laid back or sticking out to the sides can also influence our interpretation of the antler width.

Most whitetail bucks, again in the 120-130 inch class will have an inside spread of around 17 inches. Anything over 20 is considered to be getting big. Once you hit that magical 24 inch spread, chances are you're looking at a great buck. Likewise, with mule deer most in the 130-150 inch class will have a spread of around 23-25 inches. Any antlers reaching the 29 or 30-inch width are probably going to be considered a trophy. Deer, like people, have different sized heads and ears, but as a rule if the buck's ears are pointed straight out to the sides and his antlers are outside of his ears by more than a couple inches, chances are pretty good that his spread measurements will be good.

Tine length can add inches to the overall score in a hurry. High scoring deer are not always tall, but height or tine length definitely helps with the bottom line score. If you're looking at a live buck and he's got tines measuring over 10 inches, chances are he's worth further consideration. In my opinion, once you get a whitetail buck with tines, particularly the G2s and G3s measuring over 12 inches in length, you might want to consider hitting the switch. Rarely do we find bucks with G4s measuring over five inches, but if you find a buck that has this, you might want to knock him down. Likewise with mule deer any time I see a buck with deep forks, i.e., 12-inch or better tines I'm interested in giving that buck a closer look. Mule deer with eyeguards always capture my attention.

Body Size
Body size is a great first-glance indicator as to the age of the deer. Small, slender bodies are characteristic of young deer in the two to three-and-a-half year age class. Deer in the four to five-and-a-half year age class will begin to look much larger with a bigger chest and tapered hind end. Mature bucks will often be close to double the overall body size of does. That said I've seen three-and-a-half year old bucks that had antlers scoring over 190 inches B&C. I know, sounds odd, but we actually had a well-known deer biologist in camp at the time to confirm it. Bottom line - body size is a great place to start, but it is not solely indicative of the trophy caliber of the deer.

Velvet vs. Hard Antler
A velvet coating makes average antlers look big and big antlers look enormous, its that simple. If you're an early season deer hunter then you know that antlers always look bigger in velvet. Learning to accurately field judge the size of antlers at this stage of the season can be tough. Short summer hair makes the deer's body appear smaller and the velvet adds considerable mass to the antlers making them look a whole lot bigger. Although by no means a confirmed calculation, whenever I'm field judging deer on the hoof, I typically subtract about five percent from what they appear to score to estimate the actual Boone & Crockett tally in inches. For instance, a buck that looks like a 150 class specimen in velvet may actually score around the 143 inch mark as a hard antlered deer. The difference will vary depending on all of the other variables, i.e., mass, height, and width (spread).

Deer with velvet antlers

When No Decision is Needed
Deer hunters often hum and haw over whether or not to shoot. Most often a buck takes some evaluation to come up with a true estimation of its trophy quality. Then there are those that are undeniably Boone and Crockett quality, i.e., measuring over the all-time book minimum of 170 inches for whitetails and 190 inches for mule deer. These are the bucks that require no second glance; you just know instantly that it's a shooter.

The ultimate buck has all of the above, namely an enormous body with a heavy, wide, tall rack with too many points to count at a glance. If you're lucky enough to bring down a buck of this description you can count your lucky stars. Most trophy bucks have at least a couple of these characteristics, but very few have all of them. Consider these features as you field score deer on your next outing and you're well on your way to knocking down a trophy.

Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing, waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his outfitting services, visit
Member of OWAA & OWC.


deerhunter30's picture

This very thing has happened

This very thing has happened to me about 4 years ago. I hunt a farm that my buddy owns and we try to keep from shooting smaller bucks that have much more potential then were they are at right now. Taking into consideration that the land that is around ours is also hunted, so the bucks that are passed up might be shot by someone on the surrounding land.

I was sitting in my tree stand just before dark and I could see a deer coming down the tree line right out in front of me. He was working a rub line coming down that tree line. He was shaking some of those trees pretty good so my hopes were already high. When he got directly out in front of me with just his head in my shooting lane I could just see one side of his rack and helooked huge at first sight. As his head passed my shooting lane he started rub on a smaller tree and he was broad side to me for a perfect shot and I took it. Once he started running straight through the field to my right I could see he wasn't as big as I first thought. I have learned know to wait and make sure I have a real good look at how big it actually is before I pull the trigger.

I hope that more people get a chance to read this article before it happens to them.GREAT ARTICLE AND THANKS FOR THE TIPS TO HELP OUT1

hunter25's picture

Although this is a great

Although this is a great article on judging deer it really does not help me much. I rarely wait for a bigger buck unless it's just a 2 point on opening day. The buck he was dissapointed with would be one of the better ones I have ever taken.

The bait and switch has happened to me once but on a much smaller scale. I watched a small buck feed behind some brush and as he slowly moved his chest into an open shooting lane I dropped him with one well placed shot. Imagine my surprise when I got up to him and found a nice doe laying there instead. Fortunatley I was holding an either sex tag that year in one of the only years we had that available.

Maybe someday trophy hunting wil play a bigger part in my plans but for now I am happy to take whatever comes my way.

Ca_Vermonster's picture

This is a very good article,

This is a very good article, glad I found it!

I am in the early stages of looking for some place for my Dad and I to hunt in Illinois.  Up until this point, I have always been a meat hunter, so first legal buck in range is going down.

However, as I have looked over the countless outfitter sites, one thing is strikingly clear..... DO NOT SHOOT AN UNDERSIZED BUCK!!!! lol

Geez, the "fines" for that range anywhere from $250 to $1000, depending on the outfitter.

Therefore, I need to know how to properly score these big guys on the fly. 

Also, I can't imagine the opposite of that, if I didn't know how to score them, let one walk because I was afraid of the fine, and he turned out to be a 160 class deer.

I'm a meat hunter however

I'm a meat hunter however with that being said I like reading and learning about these kinds of things that way if I have a few shooters in front of me than I can be a little more selective

Bugs Bunny's picture

I'm usually fine untill I

I'm usually fine untill I shoot it then I have to wait a while before I go down my stand because im shaking so much.

jaybe's picture

Good Article

Kevin, this is a great article for anyone who wants to be able to field judge the animal they are considering on taking.

I really liked your opening story about the "bait and switch" scenario.

I'm sure that has happened to many people.

I am also a meat hunter primarily, but it's always helpful to be able to get a quick idea of the size of an animal before pulling the trigger.