Field Judging Whitetails

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Hunting for trophy whitetails can be a very exciting sport. It can also be a nerve-racking experience, with many highs and lows. The entire process tests a hunter's abilities to get within shooting range of a mature whitetail buck. Trophy hunting challenges the hunter to assess each deer to make sure it meets the criteria of being a true trophy for the area being hunted, as a personal trophy to the hunter or a book deer. If the deer is a trophy, the hunter must retain composure and put the animal on the ground. If the buck isn't a shooter, the trophy hunter must have the will power to pass up the animal, even if the deer is a respectable one.

Every season numerous whitetail hunters set out to pursue that trophy of a lifetime. For some hunters, success comes easily. However, for most successful hunters, their success is the result of hard work and excellent knowledge of whitetails. Unfortunately, most trophy hunters end the season disappointed, because the buck they elected to shoot turned out to be much smaller than they originally thought it was. The reason this is a disappointment is that most genuine trophy hunters would rather end the deer season without shooting a deer, than shooting one that is below their standards.

As for myself, I'm as guilty as everyone else in that I've ended several deer seasons by shooting "on the hoof" trophies that turned out to be average bucks when on the ground. After having this happen once too often, I sat down and started to think about why this was happening.

After much thought, I have determined that I've been field judging whitetails from the wrong angles and making assumptions about what the antlers look like. On other occasions, the decision to shoot was a snap decision based on what the deer was doing or where he was going. As a result, it is my intention to identify some trophy hunting field judging and shooting errors that I have made on previous hunts and give you suggestions that will help you to become better at field judging a whitetail on the hoof.

Making Estimates
My hunting partner, Pat McKenzie is an official Boone and Crockett scorer. Over the past few years, I've been able to stop by his house after the season and get a first hand view of some truly impressive deer heads that he's scoring.

Based on these viewings and in conversations with Pat, I've come to realize that it takes a combination of mass, tine length, long main beams and a good spread for a deer head to qualify for the Boone and Crockett record book.

Taking time to evaluate this buck allowed Pat McKenzie to take this nice 5X5 whitetail.

Judging antler mass is something that can be learned from looking at mounted bucks, pictures of deer and spending time afield. Over the years, I've developed a knack for recognizing the mass of a deer's antlers by comparing the rack's width to the width of the deer's ears. If the deer's antlers look spindly in comparison to the ears, the rack won't have much mass. If the antlers don't look out of place compared to the ears, it's probably got average mass. However, if the rack comes close to being similar size to the ears, it will have excellent mass.

Determining tine length can be made easier, by comparing a buck's tines to something that can give you a meaningful estimate. For such estimates, I usually use the buck's ear as a gauge, because on average, a whitetail buck's ear is approximately six inches long. When looking at tine lengths, I always make sure to look at the deer's brow tines as these two tines can really make or break a trophy deer head.

Most really big bucks that I've seen have main beams in excess of 25 inches. In order to make a quick main beam length estimate look at the deer's nose and main beams. As a general guideline, if the tips of the main beam extend to the tip of the buck's nose, his main beams will be approximately 25 inches.

As for estimating the width of a buck's rack, a quick way to estimate the inside spread is to look at the deer's antlers and ears. On average, the tip-to-tip distance between a whitetail buck's ears is approximately 16 - 18 inches.

Evaluating a Buck's Rack From Behind
When deciding if a buck is a trophy, don't base your decision solely on a rear view of its rack. Whitetail deer racks always appear wider than they actually are when viewed from behind. It is an optical illusion. The reason for this is that when we look at a rack from behind, we normally only get a look at the outside spread. There is usually no way to determine the inside spread. Thus an accurate estimation isn't possible.

If you think back to previous hunts when you've viewed deer racks from behind, you'll realize that one of the most common times is after spooking a buck. When those deer ran away from you, they probably laid their ears back as they ran away. The result is that the antlers which already looked wide from behind appeared even wider. If you shot such a deer, chances are you were very disappointed with the width.

As well, when viewing a buck from behind, it is difficult to get an estimate of just how long the main beams are, how heavy the main beams are or how many tines are on each beam. If your adrenaline is pumping and you think the deer is very wide, chances are you'll probably make dangerous assumptions about the length of main beams or the number of tines.

Try to View Both Sides of a Buck's Rack Before Shooting
Before pulling the trigger, try to get a look at both sides of a deer's antlers. This is especially important if you are hoping to harvest a buck with a symmetrical rack. Just because there are four or five tines on one side doesn't guarantee that the other antler has the same number of points.

Several seasons ago, I stalked in on a group of rutting bucks. There were four bucks and fifteen does in the group. Prior to making my stalk, I gave the bucks a quick glance with my spotting scope. One buck was considerably larger than the rest of the other bucks and received all my attention. I knew he was definitely a heavy 5X5 with nice long tines and I estimated he would score close to 160. As for the other bucks, I simply assumed they were all 4X4's and decided they did not need any further glassing.

After a long and painful belly crawl across a frozen wheat stubble field and through a rough slough bottom, I finally got myself into shooting range. The buck I was after was standing broadside 250 yards away with another buck staring him right in the face. The two bucks appeared to be frozen. As I waited to catch my breath, I double-checked to make sure I was watching the right buck. Sure enough, it was definitely him. However, as I looked at my buck, curiosity got the better of me. The other buck had to be impressive to hold his ground with the mighty 5X5. My compact binoculars wandered over to the other deer. He stood motionless nose to nose with the buck I was after.

He was directly broadside with his right antler towards me. The antler was very heavy and had two really long tines standing straight. With the brow tine and tip of the main bean, he had four points on that side. I couldn't see very much of his left antler. However, the way his head was tilted, it appeared as if he had a very long drop tine coming off his left antler, which would have made him a solid 150 class buck with a big drop tine.

I have a passion for nontypical and drop tine bucks and therefore, without thinking about getting a good look at his entire left antler, I instantly, dropped my binoculars and shouldered my rifle. With the crosshairs on the "drop tine" buck's shoulder, I pulled the trigger. The buck dropped to the ground and the big 5X5 ran away with the other deer. I was feeling real proud about my buck as I strutted across the field. However, when I got up to him, I was horrified. The buck didn't have a drop tine at all! He merely had a twisted main beam, with one brow tine and a sticker coming off the brow tine.

I had been badly fooled. The deer had no idea I was watching them and it would have only been a matter of time until I got a good look at the deer's disfigured rack. Had I taken the time to look at the left side of his rack, I would have never shot him. I would have taken the big 5X5 and my season would have had a happy ending. Instead, I got the booby prize for making a snap decision and memories of a hunt that will haunt me forever.

Try to Get a Head-on View for Width, Spread and Height
If you want to get an accurate estimate of how wide and how high the buck's antlers are, try to view the rack from a head on view before shooting. This is typically the way we see mounted bucks and photos of trophy class deer in magazines and on Internet websites such as Try to compare the deer you are viewing to other deer you have seen. Use the deer's ears and forehead to help you get a ballpark idea of how wide the antlers are.

When a buck is standing and looking straight towards you, it is very easy to verify how high his tines are and how symmetrical they are. If you can see that the tines on one side are much longer than on those on the other side, the deer you are looking at is probably not a shooter, as it will have extensive deductions on the score sheet. However, if you were looking at this rack from a side view, it would be difficult to see this difference in antler length. The reason for this is that when a whitetail rack is viewed from the side, the tines often blend together and it is difficult to determine which side of the rack the tines are coming from.

This 200 class whitetail has it all; height, mass, width and lots of tines!

Never Make Any Assumptions About a Deer's Antlers
If you spot a deer with some good features, such as tine length, mass or width, don't assume that all the other measurements will be equally impressive. Remember, antlers do not always grow the same. If you are hunting in an area where the bucks have spindly frames with high tines, don't assume that a buck with heavy mass will possess those long tines. The buck may be from a different bloodline and he may have moved into the area to chase does or he may simply be the exception to the area. If you shoot a deer based on an assumption you'll probably be in for a real surprise.

Happiness is walking up to a buck and not getting any surprises.

Don't Shoot Too Quickly
This statement is much easier said than done! When most hunters see a buck running across a field or through an opening in the woods, their first inclination is to shoot. No one wants to see a trophy buck get away because they didn't shoot. Excitement and having to make a quick judgment on a running deer can quickly put a trophy hunter in next year country.

A few years ago, I was sneaking around the outside edge of a small willow bluff. A doe caught my scent and started running through the bushes. A buck quickly got up behind her and was hot on her tail. Based on the direction they were headed, they would clear the bush and enter a small clearing less than 100 yards in front of me. Once out of the bushes, the deer only had to cover 50 yards before they would be behind a hill and safely hidden from my view. I could see the buck had a large body, and his antlers appeared to be very high. When he hit the clearing, I fired one shot. Both deer disappeared behind the hill.

I followed up my shot and since there was a blood trail in the snow, I was confident that I had harvested a dandy buck. I quickly followed the blood trail and 75 yards behind the hill was my buck. Unfortunately, he wasn't a true trophy class animal as his tines were very short and nothing like I had imagined them to be. In my excitement to get off a quick shot, I had mistaken willow branches for his antlers. My snap decision to shoot made me feel very disappointed. I should have simply let the buck and doe run off to another area and then tried to catch up with them. But because I couldn't resist the urge to shoot, I ended up tagging a 120 class buck and had to endure a long wait until the next season.

Putting it Together in the Field
You're probably sitting there thinking that all this advice on how to field judge a trophy buck before shooting it is fine and dandy, but how do I use such techniques when hunting. The best way is to get away from the beaten path where other hunters won't disturb you or the deer. Once in the area, try using hunting methods that will allow you to view an undisturbed whitetail for long periods of time. For example, try calling with grunt tubes, antler rattling or sitting in a treestand over looking a staging area, feeding area or deer trails.

Hunting away from the crowds allowed me to find, evaluate and take this nice buck.

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