If you thought dealing with manhood shrinkage while cold was bad, try walking up on a downed whitetail buck you swore was a monster – only to see a dink. It’s known as ground shrinkage and it can take the wind out of a deer hunter’s sails quicker than they can say big buck down.
In the heat of the moment, a whitetail buck can look much more impressive than he actually is. This has to be one of the leading reasons smaller bucks get shot. It’s a fact that if you want to see more mature whitetails on your property, you have to let the smaller ones walk. So how do you size up a whitetail deer before deciding to shoot?
He and I Go Way Back
The easiest way to know a shooter when you see it, is to have some history with the buck. Through past hunting experiences, trail camera pictures, and information from other hunters – you can get to know bucks on your property.
I study every trail camera picture I have of bucks to become familiar with them. I make a responsible decision, while sitting in front of the computer, as to whether or not it’s a shooter. I name the bucks just to help me recognize them in the field. This way there is no second guessing when it comes to making a decision if I get the opportunity.
On the other hand, when a buck that you’ve never seen before makes an appearance, you have to be able to quickly size him up.
Aging a Deer in the Field
Mature bucks have certain body characteristics that younger bucks don’t. A younger buck can almost look like a doe with antlers. They appear tall and lanky like a skinny little teenage boy. Their necks are considerably smaller than a more mature buck and their antlers lack size and mass. I’ve also noticed they aren’t very hard to hunt – 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 year old bucks are usually the first ones you see out cruising prior to rut.
Traits of a 3 1/2 year old buck are a bigger chest and neck. The neck may only narrow up a little bit as it extends from the chest. They can have the start of a hump on the top of their back above the shoulders. The legs will appear shorter than a younger buck but unlike a 4 1/2 year old, their stomach will still appear tight.
Bucks that are 4 1/2 years old or older can sport some serious headgear. Their legs will appear extremely short in comparison to their body. Their neck will blend right into the chest and they will have more of a pot belly than a younger deer. Needless to say, they are also very weary and tough to hunt.
Field Scoring Deer
The reason I first mentioned age, is because I believe that age should be the number one determining factor of harvesting a buck. Sometimes this industry gets too caught up with antler size. Shoot a buck with a huge rack and all of a sudden you’re an expert – I disagree. With that said, antler size can certainly help you age a buck and therefore help you in deciding whether or not he is a shooter.
The number of points a buck has should not be your only reason for shooting him. I have seen plenty of spindly 3 1/2 year old 10 points that probably wouldn’t score over 125 inches.
Inside Spread Quick Tip: If the buck is facing you, compare the inside spread to his ears. An alert buck’s ears will measure about 16″ from tip to tip. If the rack doesn’t extent past the ears, it’s fairly narrow. In contrast, if the antlers spread an inch or two past the ears, you can bet he has 18 inches or more of inside spread.
Main Beam Length: From a side profile, notice the buck’s main beams. Long main beams will stick out as far as the buck’s nose or further. On average, if they are even with the nose they can be 20 inches or longer. If they extent out even with the nose and the main beam tips wrap around and almost touch, then they could be in the range of 22 inches to 24 inches long. Be aware that some buck’s main beams may extent up instead of out – it just depends on the buck.
Tine Length Quick Tip: Judging a buck’s tine length is tough. I normally start with the G2 (the first tine after the brow tine). A buck’s ear is about 6 1/2 inches long, so comparing an ear to the tallest tine (usually the G2) can help you in determining its length. I then compare that tine to the rest of the tines to come up with a quick tine measurement.
Mass is a tricky one. I think it just comes with experience as far as field judging it. There are up to 4 mass measurements on any buck. If I think a buck has decent mass, I will add 15 inches to the score. A lot of mass would be 20 plus inches. With experience, you will know if a buck has mass or if he looks spindly.
Take the age characteristics into account to help you. If you aged the buck at 2 1/2 and are leaning towards him being spindly, then he probably is – perhaps 12 inches of mass or less. A lot of times a younger deer may have good tine length or width but won’t gain mass until he reaches 4 1/2 or older.
Extra Quick Tips
If you have time, add up all the numbers in your head. I add up the shorter side – tine lengths, main beam, and mass. Then I double it and add the inside spread. By doubling the shorter side I feel more confident that I am not over-judging the score.
The number of points can add to the score considerably so be sure to count them all up. Look hard for sticker points, split brows, or extra tines that may not have a match to the other side.
What hurts a buck’s score the most has to be poor mass measurements and/or short tine length. Pay close attention to both of these considerations.
These whitetail field judging techniques are only meant to be used as a guide, although field scoring deer doesn’t have to be rocket science. As long as you study the body characteristics and use the methods for field scoring deer antlers, you’ll find it easier to make a quick but educated decision instead of acting on impulse. Hopefully you’ll be less likely to experience ground shrinkage and regret something you can’t take back.