Wolfe Publishing Group

    Backcountry Bound

    Field-Judging Whitetail Deer

    A half hour into a whitetail hunt in South Dakota, my young guide nudged my attention from a yonder hillside to the steep draw below our lookout. In it, a buck of some age with a heavy, 8-point rack swaggered down a well-trodden deer trail. I let it walk, in part because of the animal’s modest tine count and the early hour in a multiday hunt in trophy whitetail country. “I don’t know,” the young man mused. “That’s a nice buck.”

    Later in the week, within a quarter mile from the first sighting, I killed the deer in question. Staring at the buck’s weighty dark antlers, my hunting partner mused aloud, “What’ll you suppose it scores?” The head guide concluded, “About 130,” echoing my sentiments exactly. The tape revealed a slightly better score of 135 when I measured the rack at home. It so happened that the whitetail’s antlers were right at 80 percent of the minimum score required for entry in the Boone & Crockett (B&C) record book, the standard I personally use as the “trophy” threshold for typical antlers. (The tally was actually 136, but I rounded it to 135 for simplicity’s sake.) It was indeed a “nice” buck.

    With a substantial financial investment on the line in the form of a guided hunt, or just a personal quest to down a trophy whitetail on one’s own terms, a simple formula for assessing antlers in the field is essential. Perhaps the first thing to remember is the extent to which inside spread and the length of the main beams contribute to the final score. According to the B&C records of whitetails that make the “book,” the main beams contribute 30 percent of the total score while the inside spread represents another 12 percent. For a buck that scores 135, the main beams should be approximately 20 inches. To meet the 170 minimum for the record book, the tally rises to 25 inches. The spread measurement is 16 inches for a trophy buck as I’ve defined it, 21 inches for a book buck.

    These two dimensions give a strong sense of the overall dimensions of a rack. A buck that is deficient on both measurements will likely fail on the final score as well. For mature whitetails in the U.S., the distance from the tip of the nose to the center of the eyeball is about 8 inches. A trophy buck’s main beam (beams) is thus about 2.5 times the distance from eyeball to nose; the beams of a book buck are at least three times that length. Viewed head-on in an alert position, 16 inches marks the average span of a buck’s ears; a really handy standard for spread assessment. A trophy buck’s inside spread should match or exceed the width of its ears. A book buck’s inside spread should equal that and add almost the length of an ear from base to tip (about 6 inches) for a total of more like 22 inches.

    Spread is very straightforward, but judging main beams can be tricky. One common rule of thumb states that a trophy whitetail’s main beams should extend to the end of its muzzle when viewed from the side. However, that fails to account for several variations in beam structure. Some bucks have beams that sprout vertically from the head for several inches before turning outward and forward. Wide racks gain considerable beam length due to spread and may not appear as lengthy from the side. Beams that curve notably upward or inward may also meet the criteria without reaching to the tip of the nose when viewed from the side.

    On my wall is a whitetail with a 24-inch main beam that does not reach the end of the buck’s muzzle when viewed from the side. The rack is quite wide (20 inches inside spread) and the main beams hook upward. Main beams reaching the tip of the nose when viewed from the side are certainly a reliable indication of excellent length when a snap judgement is required, but a more analytical assessment better accounts for variations in rack geometry.

    Not surprisingly, another substantial chunk of a whitetail’s score comes from the combined measurements of two tines, the G-2 and G-3. Those are the next two tines on the rack beyond the browtine, and they account for essentially 25 percent of the final score. For a book head this means those two tines need to average at least 10 inches each; for a trophy head, 8 inches will do. Remember the 8-inch distance from the center of the eye to the end of a buck’s shiny black nose. That’s the best gauge against which to assess these tines.

    We have now accounted for about 65 percent of a whitetail rack’s final score. From whence comes the rest? Mass is the next most important criterion. The four circumference measurements on a whitetail scoresheet add up to exactly 20 percent of the score for bucks in the record book. Those measurements occur between the browtine and the base of the antler, then between the browtine and next point, etc. Book bucks should muster an average measurement of about 4.5 inches; trophy bucks can make do with 3.5 inches. The animal’s eye is a helpful gauge of mass. The circumference of an adult buck’s eye is about 4 inches.

    Approximately 15 percent of the score comes from the length of the browtines and other points. Six-inch browtines are the norm for record-book bucks. They will also sport a fourth tine (and perhaps a fifth and sixth) that contributes no less than another 7 inches. For a 135-inch rack, the browtines should measure 4 inches, and the fourth tine about 5. Those dimensions are reasonably easy to evaluate using the eye-to-nose yardstick. In the absence of the fourth tine that shows up on a 10-point buck, it is very difficult to achieve the 170 inches required for a record-book, typical whitetail. There are a few 8-point racks in the book, including a 180-inch monster killed in South Dakota in 1965. Like other 8-pointers, this buck is truly exceptional on other dimensions including mass (5.87-inch bases), beam length (29.6 inches) and spread (22.4 inches).

    For quick calculations for a 135-inch whitetail, the eye-to-nose average of 8 inches makes gauging beam and tine length quite simple. Hit this checklist multiplied against that measure and you have met the mark: main beam (2.5), second and third tines (1 each), browtine and fourth tine (1 combined). If the buck’s mass looks to be about the same circumference as its eye and carries out to the third point, that’s another check. Throw in an inside spread that equals the span of the buck’s ears, and you’re looking at a trophy buck. For a record-book head, add 25 percent to everything.

    The above assumes enough time to really look a buck over. Sometimes, though, a snap decision is required. In those situations, even the most astute observers are often fooled. Satisfaction in such cases demands an attitude that looks past all the theoretical numbers on a page to realize any cleanly killed buck is a good one.

    The Boone & Crockett Club’s records data on big-game trophies has been historically and currently used in relation to the conservation and future management of the species. Find out more about club records and its conservation efforts at boone-crockett.org.

    Wolfe Publishing Group