February 03, 2022
I’ll never forget the first time I observed bucks from a blind, with my then supervisor in South Texas. He was a seasoned deer manager; the kind of guy who had his herd so finely tuned he could instantly tell you how many mature, 5.5-year-old bucks were on the property based on the fawn recruitment rate the year they were born, minus natural mortality and hunting mortality.
Needless to say, he knew his stuff, and I was all ears and eyes! As I was still trying to tweak the magnification on my spotting scope, he was spewing out numbers like a whispering auctioneer:
Five…10…12 and 5. That’s 32 on the right, and he’s symmetrical…matching 24-inch beams, a 21-inch spread and his decent mass throws him easily into the 160s. That’s a 165-inch buck right there.
I was SOLD!
That day, I made the commitment that I too would learn how to rapidly and accurately estimate the Boone and Crockett/Pope and Young score of any buck that would give me 20 seconds to appraise his rack. I set out to measure the physical characteristics of every deer mount I came across, and to do so I had to carry a small tape measure with me at all times. In South Texas, every restaurant, store and camp had whitetail mounts as their dominant décor, and I was always prepared for the moment. In rapid fashion, following my supervisor’s technique, I was scoring bucks within a couple inches in no time. And guess what? You can too!
To hone your antler-scoring accuracy, you must be well practiced on estimating four main antler characteristics. Being prepared will allow you to come through in crunch time, while under pressure. Once you have some practice under your belt, my experience suggests that all you need is 20 seconds focused on a buck that presents at least two angles of view to spit out a fairly accurate score. With modern trail cameras, high-quality images make it easy to learn, as the “shot clock” is taken out of the equation.
Since the number and length of a buck’s tines have the greatest impact on his overall score, I like to focus on this variable first. Let’s face it; most bucks don’t stand around long enough for you to count every inch! If I see tall tines and “three up” on each side as he’s escaping to cover, I’m plenty intrigued and willing to get on that buck and try to steady a pin on him!
I taught my kids and teach my clients the “What’s up?” approach to first determining how many points a buck has, because it’s far quicker than counting every point. If you look at a buck’s antlers from various angles, focus first on the number of tines pointing “up” from the main beam and ask yourself, “What’s up?” For example, a symmetrical 8-pointer will have two tines pointing up from both main beams. When you add those four points to the two main beams and two brow tines, he is an 8-pointer — provided both sides are even. If the buck’s antlers are not symmetrical, and he only has one tine up on the other side, you can quickly deduct a point and know he’s a 7-pointer. Likewise, if you notice he doesn’t have brow tines after looking at “four up,” you know he’s a 6-pointer. Once you do this a few times, you get very good at it, and your ability to quickly identify the number of points on a buck’s rack improves greatly.
You may be wondering, “What if he has a lot of abnormal points and I can’t count them all that quick?” Well, in that case, the answer is easy: just shoot!
Tine length greatly impacts a buck’s gross score. If you’ve ever shot a 10-pointer with short tines, you can relate! A great reference point on a buck to determine relative tine length is the height of his face. I like to measure the face height of mounts or hunter-killed deer in my area as a reference point. Measure an imaginary line from the base of the antlers, behind or through the eye and down to the jaw line. I know most of my young bucks (ages 1.5 and 2.5) measure 6-7 inches, whereas my middle-aged and mature bucks measure 7-8 inches. Therefore, while scoring a buck from the stand, if a tine appears to be one and a half times as tall as the face measurement, I’m fairly certain I’m looking at a 10-inch tine, or better. All this gets much easier with practice, and it’s quite enjoyable to practice with friends and family.
When it comes to tine number and length, bucks with 10 or more long points will generally score very well, especially if they have average or above-average main beams, spread and mass. I killed a mature buck on my Pennsylvania farm a few years back that had an extremely narrow spread and average main beams, but I estimated his G2s at close to 12 inches and his G3s at more than 9 inches. I knew those tines would more than make up for his uniquely narrow spread and average main beams. As I studied his trail-camera pictures, it was obvious he had good mass, and some extra points helped throw him into the mid-140s.
Main beam length is the second variable I want to nail down. Once you size up one beam and a quick glance confirms both beams are relatively close in size, simply multiply by two for the total that counts towards the gross score. Some bucks require both broadside and frontal views; however, you can usually get close with a broadside view.
Quite simply, the closer a buck’s main beam tip is to his nose while standing broadside, the better he will score. Many main beams will hook in or up, forcing you to imagine straightening it out over his face. If you look at a yearling buck, his main beams generally come out to an imaginary line somewhere above his eye. Bucks with longer main beams generally extend beyond the mid-point of the face. If a buck’s main beams rest over his nose or beyond, and you liked what you saw in step 1, stop looking and draw your bow!
A little bit of practice on main beams goes a long way. Remember, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. If a buck’s main beams swoop back from the base, shoot outside of his ears and hook up or in at the tip, score him when he’s on the ground, because that’s anything but a straight line!
While a buck’s spread is often the first characteristic hunters reference, I only spend a significant amount of time looking at it when it’s abnormally wide or narrow. Inside antler spread is only one number applied to the gross score, whereas a buck has two main-beam measurements and several tine-length measurements. I simply want to see where the inside spread of a buck’s main beams sits in reference to his ear tips when pushed forward. For a quick reference point, simply measure ear tip to ear tip on the buck mounts on your wall. Depending on where you hunt, this is generally 16-18 inches. If the beams appear to extend one inch outside the ear tips on each side, and most of your bucks measure 17 inches ear-tip-to-ear-tip, you’re looking at a 19-inch spread. Obviously, if I see 2-3 inches on either side of a buck’s ears and I’m happy with steps 1 and 2, I’m already thinking about a trip to the taxidermist!
There are four circumference measurements along various points of a buck’s main beam that count towards “mass.” I list mass last, but it can certainly hurt you if you make a quick shooting decision and fail to recognize a buck is super thin. Years ago, I killed a buck in Kansas that had it all — minus mass! The hunt happened so fast I failed to critique his mass. While extremely proud of the Pope and Young-caliber buck, I was reminded how it can all fall apart at the end if you ignore mass extremes. While many managers use the circumference of the eye to estimate mass, I like to use the base of the ear; it's another simple measurement you can take.
While typing this column, I can see that my thin Kansas buck’s basal circumference is barely half the circumference of the base of his ear. A buck that has a basal circumference less than half of his ear base lacks mass altogether, and if the buck you’re looking at has bases equal in size to his ear base, you’re approaching beer can bases! Obviously, most bucks lose mass as you go from the base to the tip of the main beam; however, this is something you get very good at identifying with time.
Practice makes perfect. So, take your note pad to the stand, outdoor expos, trophy rooms and taxidermy shops and develop the “art” of scoring live bucks. Practice several “what-if” scenarios to get the score you’re after or various versions of the same score, as this will shorten your decision-making process in the field. And remember, it’s OK to make mistakes; that’s how we learn.