Is It Really That Hard to Field Judge Mule Deer?

We’ve all heard it, mule deer scores thrown around like everyone has a tape measure embedded in their eyeballs.  Post a picture or video of a buck, ask the score, and you’ll have people telling you the score within 1/8″  – it’s kinda’ laughable.  You’ll also get sets of scores from people that aren’t even close to one another.  One will say it’s 190″ buck and another will argue that it’s a 165″ buck.  Is it really that hard to judge a buck just by looking at it?  The answer is more complicated than yes or no.  Experience in the field behind optics and hands-on experience measuring bucks will surely help.

These tips will help you know what to look for when field judging bucks.  Use these tips to help you field score or just get an approximate estimate of the size class a buck is in, i.e. 150″ class, or 170″ class etc.  This information can be used as a decision tool to decide if you should spend the time and energy chasing a buck.  Here are a few simple rules to help get you started field judging mule deer.

Field Judging Mule Deer Like a Pro

Trust Your Gut

Excitement can be used as a measurement benchmark for hunters as much as the actual score of a buck’s antlers.  If a medium sized buck is in a tough spot, has unique characteristics and provides a challenge – then isn’t that as much a trophy as a larger buck taken under uninteresting or unchallenging circumstances?  Sometimes a first reaction is a good judge of a buck.  When you’re glassing and a buck comes into your field of view and the first thing that comes to mind is, “WOW” – then maybe trust your gut and go after him instead of trying to dissect every inch of his antlers.  With that being said, it’s also fun to field judge bucks by looking at clues that make up a big set of buck antlers.

Width

For some, the holy grail of mule deer hunting is harvesting a 30″ wide buck.  The funny thing is, this outside spread is somewhat insignificant when it comes to scoring mule deer.  It’s certainly a cool characteristic, but it’s the inside spread that is measured as part of the Boone & Crockett scoring system.  The place of measurement is the widest part of the inside of the main beams.  On average, mule deer ears tip-to-tip are 19-22″ apart.  If you use the ears as a guide to judge antler spread, you can get in the ball park with a guesstimate.  For example, if you’re looking at a buck and estimate his inside antler spread is 1″ past his ears, assuming his ears are 21″ apart, then you can come up with an approximate inside spread of 23″.  Using this same method you can come up with an outside spread if you’d like also.

This is where measurements are taken for inside spread. PC: Clint Wirick, Muley Freak

Don’t be fooled by heavy mass that can make tines and width look smaller than they really are.

Mass

Don’t overlook this clue.  Although mass numbers can be one of the most consistent measurements from buck to buck, there are those exceptionally heavy antlered bucks and willowy antlered bucks that can add or take away from the buck’s score.  Mass can add up and make up for a smaller width measurement or even shorter tine length – so don’t overlook it.  Also, don’t be fooled by heavy mass that can make tines and width look smaller than they really are.  Again, the ears can be used as reference and comparing antler mass to the ear can give you a jumping-off point.  There are four mass measurements taken starting at the base and moving up the main beam.  If a buck carries mass up through the antler this will help it score well.

Now this buck carries mass from his base’s all the way up his points. PC: Adobe Stock

Tine Length

Tine length is usually one of the very first things noticed when field judging mule deer and can be one of the most important characteristics to the overall score of a buck.  A buck with deep fronts is a good find since those front forks can be important to overall score. Pay careful attention to how long a buck’s main beams are as that will quickly add or subtract inches to a buck’s overall score.  There are several measurements that are a derivative of the fronts; 1) the fork measurements, 2) main beam measurements, 3) and inside spread measurements.  So having great tine length in the front and not the back will score better than bucks with “crab claw” fronts and good back tines.

While impressive, this buck lacks tine length, especially in the front. PC: Adobe Stock

Velvet Bucks

It’s usually the archers who have the pleasure of chasing mule deer in the velvet but even the hard horned guys have to scout deer in the velvet.  Velvet antlers have the ability to look slightly bigger than they really are.  Velvet antlers are a living part of a buck.  The velvet antlers have blood in them and are covered with a layer of skin and hair while they grow.  This layer of skin and hair on the antlers has the ability to make antlers look more massive than they really are.

This buck while extremely large no matter what way you look at him, the angle shows how a buck in the velvet earlier in the year can exaggerate mass.

Walking Away Bucks

We’ve all done it with a buck walking straight way.  You spot that buck walking straight away and can’t believe how big he is, only to be disappointed as he turns his head and faces you.  Don’t be duped by a buck that is walking away.  A buck going away always looks bigger.  If you can look at a buck from all angles, do so before making a judgement call.

You spot that buck walking straight away and can’t believe how big he is, only to be disappointed as he turns his head and faces you.

Don’t Forget the Trash

Not to state the obvious, but if you’re lucky enough to find a buck with extra points, kickers, stickers, or in-lines, those all add to a buck’s score.

What this buck lacks in some tine length is made up with extra points that are all scoreable. PC: Adobe Stock

Having Good Glass

This tip is as important as any other tip.  Without powerful, crystal clear optics this all means nothing.  As a companion to those optics, you need a solid tripod for your spotter and binos.  Without a tripod, picking up on these field judging clues is more oft than not useless as your arms get tired and your hands bounce around.  A nice tripod topped with a great spotter or binos, equipped with a phone camera setup, makes for looking at and field judging mule deer much easier.

You Don’t Have to be an Expert

Don’t think you have to be an expert when field judging mule deer.  The funny thing is, that a large number of those guys that throw out a score within seconds of seeing a buck are usually the opposite of experts.  Take your time, look at the clues using these tips from this article.  As stated above, one of the funnest tips for making a decision about whether or not to chase a mule deer buck is going with your gut.  Good luck out there scouting and hunting.

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