Hunting > Big Game

Field-Judging Big Game

Accurately field-judging the trophy quality, or in some cases legality, of big game is an essential outdoor skill.

Bighorn Sheep
Viewed broadside, mature bighorns have a hump above their shoulders and may weigh 300 pounds. Age is determined by counting growth rings or segments, with one for each year of age. Rams take about seven to eight years to reach full curl. Depending on where you hunt, legal rams may have to be half, three-quarter or full curl, so check regulations, especially on how this is measured.

Score is determined by the length along the outer curves and along four circumference measurements of each horn, so don't get fooled by width, especially when viewing from behind. Look for mass extending well out on the horns. A good rule of thumb: If the horn looks similar in width at the base and the midpoint, it's a good ram. You want a deep curl with the bottom of the horn dropping below the line of the lower jaw. The tips of the horns on mature rams are often ragged and broken, a condition called "brooming."

Pronghorns are difficult to field-judge since the most important factor is mass. Of the six scoring measurements, four are circumferences. Use the eyes and ears for comparison. The ear will generally be about 5-6 inches long and the eye about 2 inches across. The base of the horns should be wider than the eye or as wide as the widest part of the ear. Mass should extend to the prongs, or cutters, which should themselves stretch 2 inches past the horns. For length, look for horns at least double the length of the ears that form a heart shape when viewed from the front. Having as much horn above the prongs as below is another good sign of trophy quality.

The best way to improve your field-judging skills is practice. Apply these tips while watching hunting videos, looking at magazines and surfing the Web. Of course, there is always the tried-and-true "holy @$#% method." If you don't say "Holy @$#%" when the buck strolls out, he's not big enough!

Whitetail Deer
With heavy hindquarters, muscular shoulders and a thick neck extending low into the chest, a mature buck looks bulky. A round belly and swaying back make the legs appear short and disproportional to the body, while younger bucks look leggy and lean.

When judging a typical rack check for these three factors in this order: points, tine length and symmetry. Remember, 11 of the 19 scoring measurements on a typical 10-point buck are for length. You want at least 10 long points, with brow tines over 5 inches being a bonus. A buck's ear is about 6-7 inches long, so use it to check whether the G2s and G3s are at least as long.

Check the inside spread by comparing it with the 16- to 18-inch spread between an alert buck's ears. Anything past the ears is good. Missing tines and lop-sided racks really hurt the score, so view the rack from several angles if you have time. Antlers looking spindly in comparison to the ears have less mass. For non-typicals, look for everything above and then add in the extras.

For record-book bulls you want long tines and sprawling main beams on at least a 5x5, and better yet, a 6x6 frame. Look for 12-inch eye guards with G2s of similar length. Keep in mind that the distance from a bull's bases to its nose is about 16 inches. If the G3s and G5s are also in the 12-inch range, it's probably a good bull. The G4s, or royal points, should be prominent, giving the animal a whale-tail look.

A bull's torso is about 40 inches tall, so use it to check for main beam lengths of at least 30-40 inches. Likewise, a bull's chest is about 24 inches wide, so use it to measure inside spread, which should stretch at least 5 inches past the flanks on both sides. Having the opportunity to view a bull from several angles makes this much easier.

Mule Deer
Body characteristics of a mature mule deer are similar to a whitetail's. On a typical rack there can be no more than five normal points per side, so a high, symmetrical 5x5 is what you're after. Ear tip spread on an alert buck is 20-22 inches, so look for a rack past the ears for an inside spread of 24-26 inches-depending on the area you're hunting. Wide racks usually equal good beam length.

Mule deer tend to have shorter brow tines than whitetails, so longer ones really add to the score. Deep forks formed by G2s of at least 12 inches and nice-sized G3s distinguish mature animals from the "crab claws" of younger bucks. A high and wide rack appears boxy or square.


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