It’s mid-October. The autumn air is crisp in the high country, and mule deer seasons across the west are about to open. Magic is in the air, and big mule deer bucks on our minds.
To find a big, mature mule deer buck you must either draw a limited tag in a superb area, spend lots of money on a good private-land guided hunt or work very hard and hunt very smart on public land. If you’re a blue-collar guy like me, you’re probably limited to the last option. But when you’ve hunted hard and smart and do find a buck, how do you tell if he’s average, good or fantastic? It’s a problem faced by lots of hunters every year, especially those new to mule-deer hunting.
Good, Great and Monster Bucks To my way of thinking, big muley bucks fit into three general categories: good bucks, great bucks and monster bucks. In most situations any buck that fits into one of these categories is a shooter, but it behooves you to be capable of identifying what you’re looking at. And you’ll need to do it fast, because big bucks have a habit of disappearing like a wisp of smoke.
Good Buck: This is a buck that’s probably four or more years old. He’s likely a five-by-five (counting brow tines), and probably 20 to 26 inches wide. He may sport decent-to-good mass. Score, if it matters to you, would likely land in the 150-170 Boone & Crockett (B&C) range.
Great Buck: This buck will usually be five or more years old, sport a five-by-five rack, and might have some extra—or non-typical—points. He’ll be 24 to 30 inches wide, and mass is likely pretty good. Score might be in the 170 to 190 range.
Monster Buck: This is the one most hunters dream about. He’s old, likely six or more years of age. He’ll usually be massive and sport cheaters, inline or other non-typical points. Width may or may not be great—he could range from 24 to well over 30 inches wide. He’ll score 185 B&C points or more—maybe a lot more. Most bucks never reach this category—they simply don’t possess the genetic makeup to grow that big.
Tine Length, Spread and Mass There are three main things to look at when you’re trying to field judge a muley buck. These are tine length (also viewed as depth of forks), width and mass. Try to look at all three elements simultaneously; an undisturbed deer will likely provide you with views from several different angles during your 30 seconds, but probably not in a perfect “tine length, width, mass” sequence. Take your info as it comes.
*Note: A buck that’s feeding or walking away from you with his ears turned back appears much larger than he is. Do not trust going-away info.
Tine Length: This is the single most important element if you’re looking for a high-scoring buck. Look for double forks on both sides, and assess if the forks branch low and close to the main beam (deep) or if they branch far from the beam (shallow). Deep is highly desirable. Most bucks sport deep fronts or deep backs, but not both. If you can, check for brow tines, which will add four to 10 inches of score. Check for extra non-typical points. Look at the main beams—do they end above the deer’s eyes and seem short, or do they reach forward and upward, with good curve and length?
Spread: This is the age-old way to read a big buck—30 inches wide was the benchmark all mule deer hunters strived for. It’s still a good benchmark, but a true monster buck may or may not be over 30. Look for width at the main beam—that is where score is measured. The ears of an alert buck, with his ears forward for listening, usually measure 22 to 26 inches wide. Any buck with antlers wider than his ears is worth a second look, especially if he has several inches to spare on each side.
Mass: Of the three, this factor has the least influence on a deer’s B&C score. Ironically though, most dyed-in-the-wool muley hunters find mass absolutely magical, and a heavy buck will almost always trump a buck without mass, even if the thin buck scores better. Truly heavy bucks are somewhat rare, and perhaps this explains our fascination with them.
The best way to read mass is hard to describe, and it kind of comes down to experience. The more antlers you look at, the better you’ll evaluate mass. In short, look at the rack. Does it look thin and kind of see-through in the distance? Or does it look thick, sturdy and visible? Some experts recommend comparing the diameter of the eye to that of the antlers, but I don’t believe most mule deer hunters get close enough to accurately do that. So just look at the rack. If it seems heavy, it likely is. If it seems willow-horned, that’s probably a fact.
How to Judge a Buck in 30 Seconds Sometimes you’ll have more than 30 seconds, sometimes less. You must be able to see clearly, so get your bino steady or set up your spotting scope. Here’s what to look at:
Look at his forks; are they all there? Do they fork high up (short tines) or low down (long tines)? Do his main beams appear short and average, or long and sweeping? Does he have brow tines? Does he have cheater points or other extras?
What is his spread like? Is it wider than his ears? If so, by how much? Is he facing away with his ears back? If so, discount apparent spread by at least four inches.
Assess mass. By now, you’ll know if he is willow horned, average or heavy simply because you’ve studied the rack for twenty seconds or so.
Lastly (if you have time), take a quick look at the buck’s body. Does he appear young and streamlined, like a teenage high school ball player? Or does he look older, with big shoulders, thick neck and the body of a middle-aged dad? Or does he look old, with a heavy body, drooping skin and potbelly?
Okay, time’s up. Here’s how to use your assessments to determine whether you’re looking at a good, great or monster buck:
Good: Will likely be a square five-by-five with forks, spread and mass that look average. Might be missing a fork or tine altogether, like my wife’s muzzleloader buck shown in the photo above. This is a buck almost any public-land hunter should shoot.
Great: Will likely have two deep forks on each side, though there might be one or two that are a bit shallow. Should sport both brow tines, and have nice, long, curving main beams. Spread and mass should be good to great. Extra tines add bonus inches and character, though they might hurt a buck’s net B&C score (nets are for fish). The buck shown above is one I killed on a backcountry, DIY public-land backpack hunt. He is a great buck, with good tine length, a 28-inch outside spread and good mass. He gross scores right at 184 B&C.
Monster: Deep forks all around, with tines and main beams that seem impossibly long. Spread will usually be awesome. Mass will likely be good to fantastic. Most monster bucks will sport extra tines. A buck in this category is immediately obvious, and will give any hunter with blood in his veins the shakes. (Just try to delay them until after you’ve made a good shot). The buck in the photo above was shot by my daughter on public land, and is a spectacular example of a monster buck. His main frame is well over 30-inches wide; he has fantastic deep forks, long sweeping main beams and extra matching cheater points. Mass is good but not exceptional. He gross scores over 208 B&C inches.
Conclusion Assessing mule deer quickly and accurately takes practice. One thing you can do to speed your learning curve is study photos and taxidermy. You’ll learn to quickly recognize fork size, mass, spread and so on.
In the end, any buck that makes you happy is a good buck to shoot. On that note, it’s worth mentioning that many big old bucks don’t fit the descriptions above. They might not sport a classic rack or all the prescribed tines, offering instead character, mass or old age as the features that qualify them as a shooter. If you like him, shoot him. Enjoy his meat, admire his antlers and cherish the memories.