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Field Judging Mule Deer

This mule deer has all the attributes that make it a shooter: width, deep-forking tines, a wide frame and the “gasp” factor. KELLY HARGROVE PHOTO

4 Factors to Consider When You Encounter a Shooter

By Andrew McKean

Maybe because it has a resolute ring to it, most people define a “shooter” mule deer as a buck that breaks the 30-inch threshold.

But antler width is only one attribute to consider when you size up a mule deer in the field. And because the yardstick for width – how far beyond the buck’s ears the antlers extend – is fairly arbitrary, it’s seldom the best metric.

Here are four dimensions to consider when you encounter a buck, and once you get some practice, they’re easy to quickly and decisively employ in a matter of seconds as you decide whether or not to send a shot.

THE GASP FACTOR

The one is subjective, but if a mule deer looks huge, he probably is. Now for a qualification. If you’re an Eastern whitetail hunter, the first mature mule deer buck you see will probably steal your breath. But if you’ve seen a number of muley bucks and you encounter one that is visibly larger and heavier than the rest, get ready to shoot. One caveat: even middling bucks look big from the rear, so try to get a sideways and front-on look before you decide to shoot.

FRAME ASSESSMENT

Now that you’re serious, take a quick mental measurement of his frame. The best-scoring mule deer will have high and wide racks (incidentally, the same ingredients that go into that “gasp factor”). The height will help with fork depth—more on that in a second—and the width will boost the inside-spread and main-beam measurements. A big, boxy frame will also reflect another consideration for overall score: the number of points. Most record-book bucks will have 4 points on each side, plus brow tines. So if you see a big frame with lots of points, consider easing off your gun’s safety, or drawing your bowstring.

DEEPLY FORKING TINES

This attribute will make or break a buck’s score. Deep, symmetrical forks will add to the tine-length score, but many high- and wide-racked muleys will have antlers that start with deep forks between the G2 and G3 points (the second and third tines) but then finish in shallow “crab-claw” points. The best-scoring bucks will have deep forks between their second and third points, but also between the third and fourth points. And the best may have an additional deep forking on additional branches of the main tines. If you see long tines all the way around, or a picket-fence of antlers, that’s a sign of a high-scoring buck, and if you also see matching drop tines, start squeezing the trigger or release.

WIDTH CONSIDERATIONS

In addition to mass – or how heavy and gnarly the antlers look — the last thing to look at is width. It’s last because the benchmark for consideration is the tips of the buck’s ears, and that distance can vary by subspecies and individuals. I’ve seen bucks with 22 inches from tip to tip and some with 25-inch ear spread. But generally, if a buck’s antlers extend well beyond the ears, it’s a good one. And if the other metrics check out, you should send your bullet or arrow.

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