The Art of Field Judging Mule Deer: Key Factors for a Successful Shot

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January 20, 2020
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January 31, 2020

The Art of Field Judging Mule Deer: Key Factors for a Successful Shot

If you’re a fan of challenging yet rewarding pursuits, mule deer hunting should be at the top of your list. 

But before you head out into the wild, it’s crucial to master the art of field judging these majestic creatures. 

That’s why we’re delving into mule deer field judging to equip you with expert tips and techniques, so you can confidently conquer any hunting expedition. 

Get ready to unlock a new dimension in your hunting game – one where precision meets excitement. We’re about to embark on an exhilarating journey toward mastering field judging for those once-in-a-lifetime shots!

What is Field Judging Mule Deer?

Field judging mule deer is assessing the quality and characteristics of a mule deer buck based on visual cues, like its body shape, antler configuration, mass, width, height, and symmetry. 

This is not an exact science but an art requiring practice, experience, and knowledge.

Field judging mule deer is important as it can help you:

  • Determine if the buck is worth pursuing, saving you time and energy.
  • Set realistic expectations and goals for your hunt, avoiding disappointment or regret.
  • Respect wildlife and the environment, ensuring you only harvest mature and healthy animals that have reached their full potential.
  • Comply with the hunting regulations and laws, avoiding fines or penalties.

How to Score a Mule Deer

One of the most common ways to measure the quality of a mule deer buck is the Boone and Crockett scoring system

This system assigns points to various aspects of the antlers, such as the number of points, the length of the main beams, the spread, the circumference, and the symmetry. The total score is calculated by adding and deducting points for asymmetry or abnormalities.

It’s a system widely used by hunters and wildlife managers to compare and rank mule deer bucks across regions and seasons. 

However, this system is not perfect and does not account for other factors that may affect the value or attractiveness of a buck, like its age, health, genetics, or location.

This means that field judging mule deer based on score alone can be difficult and unreliable. 

This is why you should also use other criteria to score when field judging mule deer in the wild.

Additional Factors to Consider When Field Judging Mule Deer

Although mule deer scoring is not an exact science, some key factors can help you estimate if the buck’s a shooter before you pull the trigger or release the arrow. 

Here are some of the main criteria to consider when field judging mule deer:

The Gasp Factor

This one is subjective but a good indicator of a trophy buck. 

If a mule deer looks huge, he probably is. 

A mature buck will have a larger and more muscular body than a younger one. It will also have a deeper chest, a thicker neck, a larger head, and a more pronounced sagging belly. 

A mature buck will also have darker fur on its face and forehead than a younger one.

Just be careful if you’re used to field-judging whitetail deer. You might be fooled by the first mature muley buck you see, as they tend to have larger bodies and racks than their eastern cousins. 

But if you’ve seen enough muley bucks and encounter one that is visibly larger and heavier than the rest, with a massive mule deer rack, get ready to shoot. 

Importantly, even average muley bucks look big from the rear. Try to get a sideways and front-on look before you decide to shoot.

Frame Assessment

Always take a quick mental measurement of his frame. The best-scoring mule deer will have high and wide racks contributing to the inside spread and main-beam measurements.  

The height will also help with fork depth, another key factor for scoring a mule deer. 

A big, boxy frame also reflects another consideration for the 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 many points, consider easing off your gun’s safety or drawing your bowstring.

Antler Mass

Mass refers to how thick and heavy the antlers are along their length. It is one of the main contributors to the buck’s score and visual appeal and durability.

Generally, the thicker and heavier the antlers, the more mature the buck is. 

Older bucks will also have more mass near the base and less tapering toward the tips. 

A good way to estimate mule deer antler mass is by looking at the size of its eye guards, the short points near the base of the antlers. 

A mature buck will have eye guards at least 4 inches long and as thick as a soda can.

Antler Height

Height refers to how tall the antlers are from their base to their highest point. 

It’s not a major contributor to the mule deer score, but it does affect its appearance and visibility.

The general rule of thumb is the taller the antlers, the more mature the buck.

It will also have more height between the main beams, the forks, and the tips. 

A good way to estimate the height of a mule deer’s antlers is by comparing it to the height of its back, which is about 40 inches from the ground. A mature buck will have antlers at least half as tall as its back or taller.

Antler Symmetry

Symmetry refers to how similar and balanced the antlers are on both sides. Although a minor contributor to the buck’s score, it affects the aesthetic value and rarity.

A more mature buck will have more symmetrical antlers. They will also have less variation and difference in the size, shape, and points position on both sides. 

A good way to estimate the symmetry of a buck’s antlers is by looking at them from different angles and distances, checking for any noticeable flaws or discrepancies.

Deeply Forking Tines

This is the aspect that’ll 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 finish in shallow “crab-claw” points. 

The best-scoring bucks will have deep forks between their second and third points and the third and fourth points. 

These best scorers may also have another 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. 

Also, 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. 

The width refers to how far apart the antlers are from each other at their widest point. A good way to estimate the width of a buck’s antlers is by comparing it to the width of its ears.

A mature buck will have antlers at least as wide as its ears or wider.

It’s last because the benchmark for consideration is the tips of the buck’s ears. That distance can vary by subspecies and individuals.  

Generally, if a buck’s antlers extend well beyond the ears, it’s good. 

And if the other metrics check out, you should send your bullet or arrow.

Mule Deer Hunting Tips

Field judging mule deer is not easy, especially when you are under pressure or caught up by the excitement in the field. 

However, with some practice and preparation, you can improve your skills and accuracy and make better decisions during your hunt. 

Here are some tips to help you master field-judging mule deer:

  • Study photos and videos of mule deer bucks from different regions and seasons. Try to estimate their age, size, and score.
  • Use binoculars or a spotting scope to get a clear and close view of the buck’s body and antlers without alerting or disturbing it.
  • Compare the buck to other deer in the area or familiar objects, such as your hand or rifle scope, to get a sense of scale and proportion.
  • Look at the buck from different angles and distances and notice how its appearance changes with perspective and lighting.
  • Take your time and be patient, but don’t hesitate too long, or you might miss your chance.
  • Trust your instincts and go with your gut feeling, but don’t let your emotions or expectations cloud your judgment.
  • Have fun and enjoy the experience, but remember your ethics and responsibilities as a hunter.

In The End

Field judging mule deer is essential for any hunter pursuing these magnificent animals. 

By understanding the key factors that affect the quality and characteristics of a mule deer buck, you can make quick and ethical decisions in the field, ensuring effective and responsible hunting.

Do you have any mule deer hunting stories or questions? Let us know!

For more hunting information, tips, gear reviews, and stories, subscribe to Western Hunting Journal today!

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