Losing the Obsession with how your animal scores

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January 13, 2020
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January 20, 2020

Losing the Obsession with how your animal scores

Having Perspective and Knowledge Helps Alleviate Some of the Pressure of Shooting an Animal That Scores High

By Chad Dotson

During a recent elk hunt in New Mexico, myself and hunting buddies were having a very difficult time finding bulls. Finding a bull wasn’t our only problem; we were struggling to find any elk at all. Maximum effort was being applied as we sweated up and down the mountain, even changing and moving camp several times. We listened to other groups of hunters complain as they were experiencing the same frustrations, none of which had ever seen the hunting this tough. 

After a week of both mental physical fatigue I was able to connect on a 6-point on the final day of the hunt. Being the only bull seen the entire trip I was extremely proud to place my tag on him. As tough as this hunt was it was going to get tougher. At the time, I was 24-years-old and was in the prime physical condition, but after enduring such a long and difficult hunt, packing out the bull was almost too much. I literally had to focus on taking one step after the other. After several headlamp-lit miles we had the bull back in camp. With hands shaking, legs refusing to work, and my mind numb, it was the hardest I have ever worked for an elk, or any animal for that matter. 

Sometime after the hunt an individual saw the bull hanging proudly in my shop and made note to ask me about him. “Where did that bull come from?” he asked first. “That bull came from New Mexico,” I replied. A discerning look came over his face as he studied the bull. I could tell by his puzzled expression he expected more from a New Mexico bull. His second question chimed with a disappointed tone in his voice, “What does he score?” 

My inner monologue reeled. How dare he pass judgment on that bull by asking me that question. Did he ask so he could prove to himself that the bull was as “small” as he assumed it to be? If he only knew what mental and physical anguish I went through to take that bull. I calmly replied, “To be honest, I never scored him, and I never need to. It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked for any animal and I’ll always be proud of him and the adventure.”

Since that hunt, I have gone round and round with my own realization of the concept of “score” and what it means to me. Now by no means, am I anti-score but I do try very hard to take what can be a very complicated, multifaceted concept and look at it from a big picture perspective. While the process of scoring is credible in terms of ranking, there is definitely more to an animal than how the inches add up.

Today’s fast-paced social culture has, for better or worse, spilled over into our hunting heritage. Photos of giant bulls and bucks can be found all over Facebook, Instagram, and other social media outlets. Hunters throw around numbers of their harvests to bring validity to the animal they have taken. We as hunters are exposed to score and this new expectation of what a “trophy” is at every turn. Again, I believe there is definitely a place and need for scoring, but we do need to look beyond the score and not let it define what constitutes success; or furthermore pass judgment on another hunter’s success based on the score 

The most widely accepted method for scoring animals in North America is the Boone and Crockett method. Let’s take a quick look back in history, long before social media posts were updated on the Internet every minute. Per the Boone and Crockett website: 

There was an obvious need for an objective system that could be applied by sportsmen to their own best trophies. In 1949, Samuel B. Webb was chosen to chair a special committee to devise an equitable, objective measurement system for the big game of North America. The committee worked during the year to arrive at the system adopted by the Boone and Crockett Club in 1950.

Other than cold, hard numbers, the system as a whole was originally devised on a foundation of a few defining principles. The first being, outstanding specimens are generally produced from healthy herds with good age stratification and quality genetics. So, it was recognized that a record class animal generally meant the herd was healthy and productive, which is ultimately the goal of the fair chase sportsmen. Secondly, there was a want and a need to recognize truly magnificent animals.

It is important to recognize that each hunter has a different perspective on what score means to them, and in turn, each specific hunt has a different expectation for what a “trophy” is. If I am holding a general season archery tag in a heavily hunted area, my expectation for what I’m looking for changes dramatically. Conversely, if I’m holding one of the most coveted limited entry tags in the state, my idea of the animal I’m searching for swings dramatically to the other end of the spectrum. In those two scenarios, which animal should a hunter be most proud of? One might say the general season tag as just taking any animal under those conditions is a difficult task. Whereas with the limited entry tag, the hardest part may have just been drawing the tag. While both hunts will be very rewarding each with their own challenges to overcome, anyone looking from the outside in is often going to recognize the higher scoring animal as the better trophy. Hence a more successful hunt.

Growing up, my father was a long-time taxidermist and an official scorer for the Oregon record book. I learned the intricacies of the Boone and Crockett system from a very young age. Ultimately, I believe education, or lack thereof, is one of the most glaring issues I have with most conversations about what an animal may or may not score. In fact, I find it extremely interesting that most people discussing score have never pulled a tape on an antler in their life. 

The Boone and Crockett website is a great source for education. There, you will find sections on field judging animals with pie chart breakdowns that show score aspect percentages for each species; i.e. main beam length on a whitetail deer makes up 30 percent of the overall score. The website provides downloadable scoresheets and even an online score calculator. Each scoresheet has diagrams depicting where to make each specific measurement. Things get slightly more complicated when deciphering between “gross” and “net” score. Before getting our feathers ruffled over the “gross” versus “net” score topic, let’s remember a few important points. When we adopted this system, we agreed to play by its rules. The system is not “flawed,” it was just developed a long time ago. Another quick look back at some history of the system shows us the mindset and qualities deemed desirable at the time. Per the Boone and Crockett website: 

The scoring system depends upon carefully taken measurements of the enduring trophy characteristics to arrive at a numerical final score that provides instant ranking for all trophies of a category. By measuring only enduring characters (such as antlers, horns, and skulls) rather than skin length or carcass weight, the measurements may be repeated at any later date to verify both the measurements and the resulting ranking in each category. Anyone doubting the correctness of a particular trophy’s ranking can readily prove or disprove his own contentions by a simple replication of the measurements. The system places heavy emphasis on symmetry, penalizing those portions of the measured material that are non-symmetrical. This results in even, well-matched trophies scoring better and placing higher in the rankings than equally developed but mismatched trophies, a result that most people readily agree with and accept. For those antlered trophies with unusual amounts of abnormal antler material, non-typical categories were developed to give them recognition as they would be unduly penalized in the typical categories

As you can see, the idea of symmetry was a quality that was deemed very desirable at the time the system was created. Deductions, or inches being subtracted from a score, are a very difficult thing for a hunter to watch.  Maybe we subconsciously revert back to third grade spelling tests, where we watched that bright red pen deduct points from our score for each misspelled word. For example, did you know that if the main beams on a mule deer buck are longer than the spread is wide, you only get credit on your spread that is equal to but doesn’t exceed the length of the main beam? It says so directly on the spread sheet: SPREAD CREDIT MAY EQUAL BUT NOT EXCEED LONGER MAIN BEAM. So, a buck with 20-inch main beams and a 25-inch inside spread automatically loses 5 inches. Below are photos of bucks that illustrate how differently this scoring system can affect each individual animal’s score.

While both are nice bucks, it is extremely apparent that the these two are not created equal. The incredible deer on the left supports a spread of 30 inches while carrying extreme mass and is a buck that most hunters dream of. He is a mature, healthy specimen with quality genetics; a testament to the principles that the fine gentlemen at Boone and Crockett set in place some 70 years ago. But alas, this buck is like a sumo wrestler asked to be a ballet dancer. He is an extremely impressive specimen who simply doesn’t fit well in the system parameters. His massive main beams are 20 2/8 and 21 7/8, while his inside spread of main beams is 27 0/8, remember, spread credit may equal but not exceed longer than the main beam measurement, so right off the bat he doesn’t get credit for 5 1/8 inches. Point length accounts for a whopping 44 percent of a mule deer’s overall score, whereas mass credit comes in at 18 percent, so while his mass looks extremely impressive, it doesn’t add up nearly as quickly as a buck with long thin points would. 

The massive buck on the left comes in with a final net score of 164 3/8, while his younger counterpart has a final net score of 159 4/8. These two deer, while dramatically different specimens, end up with net scores that are separated by only 4 7/8 inches. The eye test tells us that, while both are nice bucks in their own right, these two deer definitely don’t belong in the same conversation. Again, the system just isn’t designed for the heavy deer to score as well as he looks. Does it make him less of a trophy? Should the hunter feel a sense of shame when he tells people what he scores? The answers to these questions are different for everyone. For me, the answer is simple, “heck no!”

It is important for you as a hunter in this fast-paced new hunting culture to actually put some thought into what the concept of score means to you. The most important thing I can recommend is to increase your education. Print out a scoresheet and practice scoring. Would you tell Michael Jordan how to shoot a free throw if you had never shot one yourself? Second, and arguably every bit as important as education, is perspective. Each hunter, each hunt, and each animal is different, keep your perspective on whether score is an important factor to you. Like the sportsmen and women who came before us, let’s remember that the ultimate goal is to promote healthy and productive herds with quality genetics that we can sustain and admire for generations to come. 

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