The Boone and Crockett Club recognizes two categories of whitetail deer. The larger and the more familiar to most of us is the common whitetail, which is found in Mexico, all but a handful of states in the United States, and in many parts of Canada. The other is the Coues’ deer, a small-bodied whitetail with correspondingly smaller antlers that is found in the deserts and deciduous woodlands of southwestern New Mexico, Arizona, and northwestern Mexico. No part of the Coues’ deer’s current range is inhabited by the larger whitetail, thus separating the two subspecies.
The first thing you will notice about a large whitetail buck’s rack is the overall height and width, followed by the number of points, and mass. When assessing a potential trophy’s score, we need to look at the lengths of the main beams, lengths of the points, the inside spread of the main beams, and the mass or circumference of the main beams at four locations.
These things can be quickly evaluated in the field with a few simple calculations. To do this we need things of known sizes to visually compare the antlers to and in this case we will use the deer’s ears, eyes, and nose. While this can be an inexact science considering the range of sizes from the diminutive Coues’ deer to the bulky giants of Canada, we are going to throw out the biggest and the smallest and take an average of the most common whitetails found in the United States. The average buck, with his ears in an alert position, has an ear tip-to-tip spread of 16 inches. His ears will measures six inches from the base to the tip. The circumference of his eye is four inches, and from the center of the eye to the end of his nose should measure about eight inches. These will be our “rulers” for antler size estimation. If you are hunting in an area that traditionally produces huge-bodied deer, or if you are hunting the little Coues’ deer, you will need to adjust your “rulers” accordingly.
Assuming you can get a frontal view, estimating a buck’s inside spread should be easy. Is he outside of his ear tips? If so, by how much? For example, if his main beam appears to be half an ear or three inches outside the ear tip on each side, then by adding 6 to 16 we find that he has a 22-inch spread.
Judging the length of the main beams is next. A general rule of thumb is to look for a buck whose main beams appear to extend forward as far as the tip of his nose. However, by using this criterion alone, a long-beamed buck might be passed over if you only have a side view and the buck has a wide spread and/or its antlers turn sharply in so that the main beam tips nearly touch. Also, be aware of the buck whose beams tower above its head before sweeping forward as this adds valuable inches to an otherwise average looking main beam. The actual main beam length is estimated using our ear length and eye to nose “rulers.”
Next, and to many, the most impressive features of a trophy whitetail are the number and lengths of the points on his rack. The Boone and Crockett Club defines a point on a whitetail or Coues’ deer as “any projection at least one inch long and longer than it is wide at one inch or more of length.” Since most whitetails are hunted in or near heavy cover where there may only be seconds to assess their antlers, we need a quick way to count points.
Points may be quickly counted by assuming that an overwhelming majority of mature whitetail bucks grow a brow tine on each antler and that the main beam tip usually lies almost horizontally. This allows us to count the standing normal points G-2, G-3, G-4, etc., and quickly add that to the number 2 (brow tine and beam tip). With this method you can quickly determine that a buck with two standing normal points per side is a 4×4 or 8-pointer, and with three standing points per side he is a 5×5 or 10-pointer, and so on, with the exception of Coues’ whitetail. Nearly all the bucks that make the records book have at least five normal points per side. The length of the points can be estimated using the same “rulers” we used for the main beams.
The typical pattern of a mature whitetail’s antler development is an unbranched main beam that normally develops from three to seven (sometimes more) unbranched points per antler at roughly spaced intervals. Any other points are considered “abnormal” and their lengths are deducted from the score if the buck is scored as a typical or added to the score if it is being scored as a non-typical.
Estimating the mass or circumference measurements of the antler is where we use our deer’s four-inch eye circumference as the “ruler.” Compare the antler at H-1, H-2, etc., to the eye. How much bigger is the antler? If it were half again bigger, the circumference measurement at that point would be about six inches.
Ideally, the rack should be viewed from the front and the side especially when judging the main beams. However, this isn’t always possible and sometimes you will just have to go with your gut feeling. But beware of the rear view, as it can be deceiving. From this angle you get an exaggerated impression of the antler’s height and spread.
The most practical way to practice your field-judging skills is to estimate the score of mounted heads. Use the buck’s “rulers” to estimate the score, then check your calculations by actually measuring the rack. With a little practice, you will be surprised how close your estimates will become. One last word of advice, when the time comes to shoot, don’t bother looking at the antlers one more time. It can cause your nervous system to do strange things.
MAXIMUM VS. MINIMUM A COMPARISON OF TWO RECORDS-BOOK TYPICAL WHITETAIL DEER
FIELD JUDGING COUES’ WHITETAIL
Coues’ deer are miniature, desert-dwelling cousins of the familiar whitetail. Therefore, you are looking for the same features as in whitetails, only reduced in expression. Coues’ deer antlers tend to form semi-circles, with the antler tips often pointing toward each other. Seldom will a Coues’ deer show the “wide-open” look that is fairly common in whitetails. Often, there is very little distance between the antler tips, and some may nearly touch each other. A mature Coues’ deer antler set may well look like a small whitetail set, although usually developed to a more “finished” look overall. Interestingly, the antler beams of Coues’ deer may well be nearly as thick as those on a mature whitetail.
There will be at least three well-developed points (plus beam tip) on each antler for a near-book typical Coues’ deer trophy, and the inside spread will need to be near 15 inches. The general look of the rack will be mature, with the second point on each antler being usually the longest of the side and the antler tips pointing toward each other.
A large non-typical Coues’ deer will show these qualities plus several noticeable abnormal points. Roughly, the abnormal points will need to total about 10 inches (current typical all-time records book minimum entry score is 110 and that for non-typical is 120), which means generally about three or four abnormal points on the rack.