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How To Field-Judge Elk: Methods, Myths, & Mistakes

Avoid heartbreak this season by learning how-to accurately judge elk in the field; and how even veterans can blow it.

How To Field-Judge Elk: Methods, Myths, & Mistakes

Photo by Jason Loftus

It's never not-fun to shoot a big bull elk.

It was Day Four on a vast ranch full of big bulls—elk nirvana. Passing on 350-class bulls because they are “too young” is unnerving. Long, sweeping beams and long, albeit slender, tines reaching heavenward burn an impression when they walk away unpursued by lead. Management protocol on this free-range paradise dictates no kills on bulls less than eight years old. We passed on a couple of underwhelming mature bulls. I probably screwed up when I passed on a 330-class bull with awesome tops but miniature brow tines and vestigial thirds. But I was having fun, and I knew the area held 360-plus bulls.

Like all elk populations, such were scarce. Big bulls get shot fast when they show. And candidly, many bulls in many regions never top 340 inches, no matter how good the cover and browse. The thrill was in knowing, and trying. Amos, my guide, must have decided it was time to deploy an old outfitter’s technique and walk me into a frazzle, into an appreciation of a “representative” bull. Early the fourth afternoon, we parked atop a far-reaching alluvial ridge; round-shouldered from too many centuries of Utah mountain winds. I shut the truck door softly, because not-so-distant bugles rang from the north-facing pine and quakie forest below.

“We’ll just move into the trees...then work our way slowly down the ridge,” Amos said.

Two hundred yards in, I was mentally cussing the thicket-like bushes and questioning how badly I must have offended Amos for him to take us into a wild-goose chase as fruitless as this. We were making such a racket that no self-respecting bull would remain within miles. But I was forgetting two critical bits of information: We were hunting relatively undisturbed elk, and we were in their bedroom during the rut. Crashing noises were called for. Even intriguing.

As we passed through a living-room-sized opening in the dog-hair quaken-aspen saplings, a bull bugled—nearly in our back pockets. Behind us, a young 6x6 bull emerged, stared, and faded reluctantly back into the dark timber. Clearly, he’d been sure we were a lusty cow or two strolling through his bedroom. Understanding illuminated my cranial cobwebs. We didn’t need to be stealthy. As long as we had the wind, we could walk amongst ’em.

This experience repeated several times. Bulls pushed in, looked, faded. Usually, not before they gave us time to shoot. None were old enough.

Southerners say that as long as you start a comment with “bless their heart,” you can say mean things and get away with it. Amos, bless his heart, doesn’t like talking about score with his hunters. In fact, he doesn’t like talking about much of anything with his hunters. He’s much more comfortable talking to elk. I wasn’t there to shoot inches of antler. Still, after age class, antler class—as measured by Boone & Crockett—is a vital metric by which to discuss a bull.

Wasn’t happening. Amos would state whether a bull could be taken, based on age, and that was it. Me, I’d shot a few nice solid 6x6-type bulls. This was the best place I’d ever hunted, and I wanted to shoot the best bull I could find. A big-framed, clean 6x6 with mass and tine length would be just right. About the time I’d decided we were on a marathon to adjust my attitude, seeing and passing up young bull after young bull, and decided I was having the time of my life and didn’t care (I’d cheerfully march across the entire quarter-million-acre ranch looking at elk with Amos), we emerged into a quarter-acre woodland meadow.

Across the uphill side, a fringe of aspen saplings was painted thick. Mid-afternoon sunlight penetrated the boreal dome above us and splashed across the meadow. Amos paused, and I puffed my white dust from a wind- checker. It hung—the air so still I could hear my heart beat. Carefully and on high alert for no explainable reason, we moved into the meadow. Clumsily, I stepped on and cracked a twig.

A raspy bugle nearly blew our hats off. Heavy tines floated momentarily above the sapling grove; slender white trunks and golden leaves shuddering as a bull shouldered his way through them toward us. Even though it was only 40 yards away, I glared through my binoculars and saw brow tines of prehistoric size push through the fringe of quakies. Massive, wide-spread beams bobbed ponderously with each deliberate step. Thirds flung wide—heavy and long.

Dropping the Zeiss’s to my chest, I whipped my Pre-64 Model 70 off my shoulder and found the bull in the crosshairs just as he paused, quartering to at 40 yards or less. Just as Amos whispered the go-ahead I was waiting for, my eyes flickered up to the bull’s antler tops. His fifth tine was missing on each side. Never grew.

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A big five-point, my brain told me deliberately. But just a five-point. Right there, I made the colossal mistake of my hunting life. Instead of pressing the trigger, I whispered to Amos, “He’s a five-point!” “Yes,” came the measured response.

Defiant that we were not the sultry cow elk he’d expected, the bull held his ground long enough for me to whisper back to Amos, “Man, I’d really hoped to shoot a six-point...” “That’s fine,” he said.

A twitch, like the minute-hand of a clock jumping as it moved, traveled through the bull. I lowered my cheek to the scope again—only to find it empty. Like smoke on an unseen breeze, the giant 5x5 was gone. Without a word, Amos turned to the forest again. As I followed, empty and crying inside, I already knew, but I had to ask.

“How big was that bull?” I said. “We’ve been trying to kill him for five years,” Amos responded. Classic. No direct reference to size. But a clear message about how coveted that bull was.

On the last day of my hunt, I shot a nice well-balanced bull. Narrow enough that his spread crippled the numbers—he taped at 315 inches, but had the mass and length of a 330-class bull. I’d got in a full hunt, and finished with a nice bull. I was happy. But haunted.

On the phone a few weeks later, I asked a close friend who guides antelope on that same ranch if he knew the bull. “Absolutely,” he responded. “I’m one of the guys who’s been after him for so long.” My friend has no problem talking about inches. “How big is he, really?” I asked. “Oh, 350, minimum. Probably more like 360,” came the response. “He’s got a 380-type frame. If he had fifths, he’d be B&C for sure.” I went from haunted to positively sick.

A year later, another guide and his client killed the bull. I don’t recall exact numbers, but even as a clean 5x5, the old warrior scored into the 370’s. That experience taught me—brutally—to leave preconceived notions behind. As they say in Africa, “Be ready to take what the bush offers.” To this day, that 5x5 is one of the two largest bulls I’ve ever put crosshairs on.

The other was a 402" nontypical monster, on public land, during a DIY hunt. I did not hesitate that time.

My folly—and redemption—established, let’s shift gears and talk about field-judging elk, as well as the dangers of hesitating and of unrealistic expectations.

field_judging-02
Look quick, but look close: Imagine you’re on a special-draw hunt in one of the best giant-bull units in the West. Do you take this bull? He’s not particularly wide, none of his tines are super-long, and his mass is just average... But he’s got extra sword tines. This bull scored more than 390".

FIELD-JUDGING ELK

Bull elk are like anything else: The more animals you look at, the better you become at field-judging them.

Since score is the metric we have by which to discuss size, let’s put age aside and just talk antler configuration and measurements. Score is the combination of main beam and tine length— four mass measurements on each antler, and the inside spread at the widest point of the main beams. The result is gross score. Discrepancies from side to side are calculated and deducted for a net total. (Most hunters detest net scores, figuring if a bull grew the inches, he deserves to have them counted.) Maximum outside antler width and tip-to-tip spread of the main beams is also recorded, but isn’t used in calculating the score.

Field-judging a bull isn’t easy, because you can’t walk up and lay a measuring tape along the beams. Until it’s dead, of course.

Here are a few helpful statistics:

    • Most mature bulls have close to 60" of mass. This is usually a tad less than 20 percent of a bull’s score. 
    • Inside spread is usually 35" to 45". Shade higher or lower if a bull looks particularly wide or narrow. Spread accounts for 10 to 15 percent of score. 
    • Beam length varies widely, but an average mature bull should have 48" to 55" beams. This is generally about 25 to 30 percent of a bull’s score. 
    • Tine length is all over the place—but is critical to accu- rately judging score. Generally, tine length accounts for around 40 percent of the total score. 
Field-Judging Side
Photo by Steve403/Dreamstime.com

RULES OF THUMB 

Estimating beam length and tine length is a learned skill. However, there are some (very rough) body and head-size com- parisons and references that can help: 

    • A mature bull’s head will measure about 16" from antler base to nose tip. Brow tines that reach the nose and curve up sig- nificantly will be 18" or more. Once brow-tine length is estab- lished, it’s a good yardstick for comparing and estimating the rest of the tines. 
    • Brisket to backline is usually around 30" on a mature bull. It’s a good reference for estimating the length of the sword tines.
    • When a bull feeds on level ground, if the main-beam tips are as high as his backline, the beam is likely around 50". 
field_judging-03
In most OTC, public-land units across Colorado, this is a legal bull—and most hunters would shoot without hesitation. But it’s not even worth field-judging him. Here, there’s a different definition of trophy.

MISLEADING MYTHS AND MISGUIDED METHODS 

Long ago, I read that if a bull has good thirds, he’s likely a big bull. Candidly, years of hunting vastly different elk habitat and elk populations and genetics in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon have shown me pretty clearly that this is a poor way to judge a bull. I’ve seen willow-horned 5x5s with monstrous thirds, and heavy 6x6 monarchs with stubby, nearly stunted-looking thirds. 

Some guides pick apart a bull’s rack inch by inch, agonizing over each tine and mass measurement. Personally, I think this is a counterproductive habit to get into, unless you regularly guide in areas that frequently produce super-bulls, and you’re striving for a B&C bull. Those who perfect this method become good at estimating score within 10" or so. However, I’ve seen even the best of them misjudge a bull by more inches than they should have. Usually, that’s due to body size. If a bull has a splendid rack and an old-looking (but small) body, it’s easy to overestimate his score. And vice versa. 

Example: That 402" bull I shot? We guessed him at around 385. He was 11.5 years old, and had an absolutely huge body. 

A faster, easier method for your all-around public-land elk hunter is to categorize bulls into classes. I have five loosely defined classes I mentally refer to. 

field_judging-09
This trail-camera image shows a true old bull’s body. You can see why we estimated him at 385 gross, because his heavy, swaybacked body is so big it makes his antlers appear short-beamed. They were anything but!

PUBLIC LAND SMARTS: AGE CLASS AND TROPHY CATEGORIES 

1: First-year 6x6s. These bulls are college kids. They’re old enough to breed with experience, and are beginning to display behavioral traits that define mature bulls. However, they’re not quite there yet. Beam length is short. Tines are slender and often short. Body lines are still a bit too lean and athletic to appear fully mature. Score will run from around 230" to 280". For hunt- ers who have not shot a lot of elk, they are a trophy. 

2: Solid bulls. If a bull has clean, well-developed brow tines that nearly reach his nose, decent thirds that don’t look miniature, and good tops with an impressive “sword” tine and a fifth long enough to give the antler ends that classic “whale-tail” appearance, he’s a good bull that will measure between 280 and 310. Body shape will appear robust and healthy without being ponderous. In most regions, this is a shooter. 

3: Fully grown, big bulls. This is the mature age class; generally four to six years old. In most elk populations, these will be dominant breeders. Main beams will appear much different than the previous two classes, with more mass and length, and often a much bigger box shape. Brow tines will be relatively massive and as long as the nose when the curve is stretched out of them. Thirds will be stout, however long they are. Sword tines will be visually impressive and have a lot of mass, particularly around the base. Whale-tails will usually be significant. This class of bull will score between 310 and 340. 

4: “Shoot-right-now” bulls. This class of bull stretches the scoring tape from 340 to 370. Few hunters should pass a bull of this type, even on a once-in-a-life- time hunt. Frames are huge, and the beams and tines are massive. Bodies are filled out and brute strong. Brow tines reach near the end of the nose and then turn up in big hooks. Sword tines are heavy and long—often suggestive of a Roman Gladius. And here’s the key to judging this type of bull: Only one of the six tines on each side can have any weakness. All the others must be 14" to 18", and the sword tine will usually surpass 18". Bulls of 360" or more in score will have long tines all the way up, from the first brow tine to the fifth. 

5: Super-bulls. Count yourself lucky to see one or two free-range bulls of this caliber in your lifetime. These are the super-bulls that score in the 370– 400 range, and on occasion even more. Antler frames are giant; the difference between a little 2WD pickup and a lifted Ford F350. Bodies appear like an old heavyweight wrestler: Massive, gnarly, often slightly swaybacked but incredibly powerful. Tines are shockingly long. Brow tines will often appear prehistorically big. This is the sort of bull that every hunter dreams of, and that tycoons pay hundreds of thousands to hunt. 

field_judging-05
Not a high-scoring trophy by classic standards, but a very nice bull and a great bull for the New Mexico region.

UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS 

We all dream of shooting the biggest bull on the mountain, but unrealistic expectations have ruined many a hunt. Like I said earlier, my fixation on shooting a clean, classic 6x6 lost me a sure-fire chance at the second-biggest bull of my life.

Before you hunt, research the class of bulls your intended area generally produces. If going guided, ask your guide what sort of bull he’d recommend holding out for. If the area holds a few big ones, and you’re clearly fit and driven and a very capable shooter, he may suggest you try for one of those rare big ones. If you’re out of shape, or struggled at the range when checking your zero, he’ll be realistic (when you may not want to) and will suggest the sort of size you’re potentially capable of killing. 

Genetics, habitat, hunting pressure, and herd dynamics all contribute to trophy potential. For example, the area where I screwed up and didn’t shoot the huge 5x5 has never produced a 400" bull. The numbers are there, the pressure is low, the habitat is ideal...but the genetics aren’t capable. There, a 360 bull is a very good one. 

In contrast, on the public-land, special-draw unit where I shot my 402 bull (after applying most of my life), decent bulls start at 350, and a 380-class bull is not an unrealistic goal for a passionate, driven, experienced hunter. Every year, one to three 400-class bulls are taken from that region. There, it’s hard to hold out—because you’ll see huge bulls every day. 

In much of Colorado, which is of course the most popular elk-hunting destination in the world, any 5x5 is a trophy. This is particularly true on over-the-counter tags and public land. Know your area, be practical, and don’t have expectations so high you won’t shoot what the mountains have to offer. 

johnhafnerarchive_77764
Photo by John Hafner

THE DANGER OF HESITATING 

Had I been given another 10 seconds, I’d have smoked that giant 5x5. But elk often provide only brief windows of opportunity. If you see a bull you like, get the job done cleanly...but get it done quickly. 

As the old-timers often say, “Any elk is a good elk.” For first-time elk hunters, particularly those coming from whitetail country, there’s no such thing as ground-shrinkage. If you’re that hunter, you’re much more likely to be heartsick at eating tag soup than you are to be disappointed when you walk up on a bull. 

Veteran elk hunters generally have a pretty good idea of what they’re shooting at. If you mainly want meat? Shoot whatever elk offers a clean opportunity. A good 6x6 elk is pretty hard to mistake. Get lead in the air. 

When a true trophy bull shows, NOBODY asks whether he’s big enough. Unless you’re an idiot like me. Hold onto your bubblegum, bear down, and get that bull killed. 




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