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How To Judge A Trophy Buck When Seconds Count

Field judging whitetails can be a tough task, the goal is to make the best call you can.

How To Judge A Trophy Buck When Seconds Count

It's the last hour and nothing’s happening. Even the squirrels are quiet. Then, movement in the trees. A quick flash of antler. Adrenaline surges. You swivel slowly to adjust for the angle. There’s a narrow opening where the shot must happen. While the buck is mostly hidden, you raise the rifle and get ready. When he steps clear, you must make the call.

This scenario is especially applicable to stand hunting for whitetails. In thicker cover, we rarely see the deer until it’s right there. We have to determine sex and judge antlers in seconds and make sound “shoot or don’t shoot” decisions. Nobody gets it right every time. All experienced whitetail hunters wish they’d taken bucks they let walk and regret even more their too-hasty decisions. The point is to make the best call you can because you have to live with it.


First day or last, this is a buck you cannot pass. Take him now. That doesn’t mean he’s a giant, just a nice buck for the area and a buck you’ll be proud of.

In our 2020 Kansas season I had a new treestand that had it all: well-used trails, rubs, and scrapes. Except it was deep in the thick stuff and set up as an archery stand. We knew of a huge-bodied old buck there, heavy and wide, but with broken points. Not all hunters are comfortable with ladder stands, and many aren’t interested in broken-up old bucks. That being my call to make, I put my friend John Sonne in that stand on opening morning, telling him I was hoping he’d “get a look” at that buck. About 9:30 I thought I heard John’s shot. After a while I got his text. He was pretty sure his buck was down. I asked what kind of buck, and he responded, “You know him.”


The buck had come out of thick cedars at 30 yards and stared at the stand for long seconds. John had the cool to stay frozen, and when the buck had enough and trotted on into oak timber, he got the rifle up and managed to thread the needle. After the shot, the buck had run straight away. John thought he’d seen him go down, but he wasn’t certain. Turns out the deer was perfectly shot and down about 100 yards from the stand. It was an older buck, rutted-down, ribs and hipbones showing, in horrible condition. The antlers were just fine: tall, wide, heavy, a straight-up 160-inch buck, nothing broken. No, I didn’t know this buck. I’d never seen him before. That’s the real magic of the whitetail rut: Unknown bucks just show up. Two hours after sunrise on opening morning, this was a “no-brainer.” I wish the decision was always so easy.


These are the tough ones. “Almost big enough.” “Maybe I should’ve shot him.” And then it’s too late. A friend of mine likes to say: “Never pass anything on the first day that you might take on the last day.” This is an okay game plan, but I’m not sure it’s the best. Because this is absolute: You can’t shoot a monster if you tag a smaller buck first. Also absolute: The last day is as good as the first.

Few of us like to shoot early in a hunt. Done is done, and you have no idea what cards the “deer dealers” have in store. However, we’re talking about hunting whitetail deer. Our whitetails are among the wariest and most hunter-educated animals on the planet. Some places are better than others (because of genetics, density, buck/doe ratios, and limited pressure), but even in the best places, whitetail hunting is subject to failure.


Success requires opportunity, and the final move is up to the deer. This is especially true in stand hunting. I’ve hunted whitetails for 50 years, and I’ve been a (very small) whitetail outfitter the last 15 seasons. For my own hunting, and certainly as our Kansas season approaches, I watch wind, weather, temperature, and moon phase closely. However, our 12-day rifle season is permanently fixed, so I can’t do anything about these things. Am I doing my hunters a service if I tell them: “Conditions are great tomorrow but suck on the weekend.” Or perhaps worse: “For God’s sake, don’t shoot tomorrow because the forecast for the weekend is better.”

Do I pay attention to such things? You bet. But deer are gonna move when they’re gonna move; you will see a good buck when you see him; and we hunt when the season is open. The trick is to know him when you see him. We are not 100 percent, but most of our Kansas hunters see a buck they like and shoot it. Our shots are never far, so misses are rare. Last fall, a buck was missed, and if the rack fits the description, it might be the biggest buck ever seen in our area.

Even sadder, another hunter on the same hunt saw a medium-sized buck the first morning and never saw another buck at all. Do I wish he’d shot that buck to improve our average? No, but I sure wish he’d seen a buck he liked. That first-day buck would have been his first, so I’m sure he regrets not shooting. To my thinking, it’s okay to pass small bucks and let them grow. It’s also totally okay to pass an “almost, maybe,” but when you do, you are taking a chance on finding new recipes for tag soup.


Always start a hunt knowing what you’re looking for. “Any antlered deer” can be valid, especially if you haven’t taken many bucks. Maybe you want venison for the freezer or want to use a new—or old—rifle. It’s also okay to hold out for a big buck. Just understand, the higher your standards, the lower your chances. If you really don’t mind going home empty-handed, feel free to hold out for greatness (especially in great areas). Just don’t be surprised if you don’t see what you’re looking for. For me, I don’t like to waste time hunting unicorns. I try to learn what’s a nice, average, respectable buck for the area. Maybe I hold out for a bit better, but I don’t go in expecting a Booner buck. This is what I tell our Kansas hunters: “If you like a buck, take him. You probably won’t see him again.”

Obviously, I prefer they take older bucks, but aging deer—especially unfamiliar deer—takes experience. We show them antlers, and I can show photos and give pointers but, absent much experience, it’s asking a lot. And it’s too much if a hunter is looking at the biggest buck he or she has ever seen. Antler mass is a clue, likewise body size, but I go mostly on face, neck, and body for age. Regardless of antlers, a young buck has clean lines, a flat belly, and a sleek neck and a narrow face. Depending on condition, an older buck will have a bit of a belly, loose neck skin, and a broader face. Intention is appreciated, but I don’t expect a hunter to pass a buck that appears to meet expectations.


In our Kansas situation, with a 12-day rifle season and a strict one-buck limit, it’s impossible to effectively manage a buck herd. It comes back down to: “If you like him, take him.”



In some circumstances, restrictions make management sense, but I’m not crazy about tight criteria. Antler point restrictions are easy enough, but I’ve hunted places where penalties were charged for “score” minimum and age requirements. Too much pressure. Mike Schoby and I once hunted with the late Greg Rodriguez on a great Texas ranch with awesome genetics. Except there were both minimums and maximums by both score and age. I made up my mind on the first day that unless it was a small “no-brainer” (thus very rare), I couldn’t afford to shoot. I saw some beautiful bucks, but I didn’t shoot. And neither did Schoby.

In Saskatchewan in 2002, the outfitter imposed a fine for bucks less than 150 inches by “gross” Boone and Crockett score. This is not uncommon, but it adds pressure. On my third day, a very nice buck stepped out. I didn’t mind paying the (modest) fine, but I didn’t want the shame of messing up. So I dithered longer than I should have. For those who care, the buck measured 153—just big enough, but a tough call to make.

Me, I try hard to shoot mature bucks. Most of my “almost, maybes” were because I passed bucks on age rather than antler size. In many places, where “any buck” is a great trophy, this is silly. So a buck that you like doesn’t have to be a buck that I like. On my place, I pass “nice” bucks looking for a cull, because I have guests in the field.

I also hunt elsewhere, and although I’ve taken nice whitetails, I’m still looking for just one giant. Always, I can’t help but look at antlers first, but I look at age and try to make good decisions. There are some (few) places where management is so effective that “trophy bucks” are 7½ years old and even older. Those are special situations. In hard-hunted areas, a 3½-year-old buck may be uncommon. I’m pretty good at identifying young deer, and genuinely old deer are also easy. And especially in unfamiliar areas there’s no way I can reliably identify the subtle differences between bucks that are 4½, 5½, or 6½ years old.

The point is, if you can—and if it makes sense where you’re hunting—spare younger bucks with obvious potential. Nobody gets this perfectly.

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