How many times at deer camp every season have you heard the immortal words of a disappointed deer hunter?

"Man, I sure thought that buck was bigger than that," said Gary Adams, member of a Holmes County deer club.

Likewise how many times have you walked up to a buck that you just shot only to find that the ground soaked up a big chunk of the antler size and mass you know you had seen from your hunting stand only moments before you centered the crosshairs and pulled the trigger?

"Gosh what a bummer to be convinced you've bagged a really nice buck only to discover it was nowhere near as big as you thought it was," Adams said.

If you have deer hunted for any number of seasons, then this has happened to you by now, or it will soon enough. It's probably the single most common miscalculation made by deer hunters, so don't feel like you're the only one to ever make this fateful error in judgment.

How many times at deer camp every season have you heard the immortal words of a disappointed deer hunter?

"Man, I sure thought that buck was bigger than that," said Gary Adams, member of a Holmes County deer club.

Likewise how many times have you walked up to a buck that you just shot only to find that the ground soaked up a big chunk of the antler size and mass you know you had seen from your hunting stand only moments before you centered the crosshairs and pulled the trigger?

"Gosh what a bummer to be convinced you've bagged a really nice buck only to discover it was nowhere near as big as you thought it was," Adams said.

If you have deer hunted for any number of seasons, then this has happened to you by now, or it will soon enough. It's probably the single most common miscalculation made by deer hunters, so don't feel like you're the only one to ever make this fateful error in judgment.

Certainly it may seem like a huge downer at the time, but it is not an event to beat yourself up over, but one to learn from for the next opportunity. That chance is likely to come soon enough again, so be ready next time equipped with better knowledge of how to classify buck racks with only a fleeting moment to make a reasonably accurate assessment. It's a whole lot easier said than done.

Judging antler rack points, dimensions and mass of a buck on the hoof has to be one of the toughest skills for deer hunters to learn to accomplish. This is especially the case if you expect to do it on any reliably consistent basis. Practice may never make you perfect, but it sure will help - particularly if you know how to quickly use some of the best judging tips the next time a trophy-class buck steps out of the bushes into view.

Judgment day

One of the most furious arguments I ever had with a deer hunter was with a guy I never met face to face. This happened a couple of years ago on the state wildlife website chat room for hunters. Some dude was leaving posts on the white-tailed deer hunting forum bragging about how he could offer up a precise Boone and Crockett equivalent score with just a moment's glance at any buck.

And all that he could do with the naked eye out to 200 yards and beyond. I replied horse-hockey. Then the exchanges started in earnest. He withstood the argument, because I will only waste so much time debating a fencepost and besides I'm not that fond of wearing hip boots for very long at a time.

Several years ago, I attended the annual convention of the Quality Deer Management Association in Lafayette, La. One of the training sessions was on aging and scoring 100 bucks from photos flashed on a huge theatre-type screen. Now this room was full of the country's top whitetail biologists, quality deer managers, whitetail ranchers, outfitters and hunters.

Guess what the top score was out of the 100 deer photos? Less than 50 percent was the highest score at estimating Boone and Crockett scores of these "on-the-hoof" bucks.

"Interesting, though, was the fact that these recognized deer experts did a lot better on the deer-aging aspect of the test than they did on trying to calculate a fairly accurate Boone and Crockett score with just a short viewing time of the buck's photo," said QDMA Executive Director Brian Murphy. "Slice it any way you want, learning to be consistently accurate in field judging bucks for age or their aggregate antler rack scores is a skill that is extremely difficult to master."

If anybody starts to tell you any differently, you best go grab yourself some rubber hip boot waders before you step in something you can't wash off.

Accurately guessing a rack's score simply cannot be done with any reasonable expectation of accuracy by using just the naked eye. This is where optical assistance is a must.

"One of the things we preach year in and year out at our club is a strict adherence to the established 8-point buck rule as part of our self-imposed QDM program," said Dwight Perry of Natchez. "Even so, every season somebody brings a buck back to the camp cleaning rack with less than the mandatory 8 points.

"Last season, a member brought in a buck with only 5 points. His only excuse was that he couldn't clearly see the rack in the dying day's ending light. Did he have decent binoculars? No. A spotting scope? No. Was the scope on his rifle good enough? No. Did he make a poor error in judgment and should he have passed on the buck? Yes."

So quality optics are essential for doing a decent job of field judging a buck either for his potential antler score range, or his age. And please, the scope on your rifle is not the tool to be used in place of a good set of binoculars or a spotting scope. Besides, it's not a safe practice.

Everyone has their own idea of what constitutes quality optics, but the benchmark is to spend more on binoculars than the riflescope. Buy the best high-end quality you can. If you cannot afford a really good set, save up until you can. Remember the last time you bought those low-end tires and they were shot at 40,000 miles. It's the same with optics. Buy a set that will last you a lifetime.

Type and power is also a personal thing. Binoculars for viewing whitetails at long ranges out past 100 yards should be at least 7x35, though 8 or 10 power is much better. Try out several at the dealer, but take them outside to look off in the distance to examine the optical clarity and magnification impact.

If you go the spotting scope route or add one to back up binoculars, get one with an objective lens (the front one) of at least 60 mm in size. The magnification range of 15-45 is fairly universal. Get one with rubber armor or a protective exterior coating.

Use a tripod or a mount clamp to add stability. Hand-holding a spotting scope is dicey business.

Judging whitetails

Deer hunters know from experience that bucks don't usually stand around for very long with a sign hanging around their necks saying "judge me, judge me." In practice, a hunter might have a minute, usually much less time, to take stock of a buck's rack, mentally compile the observational input data, then decide to pull the trigger or not. Often, the quick action required to make these snap judgment calls results in many of the mistakes made in shooting an inferior buck.

As tough as it is, this is the business of field judging a buck, according to whitetail hunter and noted outdoor writer Bob Robb.

"First off, how big is the body of the deer? Racks on big northern bucks look small in comparison to bucks from the southern states due to the differences of body sizes, so you always have to keep rack size in perspective," he said. "At first glance, I quickly count the number of points, and then I look for overall mass and see how close the antlers come to being ear-wide as well as how tall they are. Also, what kind of G-1s does the buck have?

"This all computes in about a second. Where most folks get fooled is not worrying about mass. But as they say, when you see a big one, you don't have to worry about all this. You just try to keep from being scared to death long enough to make the shot."

Learning to judge a buck's antlers on the hoof standing in the distance takes lots of practice. That translates into many hours in the field observing bucks with fully developed racks.