It’s always good to have an idea what you intend to harvest before you get into the stand, should the opportunity arise. Are you hunting for meat, a trophy or maybe something in between?

Many hunters have been in a situation where they were in their deer stand and “something” steps into a field or shooting lane. The typical scenario is a buck on the prowl, usually at a considerable distance and in low-light conditions. The hunter’s eyes immediately go to the rack.

“The rack has little to do with whether or not a deer has reached its potential growth,” said hunter Leslie Smith from Senatobia. “Many hunters see what they think is a trophy deer because it’s got a visible rack over its head.”

Once it’s on the ground, “ground shrinkage” — meaning the hunter gets a chance to actually see the entire deer in relation to its body — takes its toll, and the hunter may even regret not letting the animal walk.

Since a deer grows its biggest rack somewhere in the 5½-year-old range, learning to distinguish body features that classify that deer at its maximum potential, is much more reliable than simply judging by its rack. From a management standpoint, it’s better to judge a deer based on its body features rather than just the rack alone. 

In comparison, a trophy deer shares many characteristics with a middle-aged man:

Thick body. The most reliable characteristic is a full, thick, mature body that identifies this animal as a trophy buck based on sizeable body weight.

Sway back. Age and maturity, as well as a big gut, give this deer a slight sway in its back.

Rounded shoulders. One trait that distinguishes this animal from a husky younger deer are rounded shoulders, another indicator of heavy body weight.

Roman nose. A hooked or round nose, also referred to as an aquiline nose, is derived from the fullness of the face but also makes reference to a fierce fighter.

Squinty eyes. Also caused by higher body mass, eyelids may even look puffy.

Wide neck. The rut can lead to a swollen neck, but on mature bucks there is minimal decrease in neck size from the shoulder to the head.

Fat brisket. Another place weight accumulates.

Saggy belly. Years of consuming “grain products” have the same effects on deer and humans.

Short legs. Overall, a mature buck’s legs are normal-sized but look short when compared to the size and girth of the body.