Deer – Judging What to Shoot

I have been bow hunting for deer for, um, let’s just say a lot of years.

Over the past 10 years, I have had the opportunity to hunt some nice bucks and be a little picky in the animal I chase. I talk to a lot of bow hunters and the conversation comes up how to find nice bucks. What I call a nice or “shooter buck” is a high 130 class and up buck if you count the measurements and such. I am not super hung up on this, but it helps present challenges for me and helps narrow down my hunting search.

The first issue I see with many new hunters is they really don’t know how to field judge a buck in this range on the hoof while the deer is moving through the timber. My rule of thumb is this. I look for the antlers to be just outside of the shoulders and 3 ears high. This is my starting point. Anything shorter than this generally gets it’s picture taken and I hope to see it next year. That is to say, unless it is late in the season and I see little white packages of meat walking by and I am not horn hunting anymore. I love to eat Venison. Burgers, sloppy Joes, Tacos, Chili, sausage, snack sticks, jerky… you get the picture.

Judging antlers that are just outside of the shoulders can be rather easy if you get the right angle on the animal and you have time to judge them before they step into your shooting lane. Judging the height of the antlers is a very different story. I hunt from a tree stand most of the time. I often hunt from different heights. How high I am in the tree impacts what angle I see the antlers at and can greatly affect how high the antlers look from my point of view. Several years ago, I started hunting with my binoculars on my chest so I can do a quick view when possible on an animal to determine early if it is a shooter to me or not. This has helped my judging quite a bit. There are drawbacks on this though. This year I was watching some deer in front of me through my binoculars about 150 yds out and when I put them down, I had a doe and nice shooter buck standing behind my left shoulder that snuck up on me. That is a different story for later.

When you hunt high in a tree, like I do when I have a light and variable wind, it really throws off the ability to judge animals. I tell people to watch a lot of hunting TV. This can really help them see a lot of animals and get a feel for what their guidelines are. Some hunt for meat and don’t care. That is great. I start hunting for a specific range of animal and shift from there as the season progresses. A good guide is outside of the shoulders and 3 ears high at least 8 pts., should get you close to a 130-140 inch of antler class animal.

If you have ever tried to judge the height of a rack of a buck that is standing right under you, which has happened to me on numerous occasions, you understand the value of wanting to view the animal before they get right under you. Looking straight down, you can’t see antler height at all. You get a great perspective of how wide they are though!

If this is the sort of animal I am looking for, how do I know if there is one in the area I have access to hunt? Many people use cameras for this. I use some cameras, but I really look for rubs. Starting in mid-late October, I start running around looking for rubs. The picture attached is a start of what I look for. I believe the larger the rub, the larger the buck or at least, the more interested I am.


I start getting interested in rubs that are about the size of my calf. This picture was just outside of a bedding area and there were 4 rubs right by this one. This pic was actually the smallest rub of the group. I did not want to walk in there to take pictures of the other rubs though because I believed the buck to still be in there. I get really excited when I find rubs that are on trees larger around than my knee/thigh. I love it when I can see the brow tines dug into the bark of the tree. This tells me that buck has neck strength and weight to push and dig into that tree. Imagine how hard you would have to push with a brow tine to dig into the tree. See what I am talking about? They left their calling card – personal initials.

I believe this should generally be a larger deer. I look at the height of the rub too, but this is rough and not scientific at all. I took a nice buck years ago while I was on the ground, a 10 yd shot and I was actually looking up at his antlers when I made the shot. His antlers were higher than 6 ft. The buck weighed around 300 and I had to retire that deer cart after that deer and get a larger cart.

There is a lot of talk about track size. I like to see tracks that are about 3 fingers wide. I recently put my pointer, middle and ring finder side by side to the foot of a very old 8 point, over the hill, over 250 lbs and his hoof was just outside the width of my 3 fingers. Understand they will look wider when pushed down in the mud or snow, but if you can find an animal with a track that wide, there are some nice deer in the area. I believe tracks this wide to be relatively rare. I personally can’t comment on looking at a track to determine if it is a buck or doe. However, if I find a rub on a tree that is about the size of my thigh, with brow tine marks dug into the tree trunk, not just bark, but trunk, with tracks about 3 fingers wide at the base of that tree, I start to look for ways to get a chance to see that animal – game on!

There are some that get real excited when they see rubs that bust/break brush. I see a lot of small spikes, 6’s and basket rack 8’s that can bust brush. That does not get me excited personally. I believe the larger bucks want something large that they can take on. Something of a testosterone thing I think.

Jon buck 2009 x2

This picture is a gorgeous 8 pt I took a few years back. I knew he was in the area by the rubs in the area. I first heard him walking up behind me in that pace that bucks in rut walk around in searching for does and he walked right under me. I saw his very nice width. I had to let him get a little ways out before I could see what he had in height. This buck scored in the high 130 range and the field measurements were right on the nose. Just outside of the shoulders, and 3 ears high. I was very proud of being able to take this gorgeous deer.

~ Jon

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *