How to Field Judge Hunting Trophies

Avoid ground shrinkage and learn how to take the best animal you can — whatever species it may be — that’s what field judging is all about.

Every hunter who has put his or her time into hunting big game has encountered ground shrinkage. It is a phenomena that unfortunately occurs as we approach a downed animal, which we had originally judged to have trophy quality status, only to find that the closer we get the smaller it becomes. It has happened to me on a number of occasions and, needless to say, it is something that none of us like to face.

But the question remains, “What can we learn from these errors in judgment?” I would like to start by suggesting there are any number of elements that can factor into what makes a trophy in the eye of the hunter. A young lad or gal with their first spike buck has, in their eyes, a super trophy. And rightfully so. After a long arduous hunt, a mature animal past its prime, no matter what the trophy quality, should hold a similar place in the hunter’s eye. But the inevitable question remains, “How do we assess an animal in order to at least keep ground shrinkage to a minimum?”

Prior to proffering a number of field assessment tips on the major species of Canadian big game, I must point out that I don’t intend on getting snarled up in Boone and Crocket scoring for a number of reasons. First, this column just isn’t long enough and second, while it is a way of comparing one animal to another, I would like to assist you, the hunter, in taking a quality animal that you can be proud of and not necessarily a record book animal. And last, they should be taken as quick field assessment tips and not a definitive method of how to score an animal.

Whitetail Deer

Getting a good look at a whitetail buck can frequently be difficult. But here are some factors to consider. While whitetail deer can vary in body size, the average body width is about 38 centimetres (15 inches) and its ears are about 40 centimetres (16 inches) wide, so look for a buck that has antlers that are at least a couple of inches wider than its ears and body width. Next, look for a buck with antlers that are as tall as the height of its body. If it does, it is apt to be a hummer. If its main beam reaches its nose, you’re are looking at a buck with a beam length in the mid-50-centimetre range (mid-20 inch) and most likely a great buck. Then last, look for long brow tines and at least five points per side with antlers that carry mass. If the base of its antlers approach the thickness of the base of its ears, it is carrying lots of mass; a sure sign of age.

Mule Deer

Mule deer can vary in body size even more so than do whitetail. On a large bodied buck that stands 1.2 metres (four feet) at the withers, its antlers should be at least half the height of the deer. In other words, about 60 centimetres (24 inches) tall. Its antlers should also approach, if not double, its body width. If it does, we are taking about a buck with a spread of 75 centimetres (30 inches) or better. In other words — a wall hanger. Or look to its ears that on most bucks are 50 centimetres (20 inches) wide. If you add a few centimetres per side, you now have a buck with an inside spread of 60 centimetres (24 inches). For a comparison on how to estimate tine length, look at the buck’s ears which are about 20 centimetres (eight inches) in length. Any tine that doubles that is at least 40 centimetres (16 inches) and will certainly add to the quality of the buck. Lastly, look for at least five points per side and plenty of base mass that approaches the width of the base of its ears.

Pronghorn Antelope

Antelope are often assessed at substantive distances, so a spotting scope can be a real asset here. A decent buck of 35 centimetres (14 inches) will have horns that exceed twice the length of its ears (14 to 15 centimetres or 5-1/2 to six inches) and be about as long as the animal’s face as measured from the back of the horn base to the tip of the nose or be a third of its primary body length. Look for a long prong that appears to be greater in length than the width of its horn below the prong and for a base width that is at least as wide as its eye (four centimetres/two inches). It should also carry this mass well up the horn  to the prong. Last, look for lots of length above the prong.


Elk are another animal where body size is used for a quick analysis of trophy quality. If a bull’s antlers approach its body length, as measured from its brisket to rump, it is most likely a trophy bull. In many areas harvest is controlled by the number of points a bull carries, so point count can be critical. Look for a six-point bull that carries long tines with plenty of base mass. Last, if both antlers have terminal points or tines that approach a 30 centimetres (one foot) in length, it is a good bull indeed.


There are just too many subspecies of caribou to properly separate them for individual field assessment of trophy quality, so I will generalize.  More often than not a hunter has time to properly assess a bull caribou. So look for a bull with antlers that approach its height and are wider than its body. Next, look at the length of the brow palms(shovels), they should extend as far as the bull’s nose with the bez points being just short of that. Then  look for plenty of palmation up front and on top that additionally separates into numerous points. And last, always be on the look out for a double shovel and long hind points as they really add to the quality of any trophy bull.


With moose it’s all about width, well mostly. The wider its antlers the more the bragging rights a hunter has. But there is a bit more to a trophy bull than just its width.  First, there are three subspecies of moose that are quite different in body size so I will need  to generalize to some degree.  The distance between a moose’s ears, when laid flat, is roughly 75 to 80 centimeters (30 to 32 inches) and its ears are approximately 23 to 25 centimeters (nine or 10 inches) in length. With this information you can now judge the approximate width of its antlers. If you are to add one ear length per each side to the ear spread, you would have a moose with a 125-plus-centimetre (50 inch) spread. Add an ear and a half and you now have a bull approaching 150 centimetres (60 inches). Add two ears and you have a mega bull in the high 150- (60 inches) or low 180-centimetre range (70 inches). If a bull’s antlers appear to droop, it most likely is carrying a heavy set of antlers and worth a very close look. Also look for a bull that has both wide and high palms that carry numerous points. Last, a mature bull will normally have three or more brow palm points.

Mountain Sheep

There are a number of sub species of mountain sheep in Western Canada and harvest is generally controlled by limiting harvest to the varying degrees of curl that a ram may have — i.e. full curl rams are legal in most areas open to hunting. This is done as a method of ensuring that only mature rams are taken. So great care must be taken to harvest only legal rams as defined by the regulations within the jurisdiction you are hunting. Study these regulations closely and  attempt to harvest a ram that betters the legal minimum requirement. Horn mass is also an important factor to consider in harvesting a ram. Look for a ram that carries plenty of its horn mass well along its horn length. If it does, it is sure to not only score well but be an older mature ram as well.

Mountain Goats

Both male mountain goats (billies) and female mountain goats (nannies) carry horns. While both can often be harvested, most jurisdictions recommend the harvest of billies. Mature billies are usually found alone and have horn bases that are significantly thicker than that of a nanny, thus the space between the bases appears to be quite narrow. For an estimate of horn length, a mountain goat’s ears are about 11 to 13 centimetres (4-1/2 to five inches) in length and any billy that doubles that is a very good goat. Billies also a appear to be blockier and  have a rump stain, whereas nannies do not. Billies also stretch to urinate, nannies do not. Mature billies’ horns appear to curve back gradually, whereas a nanny has a more pronounced backward curve. Late season goats often carry a most spectacular long coat.


I saved the most difficult to the last.  Bears, particularly if they are alone and out in the open where there is nothing to compare them to, can provide a real challenge for any hunter in determining its overall trophy quality. Once again we are dealing with a number of subspecies that can vary considerably in size.  But one sure way to estimate the size of a bear is to find its track and add one inch to the width of its front track and you will come very close to how large your bear will square out at.  For example, a 15-centimetre (six-inch) wide track should square out at 2.1 metres (seven feet). If a bear’s ears appear to be quite large on its head, it is often a younger bear and look for a bear that appears to have a massive head, as the skull never stops growing and only gets larger with age. On this large head a big boar’s snout will appear to be short and it will appear to have small ears. A large boar will also carry itself differently. It walks thought the countryside like it owns it. They give off the impression of being the bully on the block — bigger and tougher. They also have a saggy belly that hangs low on their body. Early spring or late fall bears most often have a much better hide than, let’s say, an early fall bear. But always be on the look out for rub spots especially later in spring.

Last, I can’t leave this topic without a word on the role effort plays in trophy quality. From my perspective, if you have hunted hard and taken your game legally by fair chase be proud of your success no matter whether it makes a record book or not. It just may be the best meat your family will eat this winter.

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