Judging Mule Deer in the Field

You have your licenses; you’ve paid your deposit to the outfitter. You are ready for your western hunt. Maybe it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Even if you plan to go back each year, if you have never hunted in the wide open spaces of the west, or never hunted mule deer and/or pronghorn antelope, here are a few tips to insure that you down a nice set of horns that you will be proud to hang on the wall.

Mule deer are, on average, larger than whitetail. The racks are different. They tend to grow more straight up then the whitetail, making them look bigger than might be the case. Instead of the tines growing off the main beam, the main beam forks, giving the rack a different look from the basket shape of a whitetail. Mule deer usually have four points to a side, sometimes with a brow tine making the total point count five to a side, with anything over that being considered non-typical.

Whereas a whitetail hunter will talk about how many points the rack has, mule deer hunters are more concerned with length of the tines, spread of the horns, and the mass of the antlers.


So, when judging a mule deer, forget, for a minute, about points. Not valid. Sorry. However, I would never pass up a non-typical rack if the other qualifications were there.

When you see a mulie buck in the wild, there are some ways to tell if he’s a good trophy or not. First, spread, which, to many die-hard mulie hunters, is the first and a lot of times the foremost requirement. “Yeah, he was 30 inches wide.” Good sentiment, but there are few 30-inches left. Unless you’re hunting in an area KNOWN for these monsters(Mexico comes to mind), it is about like winning a lottery. They are there, but hard to find.

However, a mulies ears are, from tip to tip, approximately 18-20 inches. If the deer is looking at you, ears tipped forward, and the horns exceed the length of the ears, it is at least a 19-22 inch spread. If the horns exceed the length of the ears by a lot, you’ve got a pretty nice deer, spread wise. A 23-24 inch spread is good, 25 and up is exceptional. If, on the other hand, the deer is bounding away with his ears pressed flat to his head, good luck. They all look a lot wider that way.

But, the deer is looking at you, ears forward, the horns lay out a good many inches past the ears. Good. Now, look at the points. Four points, maybe brow tines? Ok. How long are the points? Good long tines make and impressive mount, plus score better if that is your aim. Sometimes deer are very wide, but the tines are short, making a flat looking rack. Or, the rack may be high and narrow, still a nice mount especially if the tines are long.

Next, and to my mind the most important requirement for a good trophy, is mass. The bottom of the horns should be thick and heavy. Thin horns usually mean young deer, and it is better to let them live and see if they will obtain mass as they get older. I don’t like to shoot young deer. Let ‘em grow up.

Also, don’t get caught up on the points. I’ve seen four point bucks that were spindly horned, with short points, when a good 3x3 with heavy, massive horns and long points would be a better trophy.

Above all, listen to your guide. He or she knows the area, and if they say, “Wait, we can do better,” unload your gun and wait.

The best test of a good trophy, any trophy, is when you see it you just know. Hearing a “Good God, look at that monster, shoot, shoot, now,” from your guide doesn’t hurt either...!