Seeing any legal bull on public land is considered a win for do-it-yourself elk hunters with an over-the-counter elk tag in their pocket. In some western states, most hunters aren’t too picky about the bulls they shoot. As the saying goes, “Any elk is a trophy.”
Then again, there are certain hunting units around the country that take a pile of points or a pile of cash to hunt. For the former, those hunts are typically a once-in-a-lifetime chance. If one of your goals in life is to shoot a large, maybe even a record-book bull, you’ll either need a guide or you’ll need to learn how to field judge.
Field-scoring a bull is a true skill. It takes knowledge of elk antler structure and how antlers are scored using the Boone and Crockett system, a solid understanding of elk anatomy and aging, and some good old-fashioned math.
To help us break it down into layman’s terms, we turned to our good friend and veteran elk guide Ryan Carter for expert advice.
Based in southern Utah, Carter has been guiding elk hunters for 20 years. He’s owned DC Outfitters since 2007 and specializes in big bulls. He guides a handful of clients each year, all holding top-dollar auction tags in limited-entry units.
“I just do big elk,” he says.
His hunters are not looking to take home just any public land bull, and he shared some insight on how choosy elk hunters can identify the caliber of bull they’re dreaming of.
There are ultimately four main factors to consider when scoring a bull: main beam length, tine length, mass, and inside spread. Tine length makes up 40-45 percent of the total score on older bulls, but don’t be consumed with tine length at first glance, Carter says.
“You need to consider the overall frame and main beam length,” Carter explains. “Those two factors can kick a bull out of the 350s and into the 375+ really quickly.”
To become more familiar with elk antler scoring, Carter recommends that hunters spend a good deal of time practicing on elk sheds or elk racks. Boone and Crocket Club has a great online resource to help you accurately score an elk. Then apply those learnings to the field.
Field Judging Elk
To quickly and accurately judge a bull elk in the field, Carter says to focus on three steps: identifying the bull’s age class, sizing up the bull’s body, and estimating tine and main beam length.
AGE CLASS AND BODY SIZE
Older bulls are physically larger than other elk. Identifying the largest bodied bulls will help to give you an immediate idea of a bull’s age class, which in turn will help you to estimate the elk’s score.
“Sizing up elk, in general, is hard but really important,” Carter says.
Like a mature grizzly, a mature bull’s face will appear fatter than a younger bull's. Mature bulls have a barrel chest and sometimes walk with the swagger of a muscular pit bull, Carter adds.
A common practice in field judging any animal is to use various body parts as reference. Carter's point of reference is an elk’s ear (Figure A), which is always eight to nine inches on a mature bull. If you recall our piece on field judging mule deer, their ears are around eight inches long. Some hunters will use other features, such as the distance from ear tip to ear tip or top of the back to the base of the belly. Carter doesn’t like this approach.
“Elk are built differently depending on where you’re hunting,” he says. “Their ears are always the same size though.”
One way to get a quick, rough score of a bull is to use the 50-50-40 rule (Figure B). Let’s assume you’ve glassed a big-bodied bull across a steep canyon. It’s well after first light, and the bull is rounding up its harem to duck back into the timber for the day. You don’t have long to decide if you want to hike five miles around the rim to set up for an evening hunt. You need to get a rough score on that bull fast. Enter the 50-50-40 rule.
For general units in Colorado, Montana, and Idaho for example, you can score mature elk relatively quickly by calculating a base number. This average “on the fly” calculation represents 50 inches of main beam (x2), 50 inches of mass, and 40 inches of inside spread. That gets you a relatively conservative estimate of 190 inches. From there, you can start measuring individual tines.
Carter says the 50-50-40 rule will fall short for elk in limited-entry units. To better estimate these older, record-book bulls, you’ll need to use an elk’s anatomy for comparison. The same holds for calculating tine length on any bull.
With this in mind, he rounds the ear measurement up to 10 inches and breaks down each tine based on its length relative to the ear. This lets him roll through all the tines for a quick calculation. Multiply that number by two and add it to 190 for a rough score. You'll have to adjust the score if there are broken tines or non-typical features, but keep in mind this is all just a gross estimate. For typical elk, any asymmetry will be a deduction for a net or final score.
MAIN BEAMS & TINE LENGTH
Once you know that you’re looking at an older age-class bull and have sized up his body, study the antler frame. The antler frame is the length of the main beam length and width. The main beam and inside spread measurements comprise around 40 percent of the overall score. A bull with a wide rack and long main beams will likely score high.
“The beam will make or break your entire field judgment,” Carter says.
When Carter first started guiding, he rarely studied a bull’s mass (Figure C). That was a mistake, he says. Mass is difficult to judge on any animal, but because there are eight total mass measurements, mass makes up around 20 percent of the total score.
“Under judging mass is a pretty big deal,” Carter says. “A bull with a lot of mass can create an optical illusion.”
Mass on big bulls tends to hide extra inches. Tines are measured from the medial (center) edge of the main beam, and it’s hard to tell where that base is when field judging. If you’re off by one or two inches for each tine, that’s 12-24 inches that you’re missing.
When Carter judges big bulls for his clients, he is usually familiar with the age class of the bulls they are hunting. He knows that most G4 tines (daggers) sit at 27 inches on the main beam (Figure D), and then he counts by tens past that tine.
Practice Makes Proficient
The only way to get better at field judging is to practice. Guessing scores on sheds is one way. If you have a spotting scope with a phone or camera adapter, use the digiscope to your advantage. Take pictures and video. Make your educated guess in the field, and then check it against the video at home. You can also dig into the online field photos at the Boone and Crockett Club or any hunting magazine.
The reality is that most of us aren’t elk guides. We’re not putting glass on 380-class bulls and wondering if we should let them grow a little bit. That doesn’t mean we can’t be ready if our name gets drawn.
Ryan Carter, owner of DC Outfitters.