July 20, 2011
Accurately score and age a whitetail from just a trail camera photo.
When I first met Jeremy Flinn, I knew his computer program would be a hit. Working under the direction of Dr. Steve Demarais at Mississippi State University's Deer Ecology and Management Lab, Flinn put together a program to reliably estimate a deer's antler score from digital photographs. To take it one step further, Flinn and Demarais are finishing up a scientifically derived method of aging deer from photographs. It should be completed by year's end. The four-year culmination of science and mathematical computations is now called Buckscore.
As you can imagine, trying to score antlers (and age live deer) from different parts of the country has its challenges. One of the first obstacles in scoring bucks from photographs has to do with measuring three-dimensional antlers in a two-dimensional photo. For example, a profile photograph of a buck allows easy measurement of beam and tine length, but inside spread is nearly impossible to determine. Another problem occurs if a buck is facing you. Inside spread is easily measured, but main beam and point length are troublesome.
One hurdle that had to be cleared had to do with establishing a benchmark scale based on how the deer are angled in each photograph. After countless calculations, Jeremy created three sets of equations based on the angle of the deer in a photograph -- 0° (straight-on), 45° (angled), and 90° (side view).
Using a single photograph, Buckscore can get within six percent of a deer's gross antler score. For a 125-inch buck, that's within seven inches of the actual score. Jeremy says, "A careful user can get within four percent of the gross score with two photographs and within 2.5 percent with three photographs. That's within three inches on a 125-inch buck or less than four inches on a 150-class buck." We've all humbled ourselves when incorrectly guessing an antler score, but using this new technology could vastly improve our estimation skills.
You might wonder how this program adjusts to the different subspecies of deer. Using a sample size of over 3,000 wild deer throughout North America, Buckscore is individually customized to your area. The program establishes a benchmark scale based on various measurements such as the distance between the eyes, ear width, and eyeball width. Interestingly, ear width tends to be the most accurate measurement when setting a benchmark. As you can imagine, these physical measurements can vary with age, especially between a 1½-year-old and older deer.
So how do you start scoring antlers? After downloading the Buckscore program and importing your photos onto your computer, you're ready to go. You just click your mouse to obtain inside spread, length of main beams and points, and beam circumferences. Buckscore then automatically uses site specific values of all these measurements to determine an incredibly accurate final antler score. It's that simple!
Although few of us can appreciate the calculus and statistical hours that went into the program, all hunters can use Buckscore. The real beauty of the program is that any hunter can now collect data that would be impossible to collect from a live buck. For example, if your management plan calls for harvesting only 3½-year-old or older bucks, Buckscore can eliminate guessing and any management mistakes resulting from those, "I wish I had it back" shots.
I generally overestimate the score of bucks I see in the field or in photographs. In other words, I know the pain of ground shrinkage. Although mistakes will always happen, Buckscore will definitely reduce this tendency and will actually help you manage bucks to reach their full potential.
But what about aging bucks with Buckscore? Without a doubt, aging deer on the hoof is more art than science. Some hunters are very adept at this, while others are still learning. The men who developed Buckscore took photos of known-age bucks in the pre and postrut phases. Then, using several age-defining body measurements, they calculated age-predicting formulas. With bucks in a broadside orientation, Buckscore correctly aged nearly three out of every four bucks, and it was only a year off on the ones it got wrong! By using your mouse to take nine body measurements in a photograph, Buckscore can spit out the age of a buck with amazing accuracy. This program can also be used to age does.
Because this sounded almost too good to be true, I decided to test Jeremy and his Buckscore program. A number of years ago, I hunted with Dennis Hoover at Droptine Outfitters in Iowa. Prior to the hunt, Dennis showed me a trail camera picture of a buck I eventually shot. The buck was a classic 3½-year-old eight-point I estimated to score 135-140 inches.
I sent Jeremy two very good photographs (side and front views) of this buck to score and age. Unknown to Jeremy, three deer biologists, including me, also used these pictures and aged this buck on the hoof at 3½ years old. After running the Buckscore program Jeremy responded, "The buck will score 1300„8 inches, with an 80 percent probability he's 2½ years old." Once I had the buck on the ground I determined the buck was 2½ years old and scored 1292„8 inches. Jeremy was right on, and I was sold on the Buckscore program!
Currently, Jeremy and his team are in the process of developing a management version of Buckscore that will allow a user to score multiple pictures of the same buck simultaneously. This will result in even more accurate scores and ages of deer. This updated version should be out in 2012.
C.J.'s Summary: Trail cameras are a hunter's most important scouting tool. And just as treestands and compound bows changed bowhunting, trail cameras -- and now Buckscore -- are changing the way we hunt. For $19.95 you can download the Buckscore program from the Quality Deer Management Association's website. A portion of the proceeds will go back to QDMA for education. Buckscore also donates a substantial portion of its proceeds back to Mississippi State University for future deer research. For more information about Buckscore, contact Jeremy Flinn at Jeremy@buckscore.com. Jeremy is currently working on a scoring system for elk and mule deer.