3 Thoughts on Ground Shrinkage

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What causes antlers to mysteriously "shrink" after a buck hits the ground?

One day on the Texas plains, I leveled my 7mm mag. on a fat 9-pointer, the larger of two bucks sparring in a dry wash 150 yards away.

“Buck on left, ready?” I whispered to Bill, my cameraman.

“Go.”

Boom!

The deer piled up and we hustled out to see him, Bill’s camera rolling. 

The closer we got, the smaller the antlers got. 

Fifty yards out, the 140-class rack had dwindled to 130 inches. Twenty yards, 125 inches. When I put my hands on him, I could see the antlers might tape 120 inches soaking wet. 

“Smaller than he looked,” Bill said with a grin, camera whirring. 

I have been chasing whitetail deer across North America for 40 years, and I still get bitten by the ground-shrink bug every once in a while.   

Ground shrinkage? It just means you were excited. Embrace it, and have fun. (John Hafner Image)

It’s Not a Bad Thing

That day, I looked into Bill’s camera and said with a straight face, “His rack is smaller than I thought, but he’s still a fine deer.” I swear I was not covering for my field-judging inadequacy. 

I meant it.

The Urban Dictionary defines ground shrinkage as: “when you see a big buck through your gun scope, but when you walk up to it on the ground, its antlers have ‘magically’ shrunk.” Spot on. But shrinkage is not a bad thing, just one of the quirks of deer hunting. It happens. Embrace it. 

Once you decide to shoot the life out of a deer, you have two obligations: (1) to make the kill as quick and clean as you can; and (2) to show the utmost respect to the animal and your privilege to hunt him. 

That goes for a buck with a rack that scores 140 or 150 like you thought before you pulled the trigger, or one that shrinks to 120 or 130 inches of bone on the ground. Be happy you’ve got a great animal either way. Not to mention 60 or so pounds of boneless prime.

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It’s a Gun Thing

When a buck walks inside 40 yards and you shoot him with your bow and arrow, you pretty much know what you’re going to see when you walk up and find him. It’s another story when a deer is 100 or 200 yards or farther out, and you peer at his antlers through a riflescope cranked to 6X or 10X magnification. Shrinkage does happen in archery, but it’s mostly a gun-hunting phenomenon.

Two things double the chances of your pulling the trigger and walking up to a horizontal buck with a rack two-thirds the size you thought it was. 

Once you decide to shoot the life out of a deer, you have two obligations: (1) to make the kill as quick and clean as you can; and (2) to show the utmost respect to the animal and your privilege to hunt him. 

First, it’s risky to throw up your .270 and take a quick shot as a buck pops out of cover or comes rolling by on the heels of a doe. Antlers, if they have any height and mass at all, look bigger moving, especially if partially obscured by cover. Eight- to 10-inch G2 daggers that you think you saw in the scope can inexplicably shrink to 4- or 5-inch pencil tines once a buck is on dirt.

Also, low light can and will bite you. Most every rack you see through a high-power scope in the first 10 minutes or the last 10 minutes of legal shooting time will look a little or a lot bigger than it actually is. Twilight plays tricks on the eyes and mind. Gotta be a big buck, you think, the dilemma magnified as you struggle to size up antlers in the gray, flat light.       

Field-Judging Tips

Speaking of judging antlers, a couple of things can help prevent the shrink. 

“I look at beam length and mass above all else,” says Will Brantley, accomplished deer hunter and my colleague here on the blog. “Young deer can sport long G2s and impressive spreads — but long, upswept beams and beer-can bases are sure signs of a mature buck.”

Want to guarantee shrinkage? Brantley says rush a shot at a buck going away. “Looking at a buck’s rack from the rear is just about the worst thing you can do, because they all look big from that angle.” 

Brantley hits it square on the head when he says, “Really, a truly mature whitetail is almost unmistakable. I’ve come to realize that when looking at a buck, if I’m on the fence at all about whether to shoot, he’s probably not what I’m after (even though I've been known to get excited and shoot anyway).” 

That goes for both antlers and body. When you look at a buck for the first time and you flinch and suck in a quick breath because he appears noticeably thick, heavy, and gnarly, you can generally pull the trigger and be happy at the end of the trail.

Just yesterday my friend Jack called me and said excitedly, “Get over here, I think I just shot a good one. The second I saw him, everything looked huge. I just put it on him and shot.”

We tracked 30 yards and Jack said, “There he is, he’s just what I thought!” 

The beautiful blackpowder buck had a long, thick body and a swollen neck. His short, dark face with a gnarly hair patch exuded maturity. I figured 4 1/2 for sure, maybe 5 years old. My tape rough-scored the thick 10-point rack at 144 inches. 

No ground shrinkage there.

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