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How Big is That Bull You're Looking At

Posted by Tim Butcher on

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No doubt if you have an interest in the hunting scene in New Zealand you will, like me, follow a wide variety of media on the subject. Over the past few years I have noticed that there are consistently better “trophy” type animals being harvested. Now this could be because of the influx of ways to communicate your hunting success, I mean if you didn’t put it on Facebook, did you even shoot a bull? Its now far easier to keep track of who is shooting what and where because of the photos that get published, it is easy to judge the quality rather than the old mate at the pub telling you that Bruce from down the way shot a bloody massive bull the other day. There are actually very few people I trust when they tell me they saw a good animal (maybe I’m just getting picky) but photos don’t lie.

Very old summer bull tahr

Tim Norris with a very old 13'+ bull

Another reason may be that hunters are getting more educated on what they should be shooting and when. There will always be the school of thought that “I only hunt for meat I don’t care what I shoot”. I’m not disagreeing with this, I hunt for meat very regularly but every time I pull the trigger I know exactly what I’m shooting. How many times have you heard about people shooting an animal only to find that when they walk up to it, it wasn’t what they expected? In my view, this should not happen. There’s not really an excuse for shooting a hind that has a fawn at foot or a velvet stag that’s showing great potential.

hugh bagley old bull tahr

Awesome age on Hugh Bagleys bull tahr

The media may have helped in this regard with hunter education. The pictures of good animals and by good animals I mean quality trophies may have helped everyone know what they need to look for, and what they should avoid. You will also see a lot of negativity if a person has harvested an animal people believe they should not have. There have been some absolutely brilliant stags, bulls and bucks coming from public land. They are big, heavy and above all else mature. Being able to assess whether an animal is in the correct age class is quite important. To be able to do this, you need to have some knowledge on what to look for and a way to correctly assess them before pulling the trigger (spotting scopes are essential).

10 year old bull tahr

A 10 year old bull that's knocking on 14 inches in length 

Here’s a quick yet certainly not exhaustive summary of what I look for in a bull tahr, many people will do it differently and will get the same result.

Tahr are not easy to judge, for example it’s easy to tell a good stag from an average one. But when you’re talking only a couple of inches between a representative and a monster, you really need to know what to look for. To compound the problem in the rut a bulls mane is often covering the tips of its horns. When they are posturing you can barely see them! This is when you need to play the waiting game. Put the spotter on him and watch until you get all the angles of view on those horns to make a proper assessment. Get in close enough and you can count the age rings. For a bull to be mature you are looking for eight years old and over.

tahr aging 1

A 12 3/4" bull. This is an example of smaller bases. He appears possibly bigger when you use the "two square method" so this is why the head-horn length comparison is useful.

tahr aging 2

A great 14" bull where you can see how the "two square method" can be used. From the base the horn extends almost twice as far as the width of the base before it begins to taper. 

You’ll need both a side view and a front on view. The front on view is going to give you a view of the width and sweep. If the tips don’t look like they sweep in and point back inwards, chances are he’s only going to be an 11”or so. You will also be able to see the condition of the tips and whether they are broomed or broken. Bulls vary in the width of their horns but the wider ones tend to be bigger. 

As for the side view, you can again see the condition of the tips as well as the overall length of the horn. One method I use is to take the width across the base and make a square on the horn (see the picture and it will make sense). If you can fit nearly two of those squares on the horn before it starts to curl and taper, it’s likely a good size.

bull tahr front on

A 13 1/4" bull showing horn sweep. You can see how they point back in toward his neck 

Another method is to compare the overall length of the horn to the overall length of the skull. On a big bull, they will be similar. The bases are another factor. If they look small they probably are. Don’t get caught out by small bases which seem to make the horns seem bigger. This is where the skull length comparison is great. The coat of a bull also helps to determine his age, a mature bull will have a mane (we’re talking winter hunting here) that will appear to reach back ¾ down his body. Long and pronounced dorsal stripes can be a good indicator too. I wouldn’t get too hung up on the colour of manes as an indicator. I’ve seen big bulls that were just completely black but for some people, a bull Tahr coat is the real trophy and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the spring and summer the coat doesn’t get in the way so it’s far easier to do a horn assessment.

bull tahr side on

A side view of the same bull. Note the heavy bases and again the mass before the taper begins.

multiple sizes comparison bull tahr

A great comparison of three good bulls. 1 is a 12 3/4", 2 is a 14" and 3 is a 12 1/2". This shows how sweep and mass make all the difference in the overall length.

young bull tahr

A young bull found in a avalanche. He had great lamb tips but you can see how small his bases are. He in only just over 10" but I think he could have grown into something great with those tips!

6 year old bull tahr

A 6 year old bull showing some sweep but with weak bases

bull tahr

A comparison between two 11 1/2 inch bulls. Bull 1 is has heavy bases but lacks any sweep. Bull 2 is the same one from the previous photo, Although it appears much smaller, the sweep made up length. The "two square method" shows these are small bulls. Both 5 years old. 

If you combine all these factors and they are all there, you’re likely looking at a 13”+ bull. As with stags, you can get character trophy’s. A really old broomed bull with stacked growth rings is nearly as good and maybe more interesting than a really long one (exception being if its old and long!). One of the oldest bulls I have seen was 13 years old but only 11”. The difference to all the other 11” bulls that get shot is that the fella who shot it knew exactly what he had the rifle pointed at. A one horned bull is another example. I’ve seen a few of these and my guess is because they have taken a fall at some time in their life.

herd bull

A typical herd bull of about 5years old

Those are the things I’m looking for when I’m after a trophy animal (for these three species anyway). It’s fair to say that after a while looking at any of these animals the old saying “you’ll know a big one when you see it” definitely applies. It is however important to remember that a trophy means different things to different people.

stacked age rings

Stacked up age rings but not huge length, A real trophy. Credit Joseph Peter @ HardYards Hunting

The hunting resource that we have in New Zealand is pretty fantastic. There’s always people bagging the way our game animals are managed and to be honest, you could say many of them have suffered miss management. It’s easy to blame government agencies here and rightly so, but also some hunters are to blame too. The old “kiwi bomb up” often raises its ugly head. Everything gets shot, who cares what it is.

I recall a group of Tahr hunters I spoke to not so long ago. When I asked how they got on the response was “Na no good, didn’t see any good bulls.” I then asked if they shot anything. “Yea we shot 8 Bulls but nothing over 11 inches.” To say I was stunned was a bit of an understatement. How could you possibly expect to ever see a good bull if you are going to shoot all the immature ones? Time and time again it’s the same with hunts in the roar. Someone shoots a young six or an eight then complains they didn’t see a big one. They just won’t ever get big if you shoot them when they are immature! Things may change in terms of hunting and animal management in the near future so I look forward to seeing what happens. Getting into that topic is a whole other kettle of fish!

Huge bull tahr

Dream bull taken by Alistair Scott and Corry Walker.

As hunters we all share a passion for the game we hunt. While we may have differing views, we all want a sustainable herd that allows us to go out and harvest what we are after whether that is a monster stag or a fat little yearling. If we all understand what others are after we can make sure we continue to see 40” stags, 14” bulls, 10” bucks and at the same time have freezers full of high quality meat. I recall a slogan of sorts from Cam Speedy “Let him grow, take the doe”. I think his game management presentation for the Sika Foundation is fantastic, it's also applicable to all out big game species. It talks about a variety of topics including how to manage animals in order to achieve specific herd characteristics and age classes, please check it out below.

That’s my 10 cents for now. I’m always keen to hear from people on how they go about assessing animals and anything about hunting in general so drop me a line if you want. In the meantime stay safe and hunt hard, just remember to assess your animal and let’s keep seeing those fantastic trophy photos! 

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