I believe most of us have already bought in but for those of you who are still shooting spikes and scrub 1-1/2 year olds...educate yourselves. And, please, save the typing if you are gonna simply respond saying "I don't care about antlers" because we all know if they didn't have 'em we wouldn't hunt 'em...period.
Shooting Spike Bucks
Since the early 1980s, few debates in whitetail management have been as heated or as long-lived as the question of whether yearling spike bucks are "genetically inferior."
I can remember reading at least two columns in Petersen's Hunting back in the '80s written by my predecessor, John Wootters, on this very subject. I can also remember hunting in South Texas as well as several other states during that same time period when every legal spike was culled from the herd because of widespread belief that these animals would never produce a decent rack.
"Once a spike, always a spike" seemed to be a common battle cry among trophy hunters and land managers, even though we knew then that virtually all yearling spikes go on to develop some type of rack beyond that of two pencil prongs. Even today, all these years later, hunting clubs and landowners in many places still insist on culling yearling spikes from the herd.
Perhaps one reason for all of the confusion on this subject is that a lot of past research addressing this issue has resulted in conflicting results. Much of the research supported the idea that spike bucks never grow big racks and are therefore inferior, while other studies indicated the complete opposite. Now it's safe to say that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. A new, ten-year, landmark study done in South Texas on free-ranging deer by two renowned Texas biologists addresses the question and offers some profound, enlightening answers.
Over the past twenty years, Dr. James C. Kroll and Ben H. Koerth of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches have done cutting-edge research on whitetail genetics, aging and judging bucks in the field, and refining food plot and natural forage strategies that benefit the herd. However, throughout all of their years of study and publishing various papers, the nagging spike question always seemed to loom at the forefront.
One of the primary reasons the spike question was never easily answered is that all of the research done in the past involved penned deer. While one study in Texas suggested that spiked-antlered bucks never reached the antler quality of yearling bucks having forked antlers, another Mississippi study indicated that there was no correlation between a buck's first set of antlers and those at maturity. Upon having these studies analyzed by independent scientists, several design flaws were recognized.
"Because these studies were conducted on penned animals, the effects of social pressure could not be measured," Dr. Kroll says. "And social pressure has been shown in other deer species to have a significant impact on antler growth.
"Secondly, neither study really was a study of genetics in the classical sense. So about ten years ago we decided to add a field of study to our program that would examine the issue and try to answer a very basic question that went beyond genetics: Can we look at a yearling buck and predict what he will score at maturity?"
Because of geographic conditions and the fact that Dr. Kroll and Ben Koerth had worked with many ranch owners in the area on previous projects, it was decided to conduct the landmark study in the Brush Country of South Texas.
"Our research methodology was simple," says Dr. Kroll. "First, we decided to capture only buck fawns and yearlings. Because so much controversy exists about aging deer by tooth wear, we wanted to make sure we knew the age of the bucks we were capturing. Our plan was to capture as many buck fawns and yearling bucks as we could each year, and then attempt to recapture them over the next eight or nine years so that we would have a large enough sample size for statistical analysis.
"As of 2006, we captured, marked and released a total of 884 buck fawns and 1,132 yearlings. Numbered, color-coded ear tags were placed in the ears of each buck along with tattoos in case the ear tags were lost."
The study began in 1997 and took place on twelve different South Texas ranches over a five-county area. During the following years attempts were made to recapture as many of the previously tagged animals as possible. Data was taken from all of the recaptured bucks as well as the newly captured buck fawns and yearlings each year, and the results were quite dramatic.
One of the first questions the researchers attempted to answer was: "How many spikes and 3-point yearlings are out there (percentage-wise), and do their numbers change over a period of time?" As you can see in the accompanying chart, data gathered over an eight-year period showed that the number of spikes and 3-pointers changed significantly from year to year on the same properties. If spike antlers were caused by poor genetics, would these yearly changes have occurred in such short periods of time?
"Absolutely not," Dr. Kroll says. "The overall genetics of a deer herd simply cannot change that fast."
However, the real meat of this landmark study goes well beyond the question of how many spikes and 3-pointers are in the herd.
"We divided all of the yearling bucks we captured into two categories," Dr. Kroll continues. "Yearlings that had only spikes or 3-point antlers were in one category, and yearlings with four or more antler points on their first set were in the other. We did this because we reasoned that these two classes of yearling bucks are easy for hunters to identify. We got some very interesting results on the 21⁄2- and 31⁄2-year-old bucks that were recaptured, but the age of 41⁄2 is where the results were the most dramatic.
"Studies repeatedly have shown that whitetail bucks do not reach maturity until four years of age, and by the time the bucks in our study had reached 41⁄2, there was no significant difference in any of the antler measurements, no matter what the buck started out with his first year. The antlers were just as wide, just as heavy and had just as many points. Furthermore, there was no significant difference in gross B&C score," he says.
Many of the bucks that had been yearling spikes had grown 130-inch racks by age 41⁄2. Ironically, the average B&C score of all bucks killed across Texas each year is about 131 inches.
"It appears from our data that the spikes and 3-pointers are genetically equal at birth to multi-point yearlings for antler growth potential," Dr. Kroll concludes. "It just seems to take some deer a little longer to show their capability. The trick is, you have to let them grow up before it becomes obvious. Genetics certainly is an interesting aspect of whitetail management, and fun to debate around the campfire, but genetics is the least important of all the factors leading to the production of quality bucks."
So should spikes, or, for that matter, any bucks, ever be culled from the herd? According to Dr. Kroll, perhaps in some cases.
"...culling bucks is a very complicated issue," Dr. Kroll says. "In our opinion, instead of trying to cull bucks, landowners and hunters are far better off focusing their attention on things they can do something about, such as nutrition. Today the question of shooting more does is the only issue that generates as much controversy as that of what to do about spike bucks, and that's a no-brainer. We should all do our part in trying to shoot more does. It's essential for the welfare of the herd."