Oh boy. If ever I have opened a can of worms, this is it. I’m sure there will be readers nodding their heads in agreement, but also sure there will be some that will curse me and everything associated with me over this topic. I do know this has been the most often asked question I get at deer camps scattered across the state when the day is over, supper has been enjoyed, dishes washed and a night downer is in hand while everyone is staring at the coals of the dying camp fire. Here goes…………………
What you are about to read is my opinion. This is based on reading a lot of research material and having first-hand discussions with many of the people doing the actual research on deer genetics. I am also weighing in observations I have over 30 years of watching what has happened in real life situations in South and Central Texas. I think I can encapsulate this topic best by using facts.
Fact One: The Kerr Wildlife Management Area deer genetic research is the longest-running study with the most animals used anywhere in the world.
Fact Two: The Kerr study found antler genetics are hereditary. This basically means the size and often the shape of the father’s antlers impacts the size and shape of its offspring. There is no disputing this.
Fact Three: The Kerr study PLUS those done at Mississippi State University, in Arkansas, in Georgia and some in the wild of South TX where deer were captured by helicopter nets, released and recaptured in later years have all shown conclusively that a spike yearling, on AVERAGE, will never grow to the size his same-aged brothers will grow when his brothers have 4-5-6-7-8+ antler points. A spike starts out smaller and ends up smaller. All studies show this.
There were examples of a few INDIVIDUAL bucks that started as spikes that grew into nice trophies. These examples were plucked out of the pack. Remember when managing a wild herd of deer, you have to deal with averages.
So, if you wish to increase the average size of the deer on your ranch or in your wildlife management area, over a long period of time, it will help to get rid of the smallest yearling bucks you are growing, which are usually spikes. You cannot argue against this. Please re-read fact three.
I wish I could remember the name of the professor of genetics from Texas A&M University School of Vet. Medicine but I can’t. He showed me the attached graphs and these graphs hold true for any animal or plant.
All three graphs show the number of 1.5 year old bucks in my example herd on the vertical axis and the size of the yearlings measured by antler points of the horizontal axis. For this example, I show 10 spikes, about twenty-five 4-pointers and about five 7 and 8+ point yearlings.
In the second graph, I show with the angle cross hatches all spikes being killed out of the herd.
In the third graph, I show what the numbers look like with no spikes in the herd. If all spikes are removed, the AVERAGE SIZE INCREASES. This is a statistical fact. This graph could be used on the size of elephants, butterflies or corn stalks. It does not matter.
Over time and I mean a long, long time, if a manager systematically removed the smallest 10% of the bucks out of his/her deer herd, the average size would increase.
You have to use your heads folks. When the Kerr study first came out the spike harvest idea was abused in some instances. What would happen if you were hunting a deer herd that was overcrowded and half starved? Due to lack of food, 90% of the yearling bucks had spikes. If a person shot every spike he/she could find, in that instance the herd would be damaged. This would be a big mistake.
You need to know what you have. What happens when your herd is in outstanding shape – just the opposite of the above? Let’s say a manager has a yearling herd and the smallest buck yearling has 4 points. If you wanted to move your quality upward, in this instance it may not hurt to knock out all 4 pointers, leaving the 5+ antler point yearlings to mature.
I like to shoot the sorriest or smallest 10-15% of my yearlings every year. If I am sitting on a wheat patch watching 30 deer and I see what I call an “aspirin head” spike grazing next to a banana shaped antler spike, a 5 point yearling and a 7 point yearling, I shoot the aspirin head spike. An aspirin head spike has hard usually white antlers about 1/2” long. You have to look real close. With the hair on the animal’s scalp, all that shows is something white that looks like an extra-strength Bayer aspirin. That deer is the same age as the long-horned spike. Which has the potential to be better when it matures? If two spikes are standing side by side, shoot the one with the shortest spikes. Do not approach this thinking the long horned spike is older, it is not. In my 55+ years of shooting spikes, I have seen only one animal that I was 100% sure was a 2 year old deer. Moral of the story – all spikes are yearlings.
Now, the dialog written so far has been aimed at attempting to increase the size of bucks in your herd by culling out the smaller bucks. You may not want to. If you are after maximum dollars from a hunting operation, then shooting spikes may not pay off. Some landowners and managers operate hunting camps that are paid by the deer killed and by the size. A 2-3 year old small 7-8 point buck with a 11” spread, which was probably a spike as a yearling, will bring more money to the bottom dollar than having killed that deer as a spike. You will not be driving the quality upwards but the manager of the above example ranch could care less.
In the late 1980’s, I hunted on a property in Maverick County for two years. The deer on this ranch were like large Hill Country deer. I got off and wish I hadn’t. The Biologist managing this low fenced property implemented an aggressive spike culling regimen along with very aggressive doe harvest rules. The density was low, but 15-20 years later, some of the largest bucks killed in South Texas were regularly taken on this property. This is one real life proof that culling works.
In 2006 through 2008 I was involved in managing a large South Texas ranch in southern Kinney County. This property had been hunted hard by day leasing for 30+ years prior to my introduction to the land. The previous owners had an 8 point rule in place. Any and all bucks could be killed if it had 8 points or better. What happened was all spikes were protected and the best yearlings killed when they reached 2.5 years old. Take another look at my graphs and reverse the pressure. Remove the top antlers from your herd every year. Very few doe were killed. 30+ years of killing off the best genetics and leaving the sorriest yearlings was something to behold. What I found was a skewed buck doe ratio and a buck herd with some of the sorriest antlers I have ever seen on a ranch with good habitat. It was common to see old broad-backed mature bucks with heavy based 6 points and a 10” spread.Pitiful but proof culling worked in reverse.
In 1990, Harvey’s Creek Wildlife Management Association was formed between Weimar and Columbus, Texas. Most landowners followed the TPWD recommendations of killing spikes. We did on our family ranch and I know our neighbors did. Now, 26 years later, some of the largest antlers taken in Colorado County are coming off the original Co-op member ranches. The quality of the bucks taken the last few years could not be imagined back in 1990. It takes time but it works.
One final angle……. This is for those that state spikes should be protected and will grow into trophies. Everyone has seen these mega-antlered bucks that have been grown in pens from genetically selected bucks and doe. See if you can find any of these operations that brag about having spikes as first antlered bucks and see if these operations advertise that they have spikes for sale.