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Revisiting the spike controversy. (Huntin' Whitetails).

Drs. James Kroll and Ben Koerth of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management and Research at Stephen F. Austin State University are writing a new chapter on the age-old question of whether you should shoot spikes. Currently in its fourth year, this intriguing long-term study allows researchers to add new deer every year, increasing the sample size and using deer born under varying climatic conditions, which are major improvements over earlier studies.

Back in the early 1980s, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) conducted the first study on the antler potential of spikes. TPWD determined that yearling bucks with spikes almost always exhibited poorer antler quality in subsequent years than did branch-antlered yearlings. In addition, bucks that started out as spikes sired offspring with lower antler quality. Thus, the TPWD study concluded, if you want to maximize antler quality within your deer herd, you should make every effort to remove spike bucks and protect larger-antlered yearling bucks.

Following the TPWD research, Dr. Harry Jacobson conducted another similar study at Mississippi State University (MSU)--with conflicting results. At Mississippi State, some of the small, "inferior" yearling spikes and 3-pointers developed into record class bucks. In short, Jacobson found that a buck's birth weight, and the timing of its birth (early versus late in the year) were major factors in determining the quality of a yearling's first set of antlers. Jacobson found that a yearling buck's headgear only constitutes 10 percent of his full antler potential. The MSU study concluded that antler size among yearling bucks was largely irrelevant and that all yearling bucks should be protected, regardless of antler size.

Although the TPWD and MSU studies may seem contradictory, we must remember that both studies used different research animals that reflected distinctive herd conditions. Besides nutrition and genetics, other variables can dictate the size of a buck's first antlers, and neither the TPWD or MSU studies were able to cover all the variables involved in antler growth and development. Thus, it can be argued that both studies are, in fact, correct! Whatever side of the fence you want to defend, keep in mind that these studies had a common denominator--all research animals were penned deer.

While some may argue that comparing results from studies on penned deer to real-world conditions is not valid, much information can be learned from both scenarios. And in many cases, pen studies are a researchers' only option. That was the case with yearling spike research until Kroll and Koerth learned to use a specialized net-shooting gun fired from a helicopter to chase down running bucks. When a buck gets entangled in the net, a ground crew arrives on the scene to mark and tag the deer. Needless to say, this technique is a lot easier said than done!

Color-coded ear tags, which can be observed from the air, feeding stations! food plots, deer stands, etc., are attached to all captured bucks. These ear tags can also differentiate specific captured bucks from year to year. Since all marked yearling bucks have to be recaptured, the annual capture enables researchers to assess the buck's true antler production. In the event an ear tag is lost, a corresponding numbered tattoo is applied to the inside of the ear.

As of this date, Kroll, Koerth, and their associates have captured and tagged over 700 bucks in a four-county area of South Texas. On average, the researchers are capturing one-third of all 1 1/2-year-old bucks that were caught the previous year. A sample size of this magnitude is simply remarkable!

As you can see in the accompanying graph, if you plot the number of points a buck possesses as a yearling against the number of points the same buck has the next year, and compare this with data for all other yearling bucks, yearling spike bucks do indeed have fewer points on average when they reach 2 1/2 years of age. But, given one more year, these "small" bucks show their true colors and become Pope and Young candidates! Now, who was it that said small-antlered bucks would never amount to anything? Obviously, these folks should check out this unparalleled spike research.

Although Dr. Koerth is quick to point out that positive conclusions about the study are premature, he does say, "If we can determine if a buck will have inferior antler traits, wouldn't it make sense to remove him from the population as soon as possible? Why would you want a low-potential, antlered buck to breed?" Preliminary data from his study, then, indicates that culling should not begin until bucks reach 3 1/2 years of age.

Would the data be different for subspecies of whitetails that don't have to deal with drought conditions found in South Texas? Could northern deer even out their antler growth at 2 1/2 years of age? Although no one can say for sure, the possibility seems reasonable because, in general, northern deer have better nutrition and have a tendency to live longer. Kroll and Koerth are conducting their study in South Texas because they can use a helicopter to capture a large number of specific animals in a relatively short time.

Conclusion: Biologists know that yearling spike bucks undergo a tremendous change in their first year of life. As Kroll and Koerth's data show, yearling spikes not only can catch up in size with larger yearlings, but also can surpass them. Their data indicate that "inferior" bucks should not be culled until the bucks reach 3 1/2 years of age. Their data also reaffirm that antlers in yearling bucks are simply too sensitive to timing of birth, birth weights, maternal care, weather conditions (drought), growing conditions (nutrition), social stress, and genetics.

Of course, in many areas of the country, shooting or protecting spikes isn't even a question. That's especially true in habitats that cannot support existing deer herds. Deer numbers simply need to be reduced. And, even in areas with good deer management plans, a certain percentage of spikes will be born every year. But, as the most recent research indicates, this isn't necessarily bad.

Although many states cannot or will not, at this point, implement culling to improve overall antler size within their deer herds, private landowners can implement culling of inferior bucks as a feasible management option. And the results could be some impressive record book deer--which started out as very unimpressive yearling spikes.


It makes little difference whether a yearling starts out as a spike or with branched antlers. New data show that age and nutrition are more important than initial antler size in predicting a buck's true antler potential. In the past, many hunters have protected multi-tined yearling bucks because they have believed that these bucks will eventually grow the largest antlers. Drs. Kroll and Koerth suggest this isn't necessarily true!

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Author:Winand, C.J.
Date:Dec 1, 2002
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