Growing up in the Texas Hill Country was a great place for an aspiring deer hunter. I can't really say why the sport grew on me, but I can remember before being of school age, crying and throwing a fit when my dad did not take me hunting with him. So whatever inspired me, it must have happened long before I can remember, which couldn’t have been that many years actually. I think I was about six years old when I started going along with dad, and sometimes granddad, on hunting trips.
I had a great aunt who owned about 1,200 acres in the granite hills north of Fredericksburg. In her home in Fredericksburg, she had several shoulder mounted bucks that really caught my attention. My guess is they would have scored in the 140 to 160 range. At least one had 14 points. I would look at them and wonder where they came from. I was sure they did not come from anywhere near where we were hunting. On our hunts, we were lucky to get a fleeting glimpse of a buck, and they were nothing like the ones hanging on the wall. Does were plentiful, and even though I had tags for them on my “exempt” license, I was told I could not shoot one unless we had a doe permit. This kind of confused me because right there on the license it said I could harvest a doe… what gives? Occasionally we would get one of these “doe permits” and we would have some venison to eat. A few years later, I worked up the courage to ask exactly where those deer came from that were hanging on the walls in my great aunt’s house. Dad said some of them came from the Moss Pasture, one of my great aunt’s pastures located near the Gilespie-Llano County line. He said they were shot back in the 1950’s. Now my curiosity was really stirred. Why didn’t we see any bucks like that when we hunted that pasture? It was only the 1960’s now. What happened to them?
I guess it has been my passion to find the answer to my questions, while simultaneously trying to harvest one of those brutes for myself. Over the past 40 years, I think I have come up with a good understanding as to what happened to those monster bucks, but my quest to harvest one continues. I say I “think” I have a good understanding, because the reasons are complex, convoluted, and interdependent. If that sounds confusing, you get the picture. In an attempt to share some ideas on this topic, I will write a series of articles rather than try to cover it all in one. This being the first article, I will cover my favorite subject…. bucks with spiked antlers.
In summation, my opinion is: The only good spike, is a dead one. Yes, most would put the summary at the end, but I want you to know where this is going from the start. It took many years to come to this conclusion, and I have met with many over the years who have varying opinions on the topic. Some think a spike is just a young deer. Some think it just didn’t get enough to eat. Some think a spike is of no consequence, don’t waste a buck tag on one. Larger antlered deer will breed them out of existence. Somehow, I had my doubts about the explanations I heard, so I kept my mind open. Here are some of the conclusions I have reached over the years.
Let’s look at spikes as it relates to age. True, most spikes are young deer, but not all young deer are spikes. We spent several summers camping in the hills around Canyon Lake. Some people in the area had “tamed” a male deer and had a bell tied around its neck, you could hear it roaming around the camp and surrounding area. Our first encounter with this deer was as a fawn when it sprouted nubs. The next year it had a small 8-point rack. Obviously a buck can grow more than spikes its first year. Conversely, older deer can grow spiked antlers for several reasons, injury, genetics and poor diet. Injury can affect the size of antlers, most hunters will agree on this, so I won’t elaborate on it. The genetics of “spikes” will open a can of worms with some. I have read articles about studies where they controlled the breeding of spiked deer over several seasons. In one study, they tracked antler production in deer that produced spikes the first year, compared to deer that produced a forked antler the first year. The deer that produced spikes the first year never produced antlers greater than the deer that produced forked antlers the first year. In another study, they were able to literally breed the antlers off of the bucks. It would indicate to me that removing any genetic material from the gene pool relating to spikes is a good thing.
What about bucks that just don’t get enough to eat. There have been studies showing that poor diet can lead to the production of spiked antlers. So, if you see a spike, you really don’t know if it might be genetics or poor diet. In drought years you would expect to see more spikes. Also in areas with high populations of deer, where the competition for food is higher, you might expect to see more spikes. When you draw a bead on a spike, you think to yourself, am I removing some bad genes from the pool, or did he just not eat enough groceries? My readings and studies over the years have given rise to one of my theories. I think you are removing bad gene material in either case. In my college studies, they taught that a deer could taste the difference in protein content of different leaves on the same plant. Deer require about an 18% protein diet, so the ability to detect protein is important to deer. My theory is that there are genes that control how well a deer can tell the difference between high and low protein plants. Some humans seem to display similar propensities for healthy versus not so healthy foods. People eat what they like, maybe deer do also. In times of drought and in areas where there are high populations of deer, I think there will always be a few animals that are better suited to finding the better groceries and will produce bigger antlers. So shooting a spike just might remove an animal from the population that is poorly adapted to finding high protein foods.
Finally, what are the odds of larger bucks breeding spikes out of existence. What we know, or think we know, about bucks fighting for dominance and breeding rights, would lead to that logical conclusion. I am not aware of any studies on this particular subject, but I have observed on several occasions spikes chasing does when there were larger antlered deer in the area that were not involved in the chase. The anecdotal evidence is that spikes will avoid fighting with larger antlered deer, knowing it is a lost cause. Instead they concentrate on finding does that have not been claimed yet. You might say, while the big bucks are fighting over the does, the spikes are out on a date with one! There are other factors concerning breeding habits in deer populations, but they will be addressed later. It is just not likely that spiked deer will be bred out of existence.
I was amazed a few years ago to find a change in the hunting regulations for some Texas counties, which seem to support the idea that dead spikes are the best ones. Basically the select counties are restricted from shooting forked antlered deer in younger age classes, while any spike is a legal target. Of course I knew this years ago. Back in the 1980’s I declared war on spikes on this little 50-acre slice of my great aunt’s property. For three years I shot only spiked deer, and convinced a few others hunting the same pasture to do the same. The fourth year, opening weekend, we shot six bucks off of this pasture, only one was a spike, three eight pointers, one seven point and one six point. None were like the trophies that I was searching for, but it was by far the best opening weekend we had ever had on the little pasture. I can’t help but think that my war on spikes had something to do with that success.