It’s a complicated question with no simple answer. Should hunters involved in a deer management program take spike bucks out of the population? Numerous studies have examined the growth potential of spikes and in some cases, have come up with conflicting answers.
In one, researchers at the Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Kerr Management Area research facility determined that spike bucks are indeed inferior to branch-antlered yearlings. It found spike deer, in both captive and wild population samples, have lower body weights on average and grow smaller antlers at older ages. One study determined that yearling spikes had an average of 6.4 points on their antlers at 4 ½-years of age while yearlings that had six points produced racks with an average of 10.1 points when they reached 4 ½.
Scott Durham, deer project leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, said in some cases, spikes can indeed blossom into quality bucks. It takes a few key ingredients to grow trophy whitetails no matter where you hunt, and Durham said some regions of Louisiana offer the right combination of genetics, forage and soil fertility while others don’t.
A study conducted by Dr. James Kroll on free-ranging deer in south Texas also found that spike bucks could indeed blossom into high-quality bucks. In fact, over the course of the 10-year study Kroll and his assistants captured and tagged over 2,000 yearling and fawn bucks and measured antler growth at various ages. They found no difference in antler size at 4 ½ years among all the bucks recaptured in the study.
Genetics or Nutrition?
As Durham said, regions with high soil fertility, abundant forage and a balanced deer herd tend to produce bigger bucks than areas with poor nutrition and an overpopulation of deer. Kroll, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, also found that nutrition is an important factor in determining potential antler growth.
Another study, also conducted in Texas, found similar results. It examined the number of spikes harvested for several years on The Edwards Plateau region and showed a correlation between years with good rainfall and the resulting boost in forage production and antler growth.
Long Spikes and Short Spikes
So what about short spikes? Researchers in Texas also determined that yearling bucks with shorter spikes had less potential than those with longer beams. Durham said short spikes are a good indication of a fawn born late in the summer, but another study in Texas found that late-born bucks are no more likely to be spikes than those born during the normal fawning season. Nor are they prone to produce inferior antlers.
“We usually see late-born fawns in populations with excessive numbers of does, a sign of overpopulation or otherwise poor herd health,” said Durham.
Those short-beamed spikes—anything less than three or four inches—are the prime candidates for harvest under an intense management program. However, Durham added that even short spikes might grow up to produce decent antlers.
Shoot or Not Shoot?
For Durham, there is no single answer to the question of shooting spikes or allowing them to fully develop. He said some clubs that hunt Louisiana’s fertile alluvial plains shoot every spike they can and harvest some quality bucks.
“Generally, shooting spikes won’t harm your quality deer management efforts, especially if you shoot a spike instead of a branch-antlered 2 1/2-year-old buck,” he said.
The bottom line? Managing bucks through selective harvest is a complicated process that can only work under ideal conditions. In most cases, however, hunters have bigger issues to overcome first. David Osborn, a research biologist with the University of Georgia, said most properties in the southeast are not in a position to cull any buck.
“You really need to concentrate on getting your buck-doe ratio in balance, usually through intense doe harvests, and creating high-quality nutrition before you should start worrying about whether or not shooting spikes is good for the herd,” he said. “It’s generally accepted that age is the most important factor in producing quality deer.”