This article was recently published at WWW.Dannerholz whitetails.com.
Is Bigger better? Does size matter? How big is big enough? These questions haunt many deer hunters. Of course, we are talking about Big Racks, Headgear, Horns, Hammers, or antlers! What did you think I was talking about? Anyway…
For many hunters, mating does, and deer lovers, Big Antlers are not that important. Veteran hunters needed to deer hunt for more than antlers. Filled tags meant filled bellies. After WW2 hunters were subsistence hunters. The sport was there but so was the need to eat. I remember my Grandpa saying, “You can’t eat antlers!” Piles of great racks were just tossed into the yard or trash. The real trophy was the meat!
Today’s hunters seek out the large antlers for bragging rights. The meat is often donated to soup kitchens and food banks. My how times have changed. Modern deer hunters are also enjoying some of the highest deer populations ever. There are more deer to grow more antlers. Many states have laws protecting bucks so they can come of age and grow huge racks. Weapons also give hunters more options, seasons, and opportunity.
Veteran hunters have antlers and heads mounted on the walls. For us older sportsmen, these represent memorials rather than bragging rights. After a lifetime of filled tags, Antlers remind us that the best parts are the friends, memories, and heritage. Harvesting a smaller buck or doe is simply fine. Every legally harvested buck or doe is a trophy.
Huge Rack hunters don’t begin at that stage. Hunters evolve as they gain experience and age. We all start wanting to harvest a deer, any legal deer. Once that step is mastered, we want to harvest a lot of deer. Next comes a Big Buck. At this point our confidence and skills have grown to where we want to harvest a Specific deer. At this point, we have our wall hangers, bragging rights, and full freezers. Now the hunt is about teaching others how to hunt.
The other question is do “Does” prefer bucks with big racks? We have all been taught that antlers are for competing with other bucks for the right to mate with does. Does were supposed to prefer bucks with big racks as symbols of healthy virility.
A recent Mississippi State deer management study looked at this question. Do does prefer big antlered bucks? The research team sawed off big antlers and replaced them with smaller racks. Since antlers are bone, there are no nerves, so the bucks felt pressure but no pain. Now a mature, healthy, buck with small antlers was returned to the herd. 25 estrous does were then placed into a fenced area. Mature bucks with small antlers, young bucks with big antlers, and other variations were tried. Each test lasted 36 hours.
The results showed that does bedded near big antlered bucks 79% of the time. Family connections have no impact. Bucks and does mate with any bucks and does. Other studies also show that hermaphrodite bucks or does tend to not mate at all.
Now this data is limited and is not entirely accurate. There are also many other factors that can lead to mating outcomes. During the Rut, does will mate with multiple bucks. Even spikes end up in the gene pool. When big bucks fight younger bucks and chase does through the forests and fields, they get worn out. Their sperm count drops and so does their energy. After a big battle or chase, the big, tired buck, may just be too tired to mate. Other bucks take advantage of this resting window. There is no guarantee that the big buck DNA will impregnate the doe.
Science also suggests that Does mate with whatever buck is available at the time they are in estrous. Opportunity is overcome by choice. The doe becomes pregnant when the estrus cycle is exactly right. If the doe mated with 10 bucks, only one will impregnate her with only his DNA. There is no guarantee which Bucks DNA will be in the offspring.
In controlled or fenced situations, does can be artificially impregnated with whatever genetics are desired. Certain characteristics can be maintained, added, or removed from the deer herd. The same is true when breeding cattle, horses, and livestock.
Ultimately, big antlers are a result of good genetics, health, age, and nutrition. If a spike buck has good genetics, the offspring can grow big antlers. Spikes and small rack bucks can get huge after 3-6 years. This is when they become true trophies.
Ironically, we are still intrigued that a doe, if given a choice, prefers a big antlered mate. Even though the mature, experienced, and healthy antler reduced mate is feet away, she will choose the young, inexperienced, and smaller mate since it has bigger antlers. Large antlers do not correspond to the size of any other mating parts. They do show age, fighting strength, and health. The doe must be assuming that big antlers mean better survival and future reproduction.
Perhaps we are reading too much into this. Nature knows best! Does breed when the time is right. Whenever, whoever, whatever, when the timing is right, conception happens.
During an evening bow hunt, several seasons ago, I watched an estrus doe cruise under my tree stand. Behind her was a 3-legged buck. His nice rack was a matched, average 4×4. The butt on this buck was huge. He must have lost his leg in an accident or… The other leg built up strength to compensate for the loss of his other leg below the knee. The handicapped buck showed no signs of being handicapped.
I had an easy Bow shot at this pretty nice deer. To some, this 3-legged buck was a perfect deer to cull from the herd. Instead, I let the buck pass. If this deer was able to survive the loss of a leg and overcome this handicap, it must have some great genetics and desire that need to stay in the herd.
The Scientific study concluded that antlers stimulate reproduction. Size, age, and experience do not. The body weight, and size, of deer can dramatically change annually due to weather, drought, or other hardships. Antler size can stay relatively the same.
Big Antlered Bucks are preferred! Generally, an estrus doe or a hunter will pull the trigger on a bigger rack over a smaller when, if the choice arises. What is most interesting is how Nature finds a way. The Science and cycles of nature are simply amazing.
Big Racks Rule!
For more Montana Grant, find him at www.montanagrantfishing.com.