Let's face it – the one thing that every deer hunter has in common is the desire to harvest a big buck. Some of us are lucky enough to do just that, others will get a shot and miss, a few will at least see one while many hunters go through the season without glimpsing a trophy rack.
Since there is so much attention placed on trophy bucks, we should know a bit about how nature produces them. Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist Kevin Wenner highlights the top-three factors influencing the growth of a big buck:
1. Age: Wenner said a buck reaches its peak potential for antler growth between the ages of 4½ and 6½ years old. Before antler restrictions began in 2002, three-quarters of all bucks taken in Pennsylvania were 1½.
Today, Wenner said 50 to 60 percent are at least 2½ years old. And when it comes to predicting if a young buck will go on to develop a large, trophy rack years from now, Wenner said it's impossible.
Sometimes you hear people talk about culling inferior bucks, but at one-and-a-half years old those antlers are no indicator of that buck's potential, Wenner said. That spike buck and the 8-point that are both one-and-a-half both have the same potential for a big rack when they are four-and-a-half years old.
Locally, antler restrictions limit hunters to shooting bucks with three points or more on one side. If the restrictions were boosted to four points or more on a side, Wenner said Northeastern Pennsylvania would have even more phenomenal bucks.
Why? Because it's all about letting them live a few years more.
2. Nutrition: What a deer eats goes toward its body first. Once a buck's nutritional requirements are satisfied, whatever's left is put toward antler growth. The main elements of an antler are calcium, phosphorous and magnesium – all of which build bone. Wenner said the protein and carbohydrates in a deer's diet will ultimately boost antler growth as well. That nutrition comes from acorns, farm crops, woody browse and even food plots and supplements.
Still, Wenner said nothing replaces what a deer finds naturally in the woods.
Deer are browsers and the majority of the year they'll browse that woody material and new growth, he said. They'll go to food plots obviously, but they browse throughout the year.
When it comes to nutrition and antler growth, late winter and early spring are vital periods.
The better condition they are going into spring, the better start they'll have on producing quality antlers, Wenner said. If they're in poor health, they'll absorb that nutrition just to stay alive first.
3. Genetics: The genes a buck inherits from its parents are extremely important in determining its rack size later in life. The key word, however, is parents.
Fifty percent of a buck's genetics comes from the doe, Wenner said. Her genetics play just as an important role as the male.
With that in mind, Wenner added that it's impossible to predict what type of rack a young buck will develop when it reaches its peak later in life.
It takes time for genetics to play out.
As important as genetics are, with only so many deer in an area over so many years it seems plausible that inbreeding would occur at some point. The reality is that inbreeding really isn't a problem, according to Wenner, even though a doe and its female offspring all utilize a fairly small home range. The key to keeping the gene pool varied centers around a buck's willingness to travel.
Yearling bucks get the boot from their mother and we know from studies that they move quite a bit, anywhere from 10 to 30 miles or more, he said. That really spreads the gene pool around.
Other questions regarding a buck's development:
How does an injury affect antler growth? Often, when an injury occurs the antler growth on the opposite side is affected, Wenner said. If the injury occurs to the buck's left side of his body, then that may affect the right antler. Severe deformations of one antler are indicative of a previous injury.
Why are the antler restrictions for the southwest four points or better while in the northeast it's three or better? Conditions are more favorable in the southwest and the age structure allows a higher percentage of bucks to reach that stage of full potential, Wenner said. Here, if we did a four-point restriction, that would really diminish the number of bucks available for harvest.
What causes the pits and holes often seen in antlers? It's not uncommon for flies to burrow into the antler while it's in velvet, and that will create a small hole or indentation, Wenner said.