By Doug Domedion
Most hunters are just happy to be able to get an antlered deer but are always hoping for that “big one” to come by. In reality, any deer, even a doe, is a trophy — especially if taken with a bow.
So why do some bucks have larger antlers than others? Well, a healthy environment that provides quality food for the deer is very important. Protein and minerals are first used by a deer’s body to grow a strong skeleton, and then any left over is used to grow those antlers. If the food is of poor quality or lacking in supply, the antlers will just not reach their full potential.
Another important factor is good genes that help determine the number of points, the size and shape of the rack. The bucks with the best genes have the bigger antlers and stronger body, so they become the top breeders, which means they pass those good genes on to the next generation. This, of course, leads to a stronger and healthier population.
The third and probably most important factor in a buck having a big rack is age. A buck usually doesn’t get his best rack until he reaches four and a half years of age. Thus, if he is harvested before this age, he hasn’t reached his full potential yet.
The highest percentage of bucks harvested each year are usually one and a half years old, with the two-and-a-half-year-old next. Three-and-a-half-year-old bucks are far and few between, and four-and-a-half and five-and-a-half-year-olds are a rarity.
These older bucks usually have the larger racks, but because they have survived to this age, they are smartest at avoiding hunters — making them even more rare in the deer harvest every year. Many of these bucks become completely nocturnal and are almost impossible to hunt.
New York state’s Big Buck Club considers a buck to be a trophy if his antlers score 140 or better Boone and Crockett points. Statistics show that less than one hunter in 33,000 will be lucky enough to bag such a trophy. Some of these trophy bucks are earned by dedicated hunters who think, sleep and devote all their spare time to learning the habits and haunts of big bucks. However, most are obtained through just pure luck, something that keeps hunters in the woods searching and dreaming.
These antlers are amazing structures and, when growing during the summer, are some of the fastest-growing issues known to man. Growth starts from two pedicels on the buck’s frontal skull plate. At five to six months of age, these pedicels are about three-quarters of an inch long and have raised the skin up above them. He is then known as a “button buck,” a sub-teenager (but still a fawn).
The next spring, in late March or early April, a growth hormone causes a growth of blood vessels beneath the skin on the pedicels. This skin covering the growing antlers is called velvet because that is what it looks like. The antlers grow like a twig on a tree, adding new growth from the base. The blood vessels in the soft antler carry and deposit minerals throughout the antler. As the blood flow diminishes back through the antler during the end of summer, the base begins to harden and cuts off the upward flow of blood, thus stopping the growth of the antler.
By the end of August and early September, the velvet is shed from the hardened antlers, often by rubbing them on small resilient saplings and bushes. The buck is ready to breed at this time, but the rutting season doesn’t really start until the third or fourth week of October and peaks in the middle of November. During this time, the antlers are used to show dominance and fight other bucks for breeding rights.
After the mating season is over, usually around the second or third week of December, the testosterone levels drop off. This causes a layer of special cells to form at the base of the antlers, which weakens the connection on the pedicels, eventually causing the antlers to fall off.
The next spring, the whole process starts over. Each year, if food quality is good, the antler will grow larger and thicker and sometimes grow more points. By the age of five and a half, he has generally reached the peak of his antler growth, and his antlers will remain a similar length for a few years. Eventually, they will start to decline in size and mass.
So even though most bucks taken every season are only yearlings, there is always the thought in the back of every hunter’s mind that the old trophy buck with the big rack may walk by him. This is the “drive” that causes the deer hunter to eagerly wait for each deer season to begin. Good luck during the rest of the season, and I hope that “Big Buck” bumps into you!