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There was a time in North America when old-time hunters would say, “Once a spike, always a spike!” The funny thing about that saying is they said it with all seriousness in their voices, but no one really believed it. Yep … they were mostly being facetious. The thing then was there were way fewer deer than there are today, and doe tags, well, pretty much didn’t exist. Yes, there were “party permits” here and there, but to get venison you mostly had to find a buck with legal antlers.
Enter the spike.
Most states had rules stating a buck had to have at least one antler of 3 inches in length to make it legal. Spike bucks were commonplace, and no one really didn’t know why. We do today.
There are primarily three reasons why white-tailed deer grow spikes:
The Age Factor
Age, or lack thereof, is the key reason why a whitetail buck will grow spikes as its first set of antlers. Key term there is, “first.” By and large, spikes are the result of late-born fawns from the previous season that are entering their first growing season. By the time hunting season rolls around, they’ll be pushing 18 months of age and will be sporting their first set of antlers.
Late-borns invariably have to put their energy into body growth. Anything else (antlers) is relatively unimportant when the skeleton has to grow.
According to a scientific study conducted by Keith McCaffery, Wisconsin DNR deer researcher and manager for more than 30 years, there are very few animals older than yearlings with spikes. He tallied spikes in a subset of Wisconsin data and found 29 of 1,588 deer aged 2-1/2 years old (1.8%) were spikes in forested northern Wisconsin. In the farmland where deer have access to better nutrition, only 12 of 1,826 2 1/2-year-old deer (.6%) were spikes. (Incidentally there was a single 3-1/2-year-old that was recorded to have spikes.) Some of these older Wisconsin deer recorded to have unbranched antlers on each side might actually have had broken antlers rather than natural spikes. (Heffelfinger, DDH)
The Nutrition Factor
All three of these factors go hand-in-hand, but nutrition is huge when combined with age. A late-born fawn that does not have unlimited, high-value nutrition is further behind the 8-ball, so to speak. Without quality nutrition, especially in the late winter months, antler growth is going to suffer for those late-borns and, hence, a higher probability for spike antlers.
It’s important to note that nutrition goes way beyond our good-intentioned efforts of providing supplemental feed through protein (where legal) and food plots. Overwinter habitat is critical, especially in Northern areas. Hence the reason why so many Northern states have higher percentages of spike bucks in the herd as yearlings.
Don’t despair, they catch up! More on that later.
The Genetics Factor
Genetics would be a distant third on this list. Disclaimer: Some biologists in Texas will argue otherwise, and there is some evidence to show that genetics can play a role in spike development in Southern deer, but it doesn’t override the first two factors. Long story short, follow-up research during recent years has shown that it’s futile to try to manage against spikes by implementing “green light” shooting missions. I’ve been to so many locales over the years that declare war on spike bucks in efforts to “weed them out” of the gene pool. You simply can’t do it. Remember, the mother is often responsible for 60% or more of that little buck’s DNA. Culling him before his time is akin to the very premise of this blog post: “Once a spike always a spike.”
Long story short? If you want to shoot a spike to fill your tag and collect some prime venison, by all means do that, be happy, and wear a smile. If you do it for any other reason, you’re only fooling yourself!