Nicole McClain on Deer Genetics: Is it ‘Right’ to Shoot Spikes?


“Male deer owning only ‘spike’ antler points can never amount to quality bucks.”

Not true.

Research indicates that while spike bucks are unlikely to turn into record-book-caliber bucks, with proper nutrition and enough time to age, these same spikes can turn into something most hunters would be proud to harvest.

Button-bucks and nubbin-bucks are not spikes

First let’s define what a spike is for those who are in the lack-of-know for what “spike” actually means. A spike is usually classified as a deer that is one to one-and-a-half years old that has two hardened antlers that do not fork or branch. Let’s be clear, this is not a “button-buck” or a “nubbin-buck” whose head has skin-covered bumps, “nubbies” or “buttons” on his head.

Shooting spikes isn’t for everyone

I was in Wisconsin and had a perfect 15-yard shot at a spike lingering on the other side of the watering hole from where I was set up. I didn’t feel comfortable shooting the spike. Rather, I played peek-a-boo for about 10 minutes from behind a fallen tree which I was sitting.

A spike will always be a spike… or will it?

The prevalence of spike bucks in a local deer herd can be attributed to myriad factors. Most commonly, deer density stress and poor habitat will cause a preponderance of spike bucks. However, given enough time, say 2-3 years, spike bucks will “catch up” and produce decent-sized racks – or as I call it, branchiness (branch E nes).

Some management-conscious hunters promote shooting spikes to improve the quality of the deer on your property. They figure if a buck is about 1.5 years and is sporting spikes, land owners should harvest such deer to conserve the nutritional resources of the land for the robust boys and to lower the genetic factor of spikes reproducing. Scientific research does not support this kind of barstool biology. There are just too many factors that affect antler growth. What’s more, the few studies that show lukewarm support for such theories originate from areas like South Texas that are completely different than the rest of Whitetail America.

In short, one cannot assume a spike buck is the product of inferior genetics. As has been shown many times on the pages of Deer & Deer Hunting over the past 38 years, yearling spike bucks can and do grow Boone-and-Crockett-class racks if given time and ample nutrition on quality habitat.

I guess it works the same for deer as it does for humans.


Season 4 Episode 7 Spike BucksWatch Season 4, Episode 7 of Deer & Deer Hunting TV: “Why Yearlings Don’t Measure Up.”
A small yearling buck does not reflect his potential in coming years. Charlie Alsheimer, Dan Schmidt and the D&DH crew discuss why a yearling buck may not look like a trophy in his first years.
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Genetics, nutrition and age define antler growth

Antler development is genetically based and not all deer have the same genetic potential. However, a buck can only reach monster rack status with the right genetics and proper nutrition and age. And proper nutrition is more than just apples and acorns – their diet should be at least 15% protein with adequate amounts of calcium and phosphorus for “maximum antler branchiness.”

Antler size can be semi-controlled (I say this lightly) by planting rich and robust food plots on your property and by letting smaller bucks run free for a few more years. It’s really genetics that is the most unchangeable factor. If a deer’s genes have it in the cards for small antlers, no amount of nutritious food or endless roaming is going to make him a monster non-typical buck.

Sex is always important

Each sex, doe and buck, provides approximately 50 percent of the genes for that next generation deer. In fact, some studies have shown that the white-tailed doe can be 60 percent responsible for her male offspring’s potential.

That being said, when is the last time you were able to look at a doe and say, “Yeah, let’s take her out of the mix. She carries the ‘spike-only’ gene.” Since it is virtually impossible to spot a doe with the ‘spike gene,’ we have to focus on the bucks that show their genes visibly.

If you’re an antler-obsessed property owner, I guess you could hope that a branchy-monster buck would mate with several does to pass on to his progeny. Further research indicates that a free-ranging buck has the energy and opportunity to get lucky with a dozen does in a lifetime.

So how many years does it take for a buck to reach his plateau for antler growth? About 5 years. After that, the antlers begin to decrease in quality. If you’re a good “age-gauger,” look for bucks between 4 to 5 years.

I’m not a spike shooter

When it comes down to it, genetics, nutrition, and age all play an equally important role in antler development. Shooting—or not shooting—a spike is a personal choice for some, and for others it is more of a land management and conservation decision. I’m not a spike shooter myself. Rather, I spend those moments studying a spike’s behavior so I can learn more about these interesting creatures.

Nicole McClain on Deer & Deer Hunting

Hiding behind a fallen tree covered in camo paint, deer hunter Nicole McClain plays “peek-a-boo” with with a spike who stomps his feet, stares in her direction, and tries to figure out why this fallen tree seems “alive.”(photo copyright Nicole McClain)

2 thoughts on “Nicole McClain on Deer Genetics: Is it ‘Right’ to Shoot Spikes?

    1. teambear

      very true they are tasty!! they are usually only one and a half years old that’s why. they do however show rut behavior sometimes and get swollen necks and the whole deal. they are tender because of their young age. a button buck would be even tastier you just don’t get much meat from them. one thing that isn’t tasty is antlers. you cant eat them.haha

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