Antlers. For some folks-they are the stuff that dreams are made of. To many hunters, harvesting a large antlered buck represents the ultimate accomplishment. However, many people hunt their entire lives without getting the opportunity to realize this goal. Why is this so? To answer this question, let's look at what it takes for a deer to grow a set of large antlers.
Three things contribute to antler size nutrition, genetics, and age. Nutrition is certainly a key ingredient. Adequate year-round nutrition is necessary for a deer to reach its antler producing potential. Spring and summer nutrition are especially important because most antler development actually takes place April-September. Poor forage conditions during this period can take its toll on antler growth. Sound habitat management and deer population management can facilitate good nutritional conditions.
Another piece of the antler size puzzle is "genetics." It has been demonstrated that antler size is a heritable trait. The degree to which this information can be used in a deer management program is largely case specific. It is my opinion that very few deer management programs are at a point where "culling" inferior antlered deer is beneficial or in fact, possible.
To be able to manipulate the gene pool in a deer herd, one would have to define "inferior deer" (experts are still not in total agreement on this term), be able to identify an inferior deer in the field (a difficult task at best), and be able to remove "inferior" animals from the herd in sufficient numbers so as to impart a change on the gene flow in the herd. These requirements make true genetic manipulations on free-ranging deer herds very difficult.
The third piece of the puzzle is "age". In our area, this is probably the most limiting factor relative to antler size. Most bucks harvested in Oklahoma are less than 2.5 years of age. The same is true in many parts of Texas. Research on penned deer has shown that maximum antler size is attained anywhere from 4.5 to 6.5 years of age. That is a far cry from 2.5 years of age. An additional 1-2 years of age can make a tremendous difference in antler size. The obvious way to address the age factor is to allow younger age class bucks to reach the older age classes.
In other words, let the young bucks walk and harvest only the more mature bucks. Take up the venison slack by harvesting some does. If you are worried about the neighbors getting the bucks you pass up, try to persuade them to adopt similar guidelines. The bottom line is even if you have the best deer food available and good antler related genetics a 2.5 year old buck is still going to have suboptimal antlers.