Top whitetail researchers set the record straight on what it takes to raise record-setting bucks.
By Larry Bozka
It was an unusually warm November morning, even by South Texas standards. Wispy tendons of red dust swirled like ribbons in the wind, just outside the open door of an ancient wooden barn. Inside the building hung the field-dressed carcasses of a half-dozen white-tailed deer.
All of them were bucks.
Spaced evenly apart, the handsome animals were supported by a long four-by-four timber anchored high in the rafters.
The hunters were milling from buck to buck, comparing antler spreads and excitedly swapping stories, when a tall, grizzled old cowboy emerged from a nearby trailer and slowly walked toward the group.
His hair was a tangled shock of white and gray. Two days’ worth of unshaven stubble peppered a rugged face tanned coffee-brown by years of exposure to Brush Country sun. He stepped into the barn and eyed the deer with a critical gaze.
I guessed him to be in his mid-70s. Yet, his pale blue eyes carried the lively twinkle of a mischievous 7-year-old.
“You boys remove the musk glands from those deer?” he innocently asked.
“No sir,” the hunters answered in unison. One of them, a strapping twenty-something wearing matching head-to-toe camo and high-dollar hunting boots fresh out of the box, boldly stepped forward.
“What musk glands?” he skeptically inquired.
“Boy, you don’t know about the musk glands?”
“No sir,” he answered. “I reckon I don’t.”
“They’re right here,” the old main pointed. He reached inside the ribcage of the nearest buck until his leathery index finger touched the animal’s left tenderloin.
“Leave those things much longer, and this meat won’t be worth taking home,” the rancher warned.
At that crucial moment his eyes met mine. It was a classic example of nonverbal communication, an unspoken but unambiguous plea for me to remain silent.
So I did.
The old man quietly pulled a four-inch skinning knife from its sheath. One after another, with the calculated precision of a surgeon, he cut out the animals’ tenderloins. His audience observed, and with great appreciation, thanked him for his fortuitous and timely intervention. The old fellow slipped the meat into a plastic storage bag, squeezed out the air and zipped the package tight.
“Gotta close it up,” he explained. “They’ll be smellin’ to high heaven in another hour or so.”
Easing out as nonchalantly as possible, he ambled through the door and walked back to his trailer. He stepped inside the wind-beaten double-wide and didn’t reappear until the “corporate group” of hunters, oblivious novices all, had cleared the front gate cattle guard and turned east toward Houston.
Not all deer hunters are so gullible. Nor are all ranch foremen quite so willing to bend the facts for the sake of world-class venison. Nonetheless, anywhere they exist — and in Texas, that’s everywhere — deer camps are the birthplace of countless unverified “facts.” With sufficient time and repetition, many of these misguided notions become accepted as truth.
The field biologists of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Division have heard them all. They study and analyze Odocoileus virginianus with unbridled enthusiasm, delving on a daily basis into aspects of the hugely popular big-game animals’ biology and behavior that to others might seem mundane.
For landowners and hunters alike, growing bucks to “trophy” proportions is priority number one.
Granted, “trophy” is a relative term. Yet there’s no doubt that, in areas as geographically diverse as the East Texas Pineywoods, the Edwards Plateau and the Panhandle, the number of wall-worthy trophy whitetail bucks in Texas is substantially higher than it was only 10 years ago.
“Management,” both of the herd and its habitat, is the benchmark buzzword.
For many hunters, discussing and debating management theories is almost as enjoyable as hunting. For men like Wildlife Division biologists Donnie Frels, Gene Fuchs and Mitch Lockwood, it’s a career.
Frels is area manager of the Kerr Wildlife Management Area, near Kerrville. TPWD purchased the then-overgrazed Hill Country tract in 1950. Thanks to Frels and professionals like him, the Kerr WMA has since yielded more information about deer and deer antler development than just about any other facility in the country.
Along with Frels, I recently presented a list of commonly held conceptions (and, it turns out, misconceptions) to veteran whitetail researchers Fuchs and Lockwood. Fuchs also works out of the Kerr WMA as a manager and project leader; Lockwood is TPWD’s White-Tailed Deer Program Coordinator.
Taking turns, the trio shared their takes on some of Texas’ most prevalent management-oriented assumptions.
So what’s the most outstanding of the lot?
“It’s the notion that big-antlered, mature bucks do all the breeding,” Frels said. “Research at the Mason Mountain WMA, investigating the effects of age and antler development on breeding success, showed this to be false. Mature bucks do garner a disproportionate number of matings when compared to yearlings,” Frels explained. “However, small-antlered bucks also had a notable impact on breeding success.”
“No matter how big, not all large-antlered bucks are successful breeders,” Fuchs added. “Most bucks contribute only a few offspring to a given population during their lifetime, and again, large antlers are not the dominant factor of breeding success.”
If there is a moral here, it’s that lesser-antlered bucks have a significant impact on the breeding process. Accordingly, ranch managers with trophy racks foremost in mind should seriously consider removing small-antlered bucks from the herd as quickly as possible.
Here is where the deer management debate heats up faster than fresh-lit mesquite. Like old-time landowners who still won’t let their hunters harvest does, leaving an imbalance in an overpopulated herd, some ranch managers remain extremely reluctant to harvest “spike” bucks. They stubbornly maintain that the two-tined deer are simply “late-born fawns,” or perhaps simply lack protein in their diets.
So, I asked, are spike deer really “genetically inferior”?
“I can’t believe I still get this question,” Lockwood responded. “There are 31 years of research and data on the subject, but in a nutshell, the answer is that spike bucks do not catch up with yearling deer that have branched antlers.
“Data from the Donnie E. Harmel White-tailed Deer Research Facility (at the Kerr WMA), Louisiana and South Texas (on free-ranging deer) all show that spikes do not catch up with 3-point to 5-point yearlings, who in turn do not catch up with yearlings of 6 or more points, even at 4-1/2-plus years of age.”
Said Frels, “It’s time we put this one to bed.”
More complex is the quandary of the “8-point gene” theory. Essentially, it’s a belief that 8-point bucks, after a certain (and much-debated) age, are unlikely to develop into anything other than larger 8-pointers.
Is this true? And if so, how old should a hunter let an 8-pointer get before deciding it is indeed a “management buck”?
“If you want to manage for a 10-point-plus frame, then bucks should have 10 points on the main frame by 4.5 years of age,” Lockwood answered.
“A buck’s genetic potential for antler development is determined at conception,” Frels added. “Most large-antlered (10- to 12-plus-point frame) bucks begin development as 6- to 8-point yearlings. So, if you want bucks with 10-point-plus frames at maturity, you select ‘for’ big yearlings and ‘against’ small-antlered yearlings.”
Incidentally, liberal feeding of high-protein pellets is not a “fix” for small-antlered yearlings and older, not-quite-trophy management bucks. “No amount of protein or feed will grow big antlers on a buck with poor genetic potential,” Frels explained. “With proper nutrition, a buck can attain his genetic potential, but he can never exceed it.”
Arguably the biggest challenge for landowners is to create a herd-management consensus between themselves and their hunters, striving to create either big bucks or big numbers of bucks (of which only a few are likely to become bona fide trophies). The consensus they reach is the foundation from which every successful deer-hunting operation develops. Building on that foundation, hunters and managers have to work together, running their plays from the same play book and doing so with dogged determination and coordinated follow-through.
“In many areas of Texas we have an overabundance of whitetails for the available habitat,” Frels noted. “Hunters rarely harvest adequate numbers just to keep pace with annual production. Also, despite some prevailing attitudes toward coyotes and bobcats, they should know that in areas with good ground cover, good habitat conditions and good age structure in the deer herd, predators generally have a minimal impact on fawns.”
In other words, it’s up to hunters to be the apex predators.
Playing this role successfully is not as simple as it sounds.
Many deer hunters are so focused on shooting a trophy that, despite good intentions, they “pass” on a great many deer that should be removed. It’s noteworthy that the later in the season the animals are harvested, the less beneficial it is to increasingly stressed habitat.
Some hunters worry that by shooting does they leave fawns vulnerable to predation, or perhaps even starvation. “There is no concern with harvesting does with fawns during opening day of archery season,” Lockwood said. “We learned from an early Kerr WMA study that fawns weaned at 60 days can make it quite well on their own. We also learned that 95 percent of fawns in Texas are born before July 15th. If you have fawns on your ranch that can’t survive by opening day of archery season, then habitat is likely the limiting factor.”
Inhibitions about shooting does and spikes aside, landowners, managers and hunters have made quantum leaps toward improving the quality of the Texas deer herd. Wherever sound and stringent management practices have been employed, the results have invariably been dramatic.
“Historically, South Texas was known for growing the largest-antlered bucks in the state,” Lockwood pointed out. “But that was before deer management took off statewide. Buck herds on managed ranches throughout the state no longer suffer from poor age structure. That fact, combined with selective harvest programs and good habitat management, has resulted in big bucks statewide. Folks are learning that their own deer have the genetic potential they need to achieve their goals, that they don’t need to ‘ship in’ deer from South Texas or elsewhere to grow trophy bucks.”
Managers of white-tailed deer herds will always argue the finer points of management. Again, for many, the science is as exciting as the stalk. Virtually none with any experience, however, will argue the merits of trophy deer management’s three foremost requirements.
“Whether it’s in Laredo or Dalhart,” Frels said, “it takes age, genetics and nutrition to produce big bucks. Management programs that simultaneously address all three reach their goals more efficiently.
“There are,” he concluded, “no silver bullets.”
Nor, I might remind the hunter making his first visit to the deer camp, are there “musk glands” located deep inside a whitetailed deer’s ribcage. Hunters who still have misgivings about eating the “musk glands” the old man warned about should call me as soon as possible. I’ll be on the way faster than you can say “zip-lock bag.”
Fortunately, there are experts around like Frels, Fuchs and Lockwood to help us all keep the facts straight.