Once a Spike, Always a Spike?

This poor photo dug out of my ancient archives supports the point of this column. Back when a hunter’s only question was “Does he have horns,” we filled lots of tags with spikes and 4-points, all a year and a half old. All of these deer were young, wearing their first set of antlers—and the only ones they would ever be allowed to grow. We seldom saw a buck that was any older. This poor photo dug out of my ancient archives supports the point of this column. Back when a hunter’s only question was “Does he have horns,” we filled lots of tags with spikes and 4-points, all a year and a half old. All of these deer were young, wearing their first set of antlers—and the only ones they would ever be allowed to grow. We seldom saw a buck that was any older. Photo by Steve Sorensen.

Contributing Writer
Steve Sorensen

We used to hear it said often, “Once a spike, always a spike.”

A generation ago most hunters knew little about what went on in the deer world outside hunting season itself and a few scouting days leading up to the season. Today’s average hunter has access to much more knowledge. Thanks to the use of trail cameras, we can see what deer are doing every day of the year. Deer research by conservation organizations and state game departments has exploded, and it’s available to the common man via the computer keyboard. Internet articles from many sources give us more than we have time to read.

Whether all this makes us better hunters may be up for debate, but because of it the average hunter today can know more about deer than even the good hunter of grandpa’s day.

Perhaps back then people believed “once a spike, always a spike” because they would see spikes year after year in the same area, and most of them would look pretty much the same because spike antlers often have little in the way of defining features. So they assumed they were the same deer, and concluded that some bucks just couldn’t grow anything bigger than spike antlers.

In big deer hunting states like Pennsylvania and New York where most deer were young, hunters didn’t think much about body features that define older deer and never bothered to wonder why that spike buck they saw year after year always had the body of a young, adolescent deer. “Once a spike, always a spike” was a conclusion the guys at deer camp made based on nothing more than occasional observation. Now we know a spike buck almost always grows branched antlers—if he gets beyond his first hunting season.

Spike antlers have many causes. Late born buck fawns often get a slow start on a first set of antlers. A hunter in Ohio tells me they seldom see spikes in the Buckeye State. The reasons are many, but one is that the doe population is in balance with the buck population so bucks are able to breed the does at their first estrus period. The result is few late-born fawns.

Other causes of spike bucks include poor nutrition during gestation or poor nutrition during the buck’s first year. Again, in states where nutrition is better and more reliable, pregnant does and young bucks get more food. Stress from overpopulation and from harsh winters can also result in poor antler development.

Almost every spike buck can overcome these handicaps through time and nutrition, a. A one-year-old buck with 4-inch spike antlers might turn into a record-class 10-point at age five or six.

That’s because a buck doesn’t display his full antler potential until he is skeletally mature, which happens at around five years of age. Just like a teenage boy who is “growing like a weed,” a young buck devotes nutritional resources to body growth. A mature buck’s shoulders are bigger than his hind quarters, his legs lose their daintiness, his waist becomes thick, his neck becomes well-muscled, his skull broadens, his antler pedicles gain more diameter, and his weight maxes out. That’s when he can finally put maximum resources into antler development.

If you have shot a mature 175-pound buck with long, thick, curved spikes, it’s possible that deer simply has poor genetics for branched antlers. But he would be the exception. The vast majority of bucks that start out as spikes will grow a nice rack of branched antlers if they get enough to eat, have little stress, and can survive enough hunting seasons to become mature.

Few yearling bucks with spike antlers are genetically programmed to remain spike bucks at maturity. But if we shoot them as spikes, yes, they will never have more than spike antlers. If hunters would let them go, plenty of them can grow into handsome trophies once they overcome a slow start.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, writing about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. Contact him at EverydayHunter@gmail.com, and read more of his thoughts about hunting at www.jamestowngazette.com.