Burton on the Bay

Vol. 8, No. 50
Dec. 14-20, 2000
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The Hunt for Power
Why Hunters Prefer Points

Maybe you can't eat points, but they sure look nice on the wall.

-Deep Creek Lake tackleman Johnny Marple, whose checking station for decades weighed in deer for Garrett County hunters.

The points Johnny was referring to, of course, are those on the antlers of deer. Among many hunters, points are more important than pounds.

Most hunters would rather harvest a buck of 100 pounds with 12 points than a 200 pounder of 6 points. They hold trophies above venison on the table. The mounted rack of a 12-pointer on the wall scores more points with them than does sufficient venison in the freezer to feed the family for a winter.

Before he chose several years ago to close his bait shop for the season in October rather than December, Johnny had counted more than 100,000 points on the deer of other hunters. He'd taken none by himself. He doesn't go for deer hunting much, though on a few occasions he accompanied me on stalks in the frigid mountains.

"When you lug enough dead deer to the scales - and I've lugged thousands of them - you can't get very excited about hunting them," says Johnny. "I don't even eat venison."

But he does appreciate a good rack, a fine set of antlers. They're not real horns but only bones. Still, they're looked upon as a symbol of virility, intimidating authority, dominance in a wildlife community.

You might say it's the same among hunters: He who bags the deer with the widest rack, the longest, most numerous and best balanced points is looked upon as the better hunter. A deer might weigh 250 pounds or more, but if its head doesn't carry a fine antler spread, or worse still is bald, it doesn't rate a second look.

Points are paramount. Think of what Santa's reindeer would look like pulling that overloaded sleigh without their wide racks.

DNR Prefers Does

Through the last couple weeks of December, black powder hunters are on the deer trail throughout Maryland. As for their counterparts with bows and modern firearms, the prime targets of their hunts are deer with trophy racks.

Wildlife managers don't like that too much. Their management goals are to thin overpopulated herds, and the best way to do that is to cull does, which with rare exceptions have no antlers. An antlerless deer can be a young buck, but most are does.

So intent is Maryland Department of Natural Resources to remove potential fawn-bearers from herds that in some deer management zones, hunters are obliged to bag an antlerless deer or two before harvesting their second buck in a season.

Even with such incentives, some hunters are not too keen about harvesting antlerless deer, even though a doe can carry more tender venison.

Much of the reluctance in hunting bald whitetails goes back to deer hunting in the early 1900s when, in Maryland and most other states, antlerless deer were fully protected. Deer weren't nearly as plentiful then, and hunters understood that the way to rebuild herds was reproduction - which meant spare the females.

Though deer numbers today exceed what they were when Europeans first arrived, the protect-the-does mind-set remains among many hunters. Of course, they're also interested in trophy mounts.

Reading the Antlers

Incidentally, they're not alone in antler interest. Deer managers are also interested. Information gained by examining harvested deer with antlers fulfills an important role in management studies.

A big buck with a fine antler spread can make a wildlife manager almost as proud as the hunter who bags it. Fine antlers on big bucks mean healthy deer, herds that are well managed - and biologists who are doing their jobs. During deer seasons, roving bands of deer managers not only check weights and sometimes jawbones for age but also antler growth.

Antler size is primarily determined by diet, physical condition, age and heredity. Maryland's deer don't do badly. The average points for year-and-a-half bucks, according to samplings, is 4.8; the average weight is about 100 pounds. Obviously, they're well fed.

Anne Arundel County yearling deer rate well, averaging 5.6 points and 107.7 pounds, well above average in both. In addition, the county's average diameter of antler beams was second best in the state. Calvert County's yearlings didn't rate as high. Average points were 4 and average weight only 93.1 pounds, but beam measurements were third best in Maryland.

Farmland deer usually weigh more and sport better racks than mountain deer because they eat better and more. Corn, soybeans, wheat and other agricultural crops are more abundant and nutritious than acorns and other mast, chutes and whatever else deer of the deep forests eat.

Antler growth is dependent on diet. As bucks age, their requirements for calcium and phosphorus are less; thus nourishment needed for early rapid growth can be diverted to producing more awesome racks.

Some other things not generally known about antlers: Number of points is not an indication of age. It appears that if a buck gets through its first season, it will produce a rack of the same number of points thereafter - but the overall rack will be larger each successive year.

This continues through the seventh or eighth year of renewed antler growth, but as old age sets in the process is reversed.

It wasn't until more recent years that all hunters were convinced that bucks shed their antlers each winter. They do, and that's why in springtime all deer appear to be does. Why they shed is still being debated, but it is known that some drop their "horns" as early as late December, while others still carry them into early March.

If there are so many deer, and all bucks shed their antlers, why aren't more dropped racks seen by hunters, hikers and others who go afield? Simple: They are shed at a time when human traffic in deer country is light - and they are fed upon quickly by rodents who relish them for their calcium.

Why isn't an antler a horn? The latter is more associated with cattle. A horn is a permanent living bone covered with hard skin. A more intricate appending, it bleeds when cut.

An antler is temporary - and is the fastest growing bone tissue known. It starts to develop in early spring, grows to full size by fall (presumably because it is used as a weapon as bucks claim territory rights). Then after the mating season, it is shed.

New antler growth is tender. The points are not pointed but are more like knobs, and the whole rack is covered with sensitive blood tissue. The growing bone dies, the blood tissue - known as "velvet" - is shed, and the buck starts to polish the new rack by rubbing it on young trees.

The presence of rub marks on trees is an invaluable aid to hunters who are looking for areas frequented by deer.

One other curiosity concerning antlers, even among hunters. How do deer with exceptionally high and wide antlers manage to get through the thickest undergrowth?

Somehow, a deer instinctively knows the size of it rack - and seldom does it hit it when dashing through trees and brush.

In closing, consider that the fine antler spread a buck wants to assert its dominance is a two-edged sword. It can help him rule, claiming the most does, but it also makes him much more attractive to hunters. He can't have it both ways.

Copyright 2000
Bay Weekly