(Editor's Note: This Retro Realtree photo gallery was originally published in October of 2013.)
The process of getting a whitetail from the button buck stage to the Boone and Crockett category is a mystical journey that includes a complex assortment of variables. It takes four basic ingredients to produce a buck with a 170-inch rack: genetics, habitat, herd management and age.
Too often hunters feel they can tell a buck’s potential by the kind of antlers it grows as a yearling. I’ve been fortunate to have hunted whitetails from New York to Texas to Saskatchewan, with many stops along the way. I’ve also had the unique opportunity of raising whitetails and studying their behavior for a quarter century. My journey as a hunter, photographer and researcher has taught me a few things about the whitetail. And one is that the size of a yearling’s antlers is seldom a predictor of what its antlers it will be when it fully matures.
When I was a young man in the 1960s, many researchers felt that yearling spike bucks were genetically inferior, at least from an antler standpoint. Time has a way of changing people’s minds and we now know that it’s extremely difficult to tell a buck’s antler potential by the kind of antlers it grew as a yearling. The photos that accompany this essay help to illustrate and refute the old claim of “once a spike, always a spike.”
Image 1 of 16
1 | 1 1/2 Years Old
I had the privilege of photographing this buck his entire life. He was born on a wilderness estate in the heart of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. The family owned 3,000 acres and allowed no hunting on the property. The family also fed supplemental feed to deer living in the area. This buck was one of about 30 to 40 deer that stayed on the property. Herd numbers never got out of control due to severe winters and a healthy black bear and coyote population.
1 1/2: As a yearling, this buck grew 3-inch spikes – not a very impressive start compared to what he would turn into at 4 1/2 years of age.
Image 2 of 16
2 | 2 1/2 Years Old
2 1/2: When the buck reached 2 1/2 years of age, his body was typical for a buck of that age. However, his 85-inch, 8-point antlers were spindly and more typical of what a yearling’s antlers might look like in the rich farm-belt of the Midwest.
Image 3 of 16
3 | 3 1/2 Years Old
3 1/2: When a whitetail reaches 3 1/2 years of age, its skeletal frame is done growing. From this point on the nutrients that previously went to bone growth can be transferred to antler growth. At 3 1/2 this buck was again an 8-pointer, but now he is beginning to show antler potential. His antlers have a gross score of 122-inches (B&C). His estimated live weight is approximately 200 pounds.
The first three years of this buck’s life were typical of bucks living in an area having fully mature bucks in the population. Though he made many scrapes and rubs when he was 2 1/2 and 3 1/2, he exhibited all the common behaviors one would expect of a subordinate buck.
Image 4 of 16
4 | 4 1/2 Years Old
4 1/2: As you can see his antler growth exploded in one year, quite typical of what takes place between age 3 and 4. Now he is a 164-inch 11-pointer with an estimated body weight of about 240 pounds.
Image 5 of 16
5 | 5 1/2 Years Old
5 1/2: His antlers are a little different from the previous year. He is a basic 9-pointer, but in spite of having two fewer points, his antlers are slightly larger than the previous year - 165 inches. His estimated body weight is 250 pounds.
Image 6 of 16
6 | 6 1/2 Years Old
6 1/2: It took him six years but he finally made it to the magical Boone & Crockett class of 170 inches for typical bucks. Though only a 4x5, he measures 169 inches, the biggest he will ever grow. His estimated live weight is about 260 pounds.
Image 7 of 16
7 | 7 1/2 Years Old
7 1/2: Still in his prime, his antlers are beginning to decline. He is still a 4x5 and his antlers are 166 inches. His estimated live weight is still in the 250- to 260-pound range.
Image 8 of 16
8 | 8 1/2 Years Old
8 1/2: He is again a 4x5, but now he is beginning to show his age. His antlers have 160 inches of bone and his estimated live weight is slightly below 250 pounds.
Image 9 of 16
9 | 9 1/2 Years Old
9 1/2: For the first time since he was 4 1/2, the buck is more than a 4x5. He is now a clean 5x5 with 160-inch antlers. Age is beginning to take its toll on this majestic buck. His fur is showing some of the battle scars from years of fighting and his estimated body weight barely makes 225 pounds.
Image 10 of 16
10 | 10 1/2 Years Old
10 1/2: Now a basic 4x4, his antlers score 156 inches, which is very impressive for an 8-pointer. His estimated body weight appears to be about the same as the previous year.
Image 11 of 16
11 | 11 1/2 Years Old
11 1/2: In human terms, the buck is now an old man. As the photo illustrates, the aging process has taken a toll on both body and antlers. His antlers are now 143 inches and his estimated live weight is barely 200 pounds.
Image 12 of 16
12 | 12 1/2 Years Old
12 1/2: The end is near for this monarch. I took this photo two weeks before he died, just before the first snow fall in November. His body weight at death was 130 pounds and his antlers were 105 inches.
Image 13 of 16
13 | The Dominant Buck
Once he reached 4 1/2, his large antlers, body size and aggressive attitude served notice to every buck in his core area. Even though some bucks would challenge him, he was clearly the dominant buck in his core area from 4 1/2 to 8 1/2 years of age.
Image 14 of 16
14 | Scraping Machine
Since he was the dominant buck, throughout the autumn months when he was 4 1/2 to 8 1/2, he was a scraping and rubbing machine.
Image 15 of 16
15 | Patterns Change with Age
When this buck was 9 1/2, he took a terrible beating from a younger, mature buck and he was never the same again. From this point on he shied away from other mature bucks and became very reclusive.
Image 16 of 16
16 | Once a Spike, Not Always a Spike
“Once a spike, always a spike.” Hardly. As this photo essay shows, you never know what a whitetail buck’s antler potential will be until it reaches full maturity, which usually doesn’t occur until a buck is 6 to 7 years old.