Antler Growth & Genetic History
By Mike Eastman
The number one aspect to look at when researching a unit for potential trophy mule deer bucks is genetic history and antler conformation. Over the years I’ve hunted mule deer in different states, and I have observed that a general type of antler configuration will be present. For many years I hunted in Broadus, Montana, where heart-shaped racks were the norm. I harvested a really good buck that I had hunted all fall; the old buck was quite narrow, but very tall and heavy. In all those years of hunting in that area, I never saw a buck with a 30-inch mainframe. The widest was in the 28-inch range. That doesn’t mean one might not show up, but generally, the majority of the bucks in that area had heart-shaped racks.
In the past decade, I have been filming in a Wyoming draw unit where the bucks will occasionally develop wide racks. You know the type; the antlers almost come straight out of their head, and then curl straight up. If these bucks get some age, they could pack that Holy Grail, 30-inch-plus outside mainframe spread. I have documented bucks that will keep this same rack configuration throughout their lives. A few famous bucks that come to mind are Popeye and Morty, but I have photos of some lesser-known bucks spanning several years. Year after year these bucks maintained that rack configuration, whether it was wide, heart shaped, or the standard “out to the tip of the ears” boxy rack. Some bucks, not all, will have what I call a signature point that shows up on their rack year after year. This becomes a buck’s “calling card,” enabling me to pick him out in the field season after season.
For the last 16 years, I have hunted an area in Wyoming that, like clockwork, produces bucks with cheaters on their back tines. A good trophy hunter will be aware of all these traits in the units where he hunts. Just this December I filmed a buck with 26 measurable points that I know is the great-grandson of a buck my brother took in the early 70s. His buck hung out not ten miles from where I filmed the buck just this winter. In addition, back in the mid-60s I took a buck that had the same cheater and mainframe confirmation as the 26-pointer and he also wintered in the same area. In those early years when we would see a buck with all those non-typical points on the winter range Dad would call them “Teton Freaks,” making a reference to the high Teton basins where he believed a lot of the old time non-typical bucks hung out in early fall.
The bottom line is that a buck will grow the same general rack configuration from year to year. If the buck has a narrow rack, his antlers will always be narrow, or if he has a heart-shaped rack he will always have a heart-shaped rack. On the other hand, if a buck’s rack spreads out or maybe becomes boxy, he will carry that shape his entire mature life. That doesn’t mean those narrow bucks won’t develop “a smoker” of a rack, it just means they will always carry that rack configuration.
After all this information, just what makes a truly exceptional rack? In my opinion, there are a lot of factors that come into play. One would be age. If a buck with good genetics never reaches the mature age of four to eight years old, he will fall short of having a 180-plus rack. Second is nutrition. With good spring and summer rains, the vegetation growth helps develop exceptional antler growth. Third is having the right genetics. The area needs to have a history of producing a few good 180-plus trophy bucks. Unfortunately, some units out West don’t produce good rack sizes, even when the bucks are mature and have good groceries. However, in many units, more times than not, when a buck has an exceptionally mild winter and wet spring those good antler growth genetics will kick in. Being aware of these factors and studying the past records of bucks harvested in a unit can help you pick an overlooked area that has the potential for future trophy bucks.
If you’re looking to learn more about antler genetics and history, check out a copy of my book, Mule Deer Hunting Tactics.