Way back, when tar pits bubbled and a good meal was often man, a trophy was usually measured by how many people left the fire pit satisfied.
Nowadays, trophies are measured in points and inches. The rule is the more there are, the bigger and better the trophy. Pounds don't count, nor does height, girth, or speed in the open.With deer it's universally accepted that the bigger the horns, the older, bigger, better, more prized the trophy. Small horns, small deer; big horns, big deer. Many hunters would sooner pass up a deer the size of an elk with horns as long as pencils for one the size of a goat with a rack like two cottonwood trees.
This aim-for-the-rack hunting, however, may be leading sportsmen into hunts for smaller and smaller deer - both in body size and antlers.
While nothing conclusive has been proven yet, indications are that Utah hunters are taking trophy deer before they can leave their mark on the next generation and are therefore leaving smaller deer to propagate.
In the quest for bigger and bigger horns, early signs are that this attitude is resulting in deer with smaller and smaller horns.
Contrary to what many hunters believe, points are not a factor of age, and given time, and left alone, all bucks will not grow up to be Boone and Crockett record-book entries.
Just as genes in humans determine height and eye color, genes in deer determine a buck's size and horn configuration.
Recent studies have shown that while age does change antler size in width, a deer will go through life with a relatively similar antler configuration. That is, a deer with a single spike will generally have a smaller rack at maturity, with two or three points per horn, while a yearling with two or three points on each horn will hit maturity with a larger rack, typically with four, five or six points per horn.
Rudy Dronick, a retired wildlife program coordinator for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources who is now a volunteer continuing with an antler study he started several years back, says genetics, age and nutrition all have a role in determining antler size.
"But genetics is the controlling factor," he reports. "Age, nutrition and climate are only influencing factors on the shape and size of deer antlers."
Which means that big deer generally breed big deer - "And remember that a doe has a major role as well as the buck in determining what the offspring is going to be in terms of size and antler configuration and number of points," he adds - and smaller deer will produce offspring that are smaller in size and antler configuration.
He said that early studies are showing that simply by comparing mountain range to mountain range, even canyon to canyon, these genetic characteristics are showing up.
"In plotting bucks in the record books, we found a great number of extreme non-typical bucks have come from the Kaibab Forest in Arizona. Conversely, a large number of typical, four-point bucks have come from the northern latitudes of Colorado and Wyoming. In between, there are areas that support slight non-typical antler configurations. So, based on this data we conclude again this is a genetic factor more than a nutritional factor," he says.
He also points out that body size has little to do with antler size. Some large deer have small antler configurations, while some small deer have large antler configurations.
Over the years, through such things as contests, value placed on trophy mounts, and entries in the record books, rack size has come to mean everything to hunters. Up until two years ago, when a $500 ceiling was placed on "big buck" contests, a hunter could win a $14,000 four-by-four vehicle with the right rack.
"What we've been doing is selectively removing the larger antlered deer. Everybody wants a big buck when they go hunting. In the 1980s, everyone became trophy conscious . . . and I think it's having a subtle effect on our deer herds. Anytime you take only the biggest antlered deer you are going to eventually end up with smaller antlered deer because of genetics," he says.
"At Danials (Canyon checking station) last year, for example, there was a high percentage of 21/2-year-old bucks that had only two points on each antlers and a relatively higher percentage of 31/2-year-old bucks that also had only two points on a side. This could be the result of genetic antler suppression. This year, it's possible we could see, for the first time in Utah, a 21/2-year-old buck with one horn - a spike."
The mating season, or rut, for deer occurs in mid-November. Deer harvested during the October hunt, therefore, offer nothing to the following year's fawn crop. If only the genetically smaller bucks are left to father new fawns, then they themselves will be smaller in body and antler size.
For years now, hunters have been complaining of reduced antler size in Utah's deer. They claim they are seeing fewer and fewer big bucks. No one can say positively the deer are shrinking, however. Studies are under way but have not yet produced conclusive results.
"The data is there, maybe not as a purpose to determine if the regression in antler size is taking place in the individual age group. I'm not positive that it is. But the data is there, and if evaluated then this could be one of the results," says Drobnick.
"If you shoot a yearling, it will have a small set of antlers. If you shoot a 61/2-year-old deer it will have larger antlers. What you have to do is compare 61/2-year-old bucks killed today and the size of their antlers with the same age group taken 10 years back - 1988, 1978, 1968, and so on - and antler size . . . For that I'm not sure we have all the necessary data."
After spending 28 years at checking stations, conducting antler studies and through personal observations, Drobnick believes the antler size of deer is regressing.
"On open buck hunting areas, such as Currant Creek, Taby Mountain area, big antlered deer are now scarce. By comparison, on the limited-entry units, such as Elk Ridge and the Vernon unit, where hunting pressure has been reduced for the past three to four years, there is higher relative number of older age and bigger antler bucks. These larger bucks are creating a gene pool that will eventually result in bigger, larger antlered deer.
"What we are seeing, however, is a greater number of yearling bucks with one spike . . . 1 x 1 rather than a yearling with two or three points on each horn. Again, that could be seen as a sign of genetic regression with the harvest of the bigger bucks over time."
"It still has to be shown that these things are happening. But, it appears to be very real that we are getting reduced antler size in some of our animals," he concludes.
Studies are now under way that could prove the theory. From there, solutions to the problem can then be addressed. Some sportsmen are arguing for three-point or better hunts. Others are asking for the hunting of three-point or less to allow bigger bucks to mature and propagate.
Whatever direction taken, it will be difficult getting hunters away from shooting at the rack first.