Deer hunters interested in improving the quality of bucks in their local herds often make big mistakes when it comes to deciding which bucks need to be culled.

And many times, those poor decisions involve spikes. 

“Once a spike, always a spike” is one of deer-hunting’s oldest and most-incorrect beliefs. Studies and surveys over the past 20 years have proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that spikes are not genetically inferior deer that need to be taken out of the breeding pool.

The No. 1 reason a buck wears spikes as his first set of antlers is age. Buck fawns born later in the year than others will be behind the 8-ball in terms of body weight and condition — and it might take them a year or two to catch up in terms of antler size.

“A lot has to do with the biology of the fawn,” said Evin Stanford, the deer biologist for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “When the fawn was born and the body condition of the fawn when it’s going through antler development are more important.

“If a buck is born late, that will definitely affect him compared to deer that have been born early. That’s a fact.”

Mature does breed in October and November across much of the Southeast, so fawn birth is centered on the weeks surrounding Memorial Day.

Does that are missed by bucks during their first estrus period and are bred a month later will drop fawns a month later.

Does that are bred even later — normally does that were fawns the previous spring — will drop their offspring well into the summer.

“Frequently, when a (doe) fawn goes into estrus, she’ll skip through the (normal) estrus period and come in much later,” Stanford said. “Her buck fawn is going to have a very rough time putting any kind of energy into antler development his first year.”

For one thing, that late buck fawn finds itself entering its first winter at perhaps five months of age, which puts it far behind older buck fawns coming out of winter in March, when the process of body development and antler development begins.

“In that first year, from the time a buck is a fawn through 1 ½ years old, they’re putting all of their energy into growing, putting on more body mass, more bone mass,” Stanford said. “Antler development is secondary at that time. It won’t be until his second year that antler development takes on a bigger role.”

So a late-born fawn that is a spike at 18 months of age might be the offspring of a buck with a 140-inch, 10-point rack — but it won’t begin to show those trophy characteristics until age 2 ½ or 3 ½, when it catches up with older cousins.

Stanford also pointed to the concept of “buck dispersal” as a reason to pass up spikes.

Young bucks, he said, are subject to move away from their home areas as they mature, often moving a considerable distance. Once relocated, they set up their home ranges and core areas.

So a spike buck you kill in the fall to keep it from breeding and passing “poor genetics” down to the next generation likely wouldn’t have been part of the local herd the next season anyway.