Dominance dilemma

Sometimes it just makes sense to take smaller-antlered bucks, particularly when those deer are interfering with the goal of harvesting large-racked bucks.

In today’s age of whitetail management the understanding and practice of mandatory antler restrictions is under way. This approach primarily allows yearling bucks protection so the animals can reach whitetail maturity with sizeable racks, as well as sound age structures and buck-to-doe ratios.

Hunters afield are also starting to pass on legally harvestable bucks — giving these deer the opportunity to reach full antler growth.

However, what happens when large-racked mature bucks are losing the battle to legal smaller-antlered bucks, which inflict serious injury on their older brethren through antler-clashing fights? This is when the whitetail’s world of dominant hierarchy takes over. In turn, a natural occurrence adversely affects your hunting agenda.

Picture this scenario

The large, dominant buck you’ve had your sights on has vanished. He is obviously avoiding the prime deer locales.

Knowing that you and your fellow hunting comrades have not disturbed the whitetail activity, you set out to discover what has caused the buck to become so elusive.

Sitting atop your stand, your sights are on a mature, good-sized, wide-antlered 8-pointer browsing the edge of the food plot. Then, out of the wood line comes a smaller-racked, large-bodied 8-point; and although the buck appears to be near his prime, his antler spread is minimal in comparison to the first buck.

You quickly make a few angled observations of his rack and determine that you are going to pass on him. Hopefully ,one day this particular 8-pointer will develop a little more antler mass.

Turning your sights back to the wide 8-pointer, your objective is suddenly interrupted. The smaller buck sidles, bristles its fur and quickly moves in on the wide 8-point that is standing his ground.


Antlers and foreheads clash as the two become engaged in a furious battle for dominance. A grueling fight ensues.

Looking through the scope, your heart pounds as the small-racked buck begins to wear down the larger buck as it bulls along with its thick neck and body weight — low to the ground. Awestruck by the sheer intensity, you hesitate to take a shot, anticipating the outcome of the fight.

The small 8-point vigorously twists its tight, sharp rack like spinning rotary blades. Shoving and pivoting on his hooves and legs, he continues in a fury; and then an antler tine punctures the wide 8’s eye — inflicting serious injury.

Instantly, the wide 8-pointer breaks off and accepts defeat — running desperately to evade the tough little 8-pointer in hot pursuit.

Surprisingly, the smaller-racked 8 is the victor and goes about the business of rutting.

Later in the evening, you finally spot the large-racked dominant buck you’ve been searching for. One of his eyes is also seriously punctured. He quickly retreats at the sight of the small victor 8-pointer roaming the edge of the woods.

Now the mature bucks with impressive racks are out of sight. They are gun-shy — defeated by the smaller-racked buck that you decided to pass.

The larger-racked deer are going to be more difficult to harvest as long as the smaller 8 continues inflicting serious physical injury like a bull in a china shop.

So, do you take him out or pass on him with the hopes of his antlers filling out a little more?

Buck dominance

You may have been fortunate to witness smaller-racked bucks dominating larger-antlered deer; if not, it does unfold and sometimes more so than we may realize.

These encounters of true dominance can be hard to evaluate because most bucks engage during the night. Therefore, unless a trail camera captures the duel and the end of the fight is recorded, determining the victor is still difficult, if not impossible. Only until later on in the season can the top dog be established.

The bottom line is that successful photography on free-ranging battling bucks is near impossible with lighting and natural debris creating hindrances. Observations afield require time and patience.

Buck dominance is usually established by maturity, as well as body size and antler mass. High levels of testosterone can also contribute to dominance. Simply, the larger a buck’s body and rack are the more dominance is achieved through visual intimidation.

In addition, a buck’s level of exhibiting body posturing (ears folded, sidling, fur bristled) and vocal threats (grunt-snort-wheeze, etc.) contributes to its ability to out-rival other bucks.

Yet, despite all the show, the real test of endurance and dominance comes during the heat of the rut when antler clashing erupts.

So when the smaller-antlered buck defeats a larger-racked deer, what is actually happening and how are these battles going to affect the outcome of your harvesting opportunities?

An assertive disposition

Today we are hearing more and more about whitetails possessing different personalities or dispositions. Some deer are more evasive and shy, while others tend to be more aggressive or curious.

These behavioral differences or personalities do exist, and in my opinion are driven by the instinct of fight or flight. These dispositions also contribute to a buck’s level of dominance.

Although whitetails are inferior to man in the order of creation and do not possess a mind of reasoning, the animals are equipped with unique characteristics that undoubtedly cause bizarre behaviors and distinct behavioral differences.

Therefore, even though a smaller-antlered buck is on the playing field, his disposition may very well determine his status for dominance.

The small 8-pointer described in this article has consistently intimidated larger bucks with no physical contact and where his antlers twisted with lightening speed; he has been victorious so far. Besides a gritty, persistent, assertive disposition, the 8-pointer’s small, tight, narrow rack gives him an advantage — being able to wedge his antlers right between wide-antlered bucks’. This natural design of antler formation allows the smaller-racked buck to inflict serious injury to the eyes and necks of other bucks while clashing.

His body weight and solid neck has also contributed to defeat of bucks that should have been victorious otherwise.

So before an underestimated buck wreaks havoc on prime mature bucks, you may want to go ahead and harvest the animal. Otherwise, the raging ball of venison is not only going to hinder mature bucks from breeding, the injured bucks may become more elusive to avoid conflict with him.

That’s because once a buck receives a defeat with physical injury he is less likely to expose himself — especially if the victor still roams the land. Of course, there are exceptions where injured bucks fight continuously until the injury overtakes them.

Who’s the boss

Determining the dominant bucks in your hunting locale can be a task, and requires persistence and time.

According to various scientific studies, these bucks — although dominant amongst other bucks — don’t necessarily control the breeding. The majority of does entering estrous in a short amount of time prevents a particular buck from breeding all the does. Therefore, the belief that only a few bucks do all the breeding doesn’t hold true.

Yet, the competition and instinct to mate pushes the animal to various levels of dominance — rivaling with other bucks.

Properly identifying bucks is necessary if one is going to attempt to evaluate the dominant bucks.

If possible, the use of trail cameras in areas whitetails consistently utilize is the first step. Once photographic images are gathered, starting in the spring and summer, you can usually begin to assess buck identification through antler formations, body weights and size, as well as distinct scars and even facial features.

By making comparisons, it won’t take long to properly distinguish who is in the area.

For bucks that may venture into your hunting locale later on and are not resident nor captured on trail cameras, the legwork of patiently waiting atop your stand or concealed within the camo blind is a must.

With a high-powered spotting scope or binoculars, you can really begin to assess dominant hierarchy behaviors, especially when bucks begin to investigate female bedding and feeding sites.

Here is where buck dispositions can be evaluated.

Although dominant hierarchy status can shift anytime during the season, when one particular buck that held dominance loses to another, usually the buck with superiority will unveil itself immediately. This can be seen through body posturing and vocalizations and, if a persistent assertive disposition accompanies the physical shows of dominance, it will not take long to establish which one might be the boss.

These observations can be conducted in late summer or just after velvet shed.

However, if hard antlered bachelor groups are still present, then a true evaluation is still not conclusive until later on.

The real test

Now, if a harvest presents itself at the beginning of the season, then by all means take the buck of choice; yet, if you’re patient, time will soon reveal the dominant bucks.

But if a legal smaller-antlered buck appears to be causing havoc and inflicting injuries upon larger class bucks, you will have to make the decision quickly after evaluating its disposition and status amongst other bucks.

Sometimes the only problem here is that once dominance is achieved through combative bouts, the injury to a large-racked buck can cause him to take the secluded route — becoming difficult to spot and especially harvest during the season.

Injured mature bucks can still rut at full speed; however, usually once blindness occurs in one eye or there is a leg wound, then a buck will most likely avoid more-assertive bucks and keep a low profile.

Here again, this makes harvest more difficult. In addition, dominant hierarchy status can change periodically during the rut. A buck can lose a battle, but regain top status later on — depending on physical stamina, harvest and a host of other factors.

The question remains

So the question remains: Do you take a legal smaller-antlered buck when larger bucks are on the agenda?

Although incidences of small-antlered bucks out-competing larger bucks are not a common occurrence, this aspect of whitetail behavior requires a heads-up in your hunting routine.

By taking the time to observe whitetail behavioral dispositions, you will develop more insight into the deer roaming the land and that will, in turn,undoubtedly help you to be more selective in the bucks you decide to take.

About Tommy Kirkland 24 Articles
Tommy Kirkland aggressively pursues whitetails with camera and extensive observational work on free-ranging deer. He is a novice turkey hunter; and his articles and photos have been featured in many outdoor publications.

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