Rack sizes vary among yearling bucks. Most folks think of them as having spikes or fork horns, which is usually the case. But with good nutrition and genetics, a yearling buck could sport a six- or even eight-point rack. Janet Hostetter/Associated Press

The dominant buck. It’s a phrase bandied about by hunters, often inappropriately, as there is not one buck that will dominate the breeding rights of does in his home range. While older bucks may dominate the herd in terms of behavior, yearlings are traditionally the dominant age class in terms of annual deer kill. That then begs the question: Why are so many yearlings harvested?

One reason is because there are more of them. In most deer populations there are simply more younger deer. On average, adult does give birth to two fawns per year. A fair number perish in the first few months from disease, predation and other sources, but recruitment rates – the number of fawns that survive – are still more than one fawn for every adult doe. Of those, roughly half will be bucks.

For the rest of their lives, those deer will be subject to various mortality risks, including hunting. As a result, you find fewer deer in older age classes. And because most hunting regulations and effort are directed mainly toward bucks, there are even fewer bucks in older age classes, particularly in heavily hunted populations.

Before implementing mandatory antler restrictions, Pennsylvania’s annual buck kill consisted of 85 percent yearlings. It now averages around 43 percent. Maine’s is a little less than 50 percent.

Another big reason more yearlings are harvested is behavior. For starters, they’re still relatively naive. It is sometimes said of mature bucks that their behavior is so different they could almost be considered a different species. Over time they have learned how to find food and cover and more importantly how to avoid predators, including humans. They also become more familiar with their surroundings, learning the best places to go to avoid those predators, and hunters.

Quite the opposite is true of yearlings. They spend roughly the first year of their life within their natal home range. Then, just about they time they’re starting to know their way around, they experience a phenomenon biologists refer to as yearling dispersal. For reasons we still don’t quite understand, roughly 70 percent of yearling bucks leave their home range and strike out for parts unknown. And most of that dispersal occurs in the fall. That puts them at quite a disadvantage at a time when they are perhaps most vulnerable.

In some ways they’re a bit like teenagers. For starters, they’re reckless. Make no mistake, they’re still deer, and are born with innate survival skills and acute senses for avoiding danger. Those skills and senses just haven’t been honed yet. And being on foreign turf doesn’t help.

They’re also experiencing their first case of raging hormones. As days grow shorter, physiological changes take place prompting a surge in testosterone, and we all know what that can do to young males. With the first whiff of estrogen they become more active during daylight hours, further exposing themselves to potential danger.

It’s no surprise then that so many are taken during hunting season, particularly in places where most hunters are content, and allowed to take the first antlered buck they see. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Motivations for hunting vary among individuals. Some – often older, more experienced hunters – prefer to practice voluntary restraint and hold out for a bigger buck. Others merely want to experience success and put meat in the freezer. They may have limited time and resources they can devote to hunting. Besides, yearling bucks are a lot easier to drag out of the woods.

Furthermore, yearling bucks come in a variety of shapes and sizes. One average, they will probably have a dressed weight of around 120 pounds. Larger specimens are more common in northern areas and sometimes after severe winters when it’s only the larger fawns that survive into their second fall. In those cases a yearling could weigh 140 pounds or more.

Rack sizes vary as well. Most folks think of yearling bucks as having spikes or fork horns, which is usually the case. But with good nutrition and genetics, a yearling buck could sport a six- or even eight-point rack. From a quick look at the wear and replacement of teeth a biologist can tell if your buck is a yearling, but a thin set of antlers – particularly at the bases – is a good indication.

Sometimes you can be fooled. I speak from experience. When the pervasive serenity of the woods is suddenly interrupted by running footfalls and a the deep guttural grunts of a randy buck in pursuit of a doe, you feel a sudden charge of adrenaline. Suddenly the doe races by you. Then the buck bursts from cover. You see rack, a brown body and your instincts kick in. It is not until the excitement subsides and you walk up on your fallen prize that you experience what hunters commonly refer to as ground shrinkage. Don’t be disappointed. A trophy should be defined less by weight or antler score and more by the effort and experience involved in collecting it.

That is the true essence of hunting. And if you tell your buddies you killed a dominant buck, you won’t be lying.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]


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