Rack 'Em

Jackson County gains reputation for its sizeable blacktail-buck antlers
Steve Holte stands in front of his collection of antler sheds seven years’ worth that all came from the same black-tailed deer in Jackson County.Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch

In Eagle Point hunter Steve Holte's immense collection of shed black-tailed deer antlers, a set of seven specimens help illustrate why Jackson County has developed a reputation for growing bucks with big racks.

From his three-point antlers of 2002, this deer continued to grow and drop sets of antlers stunningly similar in scope but greater in size and weight as it matured and eventually developed its signature moniker.

"His name is Major, as in major antlers," Holte says. "He was a really healthy buck. And as far as height, he was way up there."

Major's antlers are the product of the perfect recipe of good genes, advanced age and excellent nutrition, a combination that helps make Jackson County one of the best places on the West Coast for blacktail bucks to grow big racks.

The region's genetically superior bucks, living on the cusp of mule-deer country, have the benefit of excellent forage as they spend their years eluding hunters while growing antlers that have cracked the Top 10 in rifle and bowhunting record books.

"The formula is just right here," Holte says.

And one of the key ingredients to growing big bucks is the same as killing them — the dust on your hunting boots.

The area's soils contain the necessary minerals for big antler growth and those nutrients find their way into the forage plants favored by blacktails.

Plants like big-leaf maple, vine maple and the aptly named "buck brush" prevalent here are all more nutritious than the salal, tan oak and swordfern that feed bucks in rainier Oregon Coast habitat.

"Forbs and shrubs are really the meat and potatoes for deer, and some are simply better than others," says Vince Oredson, a habitat biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Central Point office.

The complex cycle of antler growth starts in early spring when longer daylight hours trigger hormonal changes in bucks. Among many things, it causes growth in the tiny antler bases called pedicles, sprouting a complex form of hairy skin complete with nerves and capillaries.

Minerals such as calcium and phosphorus, as well as protein, are metabolized by deer as they forage, and they draw from mineral deposits in their own bones to fuel antlers that can grow as fast as a half-inch a day.

Eventually, the growth stops, the antlers harden and the velvet comes off to give the buck its own calling card as it trolls for does during the rut.

In winter, the connection between the pedicles and the antlers wanes, and the antlers fall off.

Holte has collected Major's antlers from a piece of winter range on federal Bureau of Land Management lands, all within a few hundred yards of each other, showing what creatures of habit blacktails can be.

Starting with the three-pointers, Major's antlers blossomed to a fine set of tall four-by-four pointers, with the mass and length growing over time until 2008, when the tines started to wane.

"That's usually a sign they're starting to slide," Holte says. "But you can't look at them and say whether one year he had better nutrition than another."

Not much work has been done studying blacktails and their varying antler growth rates based on nutrition. But several studies have been done in the Midwest and South involving antler growth in whitetails.

Farmers and even some small landowners in the Midwest and South regularly feed whitetails — specifically to put on antler growth for fall hunting.

According to summaries on captive deer published by Mississippi State University, young whitetails fed a diet that was 16 percent protein grew antlers that were almost twice as heavy as bucks fed a diet of 8 percent protein.

Various deer-food products emphasize protein, calcium and phosphorus specifically for generating antler growth, and studies in Texas show soils richer in calcium and phosphorus grow bigger deer than those in regions with less fertile soils.

As for blacktails, those living in Jackson County have an opportunity to eat natural feed from soils unlike those found on the coast, where heavier rains can leech minerals from the soils before plants absorb them, Oredson says.

"We have good genes here, and the soil's fertile," Oredson says.

Using trail cameras, Holte was able to capture footage of Major in late 2008.

For several days, the big buck ventured past the trail camera, often stopping and posing like a runway model. In one drizzly moment, the buck shook its body and what appeared to be a gallon of water flew out of its fur.

"You never really appreciate the size of antlers until you see them on the animal," Holte says. "That's why he's Major."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at mfreeman@mailtribune.com.



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