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How small bucks become bigger bucks in Northeastern Minnesota

In the beginning, he's a nubbin buck. A cute little guy with a couple of bumps up top.

If he avoids the wolves and survives the winter, he might well have a couple of spike antlers the next fall. But he'd better be on his toes, because "spike" bucks make up the biggest part of the buck harvest in Northeastern Minnesota.

Let's say our spike buck makes it through another year, and another, and another. He has now joined an elite club: He's alive at five.

In Minnesota, that's an old whitetail buck. And if he's eaten well, he likely has a set of antlers that any deer hunter would drool over. He's probably an eight-pointer, maybe even a 10 or a 12.

How many bucks reach age 4½ or 5½ in the North Country?

"It's a very small proportion," said Mark Lenarz, leader of the Forest Wildlife Populations and Research Group for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids. "Out of 100 bucks 1½ years and older, the number of 4½- and 5½-year-old bucks represents no more than 10 to 20 percent."

You see some of their photos in the paper and online each fall, but you'll need one of two qualities to shoot one this fall -- diligence or luck.

"They're smart animals. They've gotten to be that age and that size by staying away from people," said Martha Minchak, DNR assistant area wildlife manager in Duluth. "You really have to learn the animal's habits throughout the year, not just go out and plan to find it opening weekend."

If you haven't patterned the deer through scouting this summer and fall, you'll need luck.

Antler growth

Whitetails, like other deer, don't have just one set of antlers. Every year, whitetail bucks shed their old antlers, usually sometime in January or February.

They begin growing new ones in early summer. Each year, if the buck has found enough to eat, his antlers will grow a little larger and wider and thicker than the year before.

Most hunters consider a trophy buck at least an eight-pointer -- four tines on a side -- with a wide rack and thick beams.

Two factors are most important in allowing a buck to reach trophy status.

"Mild winters and luck," Lenarz said.

Mild winters allow the buck to remain healthy and not expend too many of its fat reserves during the cold months. Severe winters are a distant memory in northern Minnesota. The last two we endured were 1995-96 and 1996-97.

Luck is a matter of avoiding wolves and hunters, the mortality factors that rank behind severe winters. The older a buck gets, the better it becomes at avoiding humans.

"I do a lot of bowhunting," Lenarz said. "The yearlings, especially, tend to ignore human scent, where I have one old doe that can spot me wherever I am from 60 or 70 yards. She's looking for me."

Last year in Minnesota's Zone 1 (Northeastern Minnesota), the deer hunting success rate was 43 percent. Of the total harvest in Zone 1, 43 percent was made up of bucks. Typically, 50 percent to 60 percent of the bucks taken are yearling bucks, Lenarz said.

You can see what you're up against in finding a trophy buck.

Good luck out there.