Deer epigenetics

Becoming the stud buck isn’t easy and includes fighting off the competition during the rut.

Taking management and development of trophy bucks one step further

Most deer hunters are just looking for a “good deer” to shoot. A wall hanger would be nice, but a mature six or eight point would be just right. Others hunt deer mainly for the sport of seeing deer and being in the woods. Yet others just hunt for fresh venison.

There’s nothing wrong with any of those approaches. To each his own, as long as it’s legal.

But there are a group of hunters, and some organized hunting clubs, that are after growing and harvesting the big boys. Hammers. Brutes. Toads. Tanks. Hercules and Buckzilla!

When they are identified early and “protected” by being on no-shoot lists by certain hunters, they usually even get names.

A step further

While habitat and nutrition certainly play important factors in that success, there’s also something that most hunters have never heard of, or don’t really understand. It’s called deer epigenetics.

Simply put, it’s the science of deer genetics, but kind of like on steroids. It goes along with the same situation that we see so often in athletics. If the dad is a stud athlete, the sons usually follow suit. But epigenetics takes it a step further. If grandpa was a stud, well, then…like grandpa, like father, like son.

Sometimes the biggest and best deer follow genetics that are more than one or two generations deep in their bloodline.

Recent research has shown that deer are more than just a product of what they eat. They’re also a product of what their parents and grandparents ate as well as their genetics. The Mississippi State University Deer Lab’s latest research has discovered that deer body and antler size are also regulated by a phenomenon called epigenetics.

The best quality deer

According to extensive research by the Mississippi State Extension Service, the facts are clear. To produce the best quality deer, you must provide them with the opportunity to forage on the best-quality plants. Maintaining appropriate deer density, practicing active habitat management and planning supplemental forages are tried and true methods of improving diet quality for deer. These actions will increase body and antler size of deer on a property.

Ryan Masters with his 172-inch Sabine Parish 10-point buck downed on Nov. 11, 2019. This bruiser named Hercules was passed over for several years before being harvested. (Photo courtesy Ryan Masters)

“In a nutshell, nutrition influences growth and development. There aren’t many arguments to that basic statement,” said Johnathan Bordelon, Deer Program Leader for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “However, deer that are influenced by nutritional limitations may have the same genetic potential as deer where nutrition is great. Deer exposed to generations of poor nutrition will often have smaller body sizes and antlers per age class. Simply introducing improved nutrition to these animals will not result in an immediate change in antlers and body size.

“It often takes generations to overcome that hurdle once improved nutrition is available,” he said. “The Mississippi State research is very revealing and drives the point home of the importance of nutrition. In some cases, nutrition may not be environmental but the result of current habitat management and associated deer density. As deer remove the most nutritious plants from the landscape, the habitat degrades and deer condition follows the same trend. If deer live under those conditions for long enough, it will take time for the habitat to recover and generations for the deer to regain their former growth and development.”

Productive habitats

Certain areas have the highest possibilities for trophy deer production because of habitat. 

According to data reported through tagging and the Deer Management Assistance Program, the harvest rates come from upland and bottomland hardwood habitats, primarily along the Mississippi River. These highly productive habitats have the most fertile soils and more hard mast (acorns and other nuts) and are surrounded by large-scale agriculture, all of which contribute more food resources to deer.

One person and his hunting club have been pursuing epigenetics for deer, even when they didn’t fully know it.

That is Ryan Masters, Hazard Assessments/Instructor at Specialty Rescue and Fire Services in Many, La., owner of MT Trophy Properties and assistant chief for the Natchitoches Fire Department.

It’s a deer subject with very complex scientific applications, but the basic premise of what is being studied is pretty simple to understand. While most hunters won’t be trying to become experts about it, one thing is for sure. It can make for some interesting conversations around the deer camp fire pits and give deer hunters some good ideas on how to improve their chances at trophy bucks.

“We’ve been doing a little bit of what we are talking about and we didn’t even know there was a name for it,” Masters said. “We’ve been managing deer by limiting the number of big bucks taken, by keeping proper deer populations, including killing a lot of does, and by ensuring the deer have proper nutrition. We don’t shoot bucks until they are four-and-a-half years old or older. Another thing we don’t do is shoot healthy ‘scrub bucks’ that might only have one good side of antlers. We’ve found that these bucks can come back when they are older and sport awesome racks. What we have been seeing is that every generation there are more and more really great bucks.”

Makes a difference

Masters said they don’t do it to brag about it, but they firmly believe letting the young ones walk and keeping the best genes in the gene pool makes a difference.

There are dozens of examples of their success, but none more apparent than a huge 172 6/8-inch 10-point that Masters killed on Nov. 22, 2019. The big buck was named Hercules.

Ryan Masters is sure that this huge 11-point buck taken in Sabine Parish on Nov. 11, 2023 is a direct descendant of Hercules. (Photo courtesy Ryan Masters)

On Nov. 11, 2023, Masters got another trophy, a 158 2/8-inch 11-point that looked almost identical in physical stature and antler formation as Hercules. Masters is almost certain that buck was the son of Hercules. Both bucks had the same frame, G2’s on both sides were identical, each had a kicker off the G2 and the main beam curl was almost exactly the same.

Other similar deer have also been taken by other club members. Masters eagerly awaits the coming years when maybe the grandson of Hercules shows up as an older shooter. 

“We set out in 2015 to prove to ourselves that we could consistently produce mature bucks in the 130-140 class or larger in an area that really isn’t known for big deer,” he said. “One of the things we adopted was the Midwest rules, where only one buck per year can be taken and it has to be five-and-a-half years old. We also developed a supplemental food product high in protein, MT Trophy Blend, Antler Accelerator.”

The woods where Masters hunts isn’t conducive to good food plots, so they feed the deer year round. The deer have really responded to the feed and some purple top turnips and oats.

“Don’t get me wrong, this hasn’t been easy,” Masters said. “Back in the day, we were like everybody else. We shot a lot of deer and we ran dogs, but finally we got tired of killing the same old types of deer. After seeing what some other states were doing, we made the commitment to try it. Not all our members were gung-ho, but they see what’s happening and are on board.”

No matter how large a hunting area you have, there are always some deer that range off the property and get harvested. It is also impossible to tell which bucks mate with which does, but with what Masters and others are seeing, the facts are becoming clear. It’s better to try to manage the herd like that for really consistent big deer. And that puts the odds in your favor.

More information on epigenetics is available from several online sources, including

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About Kinny Haddox 72 Articles
Kinny Haddox has been writing magazine and newspaper articles about the outdoors in Louisiana for 40 years. He also publishes a daily website, He and his wife, DiAnne, live on Lake D’Arbonne in Farmerville.

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