Along The Trail 1-23-14

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Archery season is now a distant memory.

The mid winter woods are dark, dismal and gray. They almost seem boring, the trees naked and thin, a skeleton without their foliage. I slide out of the truck and feel the ground squish under the soles of my boots as I walk the field edge. Mud clings to my heel with each heavy step.

I check the fence crossings, littered with deer’s hair. Some caught under the strands of barbed wire where the animals slip beneath the fence, others in the top showing evidence of their leaping ability. I’m searching for any signs of a buck’s cast antlers, hoping that they’ve jarred loose from jumping the fences or gotten tangled up underneath.

No luck yet.

I spend the next couple of hours traipsing up and down the hills, checking all the familiar trails, snooping through the bedding areas. I hit every field corner and intersection on the farm, hoping to catch a glint of antler in the fading sun light. I side step down a greasy hillside, my feet slip out from under me.

Covered in mud, I hop up to my feet and instinctively look around to see if anyone had seen me fall, even though I know I’m alone out here in the woods. I chuckle to myself and then keep on with my search.

I make a wide circle around the farm, poking through every nook and cranny, but no prize is found today.

I saw a few squirrels, bumped a barred owl out of his roost and ran into a flock of turkeys as they scratched the leaves for a meal, but not a deer or their head gear was to be had.

What is it about antlers that make grown men act like school aged boys?

The sight of big antlers, the majestic look of the crown on a wise, old buck makes a deer hunters’ heart race. They make the adrenaline course through my blood stream, my breath becomes ragged, my throat dry.

There is something magical about a mature buck’s antlers, whether bleached bone, white from lying in the sun or stained chocolate, brown from rubbing and working over a cedar sapling.

But what is antler? Why does a white-tailed deer put so much of its energy into growing antlers each year?

No one really knows.

Antlers do regenerate annually. I have no degree in wildlife biology or animal science, but I am a student of deer. As much as I like to hunt them and yes, eat them, I admire deer, they fascinate me.

Antlers are different than horns in the fact that a buck will shed them each year.

Horn, on the other hand, continues to grow and never drops from the animal’s head.

Studies have shown that typically, a buck will cast his antlers nearly the same week, year after year and that he’ll lose both antlers within three days of each other. It’s suggested that the drop in the animal’s testosterone level signals the buck’s body to begin to degenerate the connective tissue between the antler and the pedicle on the buck’s skull.

As the tissue weakens and dissolves, the antlers fall or are broken free from the head.

In years when the bucks are stressed, they tend to drop their rack earlier. Things such as extreme cold, poor nutrition, less testosterone output all factor into the time of the shedding.

It’s a little early this year, but I’m guessing that the fellas will be losing their antlers anytime now since we’ve had a blast of arctic air and the bucks are weary from the rut.

Yep, antlers do seem to have a magical quality about them. In fact, many other cultures use them for medicinal purposes and there has been some controversy about the use of antlers and the fuzzy velvet that covers them as a performance enhancing drug in athletes.

But that’s not the magic they hold for me. The spell they put me under is one that every deer hunter knows. That familiar intoxication that can only come from seeing a mature buck, antlers slowly bobbing up and down, making his way toward your hunting spot.

The trance, just before the moment of truth when you have to snap yourself back to reality…

Nah, shed hunting isn’t nearly the same as the actual deer hunting, but for me, it allows me to get to continue my deer “season”. It helps me to survey what bucks are still in my hunting area and who knows, maybe I’ll find a trophy or two, but even more than that, it gives me another excuse to get outdoors.

– David Hewitt