With the Wisconsin bowhunting season right around the corner, many of you have already seen trail camera shots of some dandy bucks.
Bucks that make you pause, widen your eyes, smile and hope you are fortunate enough to see them in real-life come Sept. 18 — or in the weeks following the Wisconsin bow-season opener.
Yes, buck fever hits me early and hangs around for months.
It’s an adrenaline rush, no doubt, regardless of the points, mass or characteristics those antlers carry. The now velvet-cased antlers are almost magical, and sometimes even turn mythical, to those of us who share a passion for white-tailed deer.
Antlers are symbol of power — for the buck, and for those who chase it. And yes, there is research that shows does prefer a large-antlered mate, too. I’ll let you further explore that one on your own.
Over the past 45 years or so, I’ve likely looked at a thousand or more pictures of bucks with every size antlers imaginable, and can’t wait to see the next thousand.
With that said, seeing them up close, in person, can’t be topped.
It’s more than just seeing a majestic buck, or pursuing him during the hunting season, however. I wanted to know what makes antlers form in the first place, then grow to often-times jaw-dropping size before being shed in the late-winter or early spring.
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To me, it’s one of nature’s greatest achievements, and one that Wisconsin DNR Southern District Deer Biologist Eric Canania was gracious enough to take time to explain.
“We are in Wisconsin, and it’s a deeply-rooted tradition,” Canania said of deer hunting in general. “I’ll do four to six in-person presentations a year (about deer, focusing on bucks and antler growth). They (antlers) are cool, definitely, but we have to consume the meat.
“They (bucks) are king in Wisconsin and king in about every other state that has them.”
Canania, you see, understands white-tailed deer far better than most of us. Sure it’s his job, but it’s his passion, too. And he’s a hunter, just like many of us.
He also understands the fascination that accompanies large-antlered bucks, and why you often see deer mounts hanging on the walls in rural bars and restaurants, businesses as well as homes and cabins.
If you hunt deer, you want a chance to at least see a trophy-sized buck. Whether you harvest it, photograph it, or watch it walk by is personal choice. I’ve done all three with equal satisfaction.
“Wisconsin is known to produce really big deer. Because of that, we have a longstanding and deep-rooted tradition of hunters in the state,” Canania said. “Not everybody is out there for a big buck, but we do tend to attract a lot of non-resident hunters (for that reason).
“Some groups are really focused on those big antlers. Hopefully our youth doesn’t put all the focus on the antler, or holding out for a big deer.
“You have to remember that as they (bucks) get older, the bigger and smarter they get and there are fewer of them. Hunting a veteran of the game who made his living evading people, it’s either got luck on his side or is doing something right.”
Let’s return to the basics, if you will, and let Canania explain how bucks grow those much-talked-about antlers in the first place.
“The growth process begins in Wisconsin about April or May. The growth process is triggered by a hormonal response to a photo period, or the percent of daylight in a day,” Canania said. “As we cross from spring into summer, which means more daylight, that triggers hormonal responses in deer and many other animals.
“Growth always begins at the pedicle, where the antler base attaches to the skull. It’s one of the faster natural-growing tissues.”
Here’s where it gets interesting, and sometimes controversial. Naturally, a buck’s antlers can grow — and this varies — from a quarter-inch to an inch per day. In April and May, which is the early part of the growth period, it’s on the lower end of that range. In June, July and August, which is the heart of the growth period, growth can be an inch per day, or more.
“When you get into the heart of the growth season, when foraging is the highest, it fuels a higher rate of growth. The growing antler contains a really rich blood supply, which carries the oxygen and nutrients needed,” Canania said.
“During the growing season, the antler is kind of malleable, or a little softer than you might expect. If the buck runs into something, is hit by a car, or damages its antlers, it can bend the antler which might grow in an odd direction. An antler injury is more common than genetics (for atypical antlers).”
There are a number of factors that influence antler growth. Let’s settle this right now, as in age, diet and genetics — in that order — impact antler growth, Canania said.
“Antler growth is a byproduct of nutrition. The more nutrition, the higher the quality (of growth), and the more potential it (buck) is able to express it,” Canania said. “Let me give you an example. Heat, oxygen and fuel are the components of a fire triangle. Nutrients, age and genetics are the triangle pieces of an antler (growth).”
In other words, the longer a deer lives its antlers will grow larger each year, up until about age 7. A high-nutrient diet during those years is right there with age as a key factor in antler growth.
“Generally speaking, antlers are going to grow bigger and bigger year after year. A yearling buck, generally speaking, is going to have smaller antlers than a 2 year old,” Canania said. “A 3-year-old’s will be smaller than a 4-year-old’s. A buck can grow bigger and bigger antlers for seven or so years.”
So in this case, antlers are like wine — older is usually better. Sure genetics has something to do with it, but not as much as some people would like you to believe. That means if you pass on a two-year-old buck, that same buck — if it survives the hunting season, and the winter — will have larger antlers as a 3 year old.
Most bucks, regardless of age, will tend to lose the furry membrane, most often called velvet, in late August or early September. August is when bucks begin the mineralization process or hardening process of antlers, Canania said.
“By the end of July, or by the beginning of August, most deer have grown the majority of the antlers they are going to grow that year,” Canania said. “Most of August the hardening process occurs under the velvet. They are fully-hardened antlers by the time the velvet is shed.
“A growing antler has a stronger blood supply and higher percentage of protein. As it grows and hardens, it switches, going to a higher mineral content and lower protein.”
Once the velvet is shed from the antlers, they remain attached to the skull — and very hard — throughout the hunting and breeding season.
“The antlers will stay firmly attached to the deer throughout the breeding season, where they use it as a tool for fighting other males to establish dominance,” Canania said. “After the rut, a buck’s testosterone begins to drop as will the percent of daylight. That change triggers a response in the deer where specialized cells start to demineralize the base, the pedicle and the base. What was solid bone, it demineralizes and gets weaker and weaker, becoming almost like Velcro.”
So when a buck jumps across a fence, drops or jars its head in some fashion, the antlers fall off, or it “sheds” them. Shedding can start as early as December or as late as April. The majority of deer shed their antlers in mid- to late-February, and into early March.
The regrowth process starts just a few weeks after the shedding process.
Of course, you can find far more detail behind this annual growth, shedding and regrowth process, by reading, researching, jumping on the DNR’s website (dnr.wisconsin.gov) or attending one of Canania’s presentations.
Either way, the next time you gaze at a buck’s antlers — regardless of the size — think a bit about the process it took to grow them. I know I will.
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org