Twenty years ago while filming a late season whitetail hunt in Missouri with my friend Dan Brothers we saw something that was beyond amazing. We were treestand hunting on a 5-degree morning. The snow was squeaky walking in. Once settled, we noticed that the woods were dead silent and we had to be very careful about making noise when we moved. The frozen treestands wanted to creek and pop.
About the time I began to shiver uncontrollably, I saw a nice buck moving through the brush below me. I turned and raised my bow. The buck was only 30 yards away and he was going to pass within 15 yards of our tree. It looked like a 10 point with a perfect five on each side. At twenty yards, he stepped behind a big oak tree and I drew. However, his body didn’t come out the other side, only his head. He stopped. The wind had shifted and he got a whiff of two bowhunters nearby…us.
The buck spun and leaped, returning the way he had come. The strange thing is that before he spun, he was a ten point and after his feet hit the ground, he was a five point. One of his antlers shed when his front hooves hit the packed snow. The shed skidded to a stop a few yards away. What we’d witnessed was something that happens a millions of times a year in the whitetail woods but is never observed. I picked up the antler.
I’m part of a management plan in SE Ohio where we have put together over 5000 acres of land under QDM (Quality Deer Management). QDM generates a healthy deer herd and quality bucks. It’s working. We had a 150 + and a 170 + taken from the farms adjacent to mine this fall. The good news is we saw many bucks that were even bigger.
This camera shy buck avoided most game cameras until December. By then all of the guns were silenced and the woods were virtually free of human predators. Then, just last week, he dropped one of his antlers at a neighbor’s feeder. That antler was dropped on February 18th. Judging from actual measurements on the one shed and the pictures, we believe that he is a 190-class buck. He shows no signs of going downhill. There will be more bone up there next year. A bruiser like him walking around the farm will keep you in that treestand a bit longer.
I often have hunters ask me when bucks lose their antlers and why. Let’s examine this topic from a biologists perspective. Antler casting has been heavily researched and this info has been cross-referenced in various studies.
As you know, whitetail bucks grow a new set of antlers yearly. The antler originates from a pedestal of bone called a pedicle. This is the attachment point to the skull. As the antler is growing a very blood vessel rich skin, called velvet, covers the antler. The vessels supply nutrition and oxygen to the fast growing tissue at the end of the growing antler, which is actually cartilage initially. Antler’s within the deer family grow fast. Actually, faster than any other mammal bone.
Antler grows from the pedicle beginning right after the antler is shed and scabbed over. This growth begins in the late winter but really gets cranking during the summer months when the buck has access to the best forage. Growth stops in late summer and by September 1st to the 10th the growth is complete. Just prior to that, the buck does something that had to be thought up by God. The bucks “borrows” stored bone from his skeleton, notable his ribs and shoulder bones, and redeposit’s the calcium and phosphorus in his antlers. His skeleton acts as a savings account for antler minerals. Go figure.
Once hardened the antlers are solidly attached to his skull. It is as if they would never come off. Indeed, you can hang 300# Sask. buck from his antlers and there is no chance that they will fail to hold his weight. That is the story in the fall but soon he begins to lose the testerone that propelled him through the rut and those magic antlers do something crazy again.
As his testerone levels begin to wane a unique layer of cells located at the pedicle begin to do their thing. These cells are called osteoclasts. They are responsible for weakening the bond between antler and skull. They actually reorganize the minerals making up the attachment point. Soon the antler is not attached firmly to the pedicle and it loses the war with gravity. Next, a rodent finds it or you do.
The question is what triggers the osteoclasts to get busy detaching the antler? It seems like the T-count or testerone level of the buck plays a role. A number of factors can influence this T-level. Nutrition is a big one. Healthy bucks have higher levels of testerone and hold their antlers a bit longer. Also if there are does around who are in estrus this tends to elevate the T-levels.
Put your thinking cap on and decode this puzzle. Southern bucks tend to drop their antlers later than northern bucks. Sometimes antlers shed into April. Something to consider is that northern bucks are stressed by winter way more than southern bucks and this may be playing a role with early antler casting.
The reason for the “exact when” may be even more complicated than once thought? A Mississippi study discovered that with pen deer, individual bucks were dropping their antlers on the same day every year. Sort of an internal drop-clock was at play. This was also observed on the King Ranch in Texas where significant individual bucks held antlers later than others then lost them at roughly the same time every year.
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Now you know some of the why and when concerning antler shedding. Take notice: this is the week you should go out into the whitetail woods and collect those sheds. This is the “when” for you.
Be invisible to the nose of whitetails