The Quest for Velvet

By Nick Simonson

With the turn of the calendar into September, hunters wake from their summer dreams of those giant bucks in the pictures on their trail cameras appearing in front of their stand and prepare to make those visions a reality. For many, the early season brings with it the challenge and the chance at taking one of those big-racked deer in full velvet, the specialized skin which provides oxygen and nutrients via blood to facilitate the growth of the deer’s antlers in summer.  That material will soon be shed and the soft antler will harden to bone and become the more traditional, pointy headgear that late season hunters are most familiar with.

The quest to take a velvet-antlered buck spurs on a great deal of early season hunting efforts, and with the season starting at noon on Sept. 1 in North Dakota, there are few other places in the upper Midwest where such a chance exists (though Montana’s deer archery season starts on Sept. 2 this year).  By the following weekend, many bucks in both the state’s mule deer and whitetail deer populations will have shed much of the velvet covering their antlers.  With the opportunity to harvest a deer in velvet quite unique, there are many things hunters should remember, if they are looking to hunt for and preserve what could be a once-in-a-lifetime trophy.

“Velvet typically starts coming off Labor Day weekend,” said Bill Jensen, Big Game Biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Dept., advising hunters that their window to harvest a deer in velvet is quite small, even with the early start to archery season in the Peace Garden State.

The timing of velvet loss is consistent between mule deer and whitetail deer and is triggered by the decrease in photoperiod – or amount of daylight – which has an impact on bucks’ hormones, according to Jensen.  As daylight dwindles, the bucks’ systems adjust and trigger the end of antler growth and then the shedding of velvet, leading into the eventual pre-rut and rut phases of October and November where the hardened antlers will be used for dominance displays and for the marking of territory by the bucks making rubs on trees.

“The onset of antler development is controlled by testosterone levels, and the things that impact that are level of daylight and nutrition,” Jensen stated, “the change in photoperiod triggers the shedding of velvet,” he concluded, adding that weather conditions have no impact on the loss of velvet at this time of year.

New Rockford taxidermist Jamie Risovi with his award-winning buck-in-velvet mount. (Photo Submitted)

Those archery hunters chasing after a buck in velvet would be wise to know how to care for their trophy, should they be successful in their hunt.  Award-winning taxidermist Jamie Risovi of New Rockford, N.D., who took home top honors in the Whitetail Deer category in the National Taxidermy Championship in Lubbock, Texas in 2009 for his mount of a monster whitetail deer in velvet, says the material is very fragile, and must be handled carefully for best presentation.

“Don’t move the animal by holding onto the antlers,” Risovi advised, “make sure when removing the animal from the field that the velvet is protected; don’t let the antlers drag on the ground and protect them from being scratched or torn by trees, brush, or rocks,” he concluded, instructing hunters to place some sort of barrier between the adhesive portion of the deer tag and the velvet antler, so that the material does not become stuck to the identification.

In his shop, Risovi sees 10 to 15 sets of velvet antlers come in each year on deer, elk, moose and caribou and says the material presents unique challenges for taxidermists as well.   As with his 2009 award-winner, a buck in the process of shedding some of his velvet can make for a very interesting mount, with its own unique tests of a taxidermist’s skill – but ultimately, it comes down to field care in determining how well a mount turns out.

“The biggest challenge for taxidermists is dealing with specimens that haven’t been properly cared for,” he related, “[with] severely damaged velvet antlers, they may be limited in what they can do,” he continued.

According to Risovi, there are a couple ways velvet can be preserved.  The preferred method is to inject the antlers with a chemical which flushes out the blood beneath the material and preserves it.  An additional option is freeze-drying the antlers, in order to maintain their composition.  While the technology is there to make incredible mounts in velvet, it ultimately comes down to a matter of opportunity and field care.

By timing things right and taking advantage of the early start to deer archery season in North Dakota, then handling their quarry properly, hunters can preserve a memory in velvet for a lifetime.

(Featured Photo: The biology behind antler growth – and when and why it stops – creates a small window for ND hunters to harvest a buck in velvet. Should they be lucky enough to harvest one, field care is of the utmost importance in preserving the animal.  Simonson Photo)

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