Antler velvet is frequently covered with ticks, but bucks usually eat it anyway after shedding. Those two are free, but you’ll have to read on to get the rest
For some, antler velvet is a holistic medicine and a supplement that’ll treat everything from arthritis to low libido. For others, a big buck in the fuzz is emblematic of the kickoff to fall hunting season. In a few states, you can bowhunt bucks before their velvet is stripped, making those places bucket-list destinations for many bowhunters.
The Commonwealth of Kentucky, my home state, is one such place. Our opener is the first Saturday in September, and has been since 2003. I hunted that first early season and have enjoyed every one of them since. My wife, Michelle, and I both have killed some our best bow bucks in September, and for the past few years we’ve outfitted hunters who are specifically looking to tag a full-velvet whitetail. In that time, through hundreds of thousands of trail camera photos, countless glassing sessions, a few filled tags and a lot of close calls, we’ve learned a lot about velvet buck behavior.
If you’re the type who wants to target a specific deer, then early September is still arguably the best time. But if you’re open to arrowing any good, mature buck that gives you a shot, I’d take the first week of November.
So have guys like Gabe Jenkins, who for years has been a deer and elk biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and has made countless observations both from studying the animals themselves and from years of poring over hunter reports and harvest data.
Hunters like Josh Honeycutt know their stuff, too. Honeycutt, a longtime Realtree contributor, hails from central Kentucky and has been especially successful on big velvet bucks. He even self-filmed a hunt for a giant velvet 8-point that was big enough to make Realtree’s Monster Bucks XXVII video.
In compiling some of our collective notes, I’ve learned that some of what follows matches the conventional early season wisdom. But some of it does not. If you’ve ever had your heart set on a velvet buck, all of it is interesting.
1. Velvet bucks are actually really tough to kill.
Some say it’s easier to kill a big one the first week of September than any other time of year. Eh, I’m not so sure. It’s for sure easy to get daylight pictures of big bucks in the late summer, but that can create a false sense of confidence. Starting around Aug. 15, those reliable summer patterns get a little sketchier by the day. The bucks that were cleaning up your corn pile every evening at 6:45 are now only showing once or twice a week.
Once the season opens, the typical September sit in these parts is long, hot, and boring with a half-hour of deer movement — if you’re lucky — at the end of the day. As an outfitter, I can tell you it’s often tough to keep a client’s head in the game under those conditions. And I can’t blame them — I’d way rather hunt a cold morning in November when forkhorns are cruising by every half-hour. Persistence is frequently what it takes to kill a good velvet buck, but after a few slow sits, clients frequently want to move. That’s precisely the wrong plan, according to Honeycutt. “Hunting your best velvet stand several days in a row is the best way to cross paths with the buck you’re targeting,” he says. “It might be on Day 1 or Day 4, but if you’re bouncing stand to stand, you’re decreasing your odds.”
If you’re the type who wants to target a specific deer, then early September is still arguably the best time. But if you’re open to arrowing any good, mature buck that gives you a shot, I’d take the first week of November. Kentucky’s harvest statistics show that September success rates, while good, aren’t through the roof. Last year, about 25% of the state’s total archery/crossbow harvest was taken in September, and in 2019 it was just 18%. That’s out of a five-month season. And even at that, Kentucky hunters are still shooting more does than bucks in September. “The first week, we have a pretty high percentage of antlered deer taken,” Jenkins says, “but it’s still not 50%. The antlerless harvest is higher, and that’s the reality for the archery harvest in general. After a long summer off, most archers are itching to shoot something.”
2. It’s not the velvet shed itself that causes a shift.
Once the velvet comes off, some think all bets of killing a particular buck are off, too, at least on a summertime pattern. But personally, I don’t think the physical act of shedding the velvet changes much. And I’ve seen those summer patterns hold for a couple more weeks. True, some deer do seem to disappear after the velvet’s stripped — but if you pay attention while scouting, those deer are frequently erratic by mid-August anyway.
“All hunters know that once a buck sheds velvet, he changes pattern — but I think a lot of that happens just by use of day,” Jenkins says. “We like to check the boxes on why deer behave this way or that way, but nothing’s universal. A lot of it depends on pecking order and health. Some bucks just wander more than others. And at that time of year, there are changes happening metabolically that make them less visible.”
In other words, I don’t fret too much about velvet shed “messing up” the buck I’m after. Bucks that are still predictable by that point might go dark for a day or two, but they often return. And some of the oldest bucks don’t seem fazed by it at all. Michelle killed an ancient 8-point on our place last year on Sept. 21. That buck shed at the end of opening week — a client almost shot him — but he never checked up on walking to the corn pile at around 7 each evening, a habit that ultimately led to his undoing.
Infested might be the better word. I keep a spray bottle of permethrin concentrate in my guide pack, and I douse downed bucks liberally with it ahead of photos. Even at that, when we handle dead velvet bucks, it’s with long sleeves and gloves soaked in permethrin. “With antler velvet, there’s lots of blood close to the surface,” Jenkins says. “It’s pumping nutrients, and it’s an easy place for ticks to latch on. But those antlers are sensitive, and so deer don’t try to rub them off.”
4. Velvet is incredibly delicate.
For the most part, a good buck holding velvet during hunting season is essentially wearing a layer of dead tissue on his antlers. It’s so fragile that I’ve seen thumb pressure cause it to peel away after taking photos of a buck. If you want to preserve your buck’s antler velvet, it’s best not to touch it, period (those ticks mentioned above are a good deterrent). Hold your buck instead by the neck for photos (and be ready to put a rope around his neck to get him out of the woods). We bubble-wrap the antlers of our bucks to protect them, and get the racks in the freezer as quickly as possible.
If you do a good job of protecting the velvet, your taxidermist can probably freeze-dry and preserve it. But there’s no restoring it if it’s damaged — and that aside, not every taxidermist has the capability of freeze-drying velvet. Some use a spray-on flocking (like the flocked heads of some modern goose decoys) that doesn’t look quite as good as the real thing, but is still close enough.
6. The velvet-shedding window is almost a month long.
“Really, it lasts from about the third week in August to the third week in September,” Jenkins says. A few bucks might shed especially early, in late August. And a good many 1 1/2-year-old bucks, in particular, hold on to their velvet well into September. Michelle killed a 10-pointer one year on Sept. 11 that was still holding tight to his velvet.
Still, in my experience, Sept. 5 seems to be when the “switch flips,” and most bucks start stripping, and you’re pretty lucky to see a mature buck in velvet after Sept. 10.
It’s just common enough to find fresh rubs in early September that many hunters assume that they’re not real “rut rubs,” but instead rubs left behind by bucks shedding their velvet. But you can just about bet that a true, trunk-peeled rub was made by a hard-antlered buck flexing his neck muscles. After velvet shed, the area’s most dominant bucks get down to the business of blazing their core areas with sign pretty quickly.
By comparison, evidence of stripped velvet will be more subtle. Jenkins says he’s found areas where bucks have hit multiple trees and actually left velvet hanging, but it wasn’t as obvious as a true rub. “I think it’s almost like picking a scab,” he says with a laugh. “Shedding velvet probably hurts but feels good in a weird way, too.”
8. There’s a lot we don’t know about bachelor group social structure.
The makeup of a bachelor group tends to ebb and flow during the summer, and the relationships between bucks can get especially fractious by the first of September. In July and early August, it’s not uncommon to get photos of five bucks or more clustered together, but by September, those bucks are as likely to be traveling solo or in pairs as in a group. Still, it’s important to study and learn all the members of a group because in the early season, if you see one of them, the others are probably at least within the vicinity.
Most bachelor groups consist of bucks that are of roughly the same age class. It’s common to see a crew of year-and-a-half-old spikes and forkhorns, and common to see a crew of mature bucks together with one or two top-end studs. The age classes don’t often mix — but Honeycutt says to hunt the ones that do. “Rarely do mature bucks join the ranks with young, 1 1/2-year-old deer, but sometimes they do. And those are golden opportunities,” he says. “In my experience, when that happens, those mature bucks are even more active during daylight than the typical bachelor groups.”
Finding cast velvet in the woods isn’t likely because bucks often consume it. Some biologists believe this is a defense against predators, since bloody antler velvet has an odor. Others believe the velvet itself is rich in nutrients that a buck needs at that stage in life. Whatever the reason, the behavior is well documented. Probably, no buck wants arthritis or low libido ahead of the rut.
10. Bachelor buck bedding areas are big.
Early season bucks bed within proximity of their favorite food sources, but rarely right on top of them. Ridge ends and other high points 200 to 500 yards away are more like it. Though it’s difficult to observe a bedded bachelor group of whitetails in the dense timber, I’ve watched plenty of open-country mule deer bachelor groups at midmorning, and I have to believe the behavior is similar. When it comes time to bed, the bucks will scatter across a ridge, often facing different directions and sometimes with 100 yards or more of space between the widest-ranging bucks in the group. Once they begin to stand up and move, some quickly assemble and beat a path, whereas others might take an hour or more to browse their way back into the herd.