In late July, my youngest son and I were in the mountains of Southern Utah, where we assisted with the teaching of outdoor skills to a camp of around 250 teenage girls. Part way down the road that eventually leads into the main camp is a small meadow, no larger than an acre. It is one of those places where I almost always see deer, especially at the break of day.
The meadow sits in a small pocket where two draws come together at the bottom of a tall ridge. It is slightly below road level and is surrounded on three sides with thick stands of low-growing scrub oak. Luckily its only open side happens to be adjacent to the road and is just large enough to give alert travelers a look at any wild critters that happen to visit there.
As we made our way into camp early one morning, I turned to Hyrum as we neared the meadow and said, “Up here on the right is a small meadow that often holds deer. Maybe we’ll get lucky this morning. Keep your eyes open.”
Seconds later we rounded the bend in the road that marks the meadow’s location, and there he was, a dandy mule deer buck standing in the chest-high sagebrush at the far end of the meadow against the scrub oak backdrop. It was almost as if I had planned the whole thing.
“There he is,” I exclaimed, proud that my prognostication had proven correct and thankful that luck was definitely on my side.
By the time I stopped the truck, Hyrum had already rolled down the window on his side so we could get a better look. Though the deer was alerted, he did not run. Instead, he stared at us and we stared at him. Though his antlers were not much wider than his ears, they were topped with four impressively long tines on each side, accentuated by deep forks that separated them. On the left side was a pair of kickers that reached back toward the right. His antlers seemed to stretch forever toward the sky as they were considerably taller than they were wide. Even more impressive was the depth of his antlers from front to back, and to top them off was a pair of eye guards that could easily be seen without a binocular.
Though I had a digital camera in the back seat, Hyrum did what any respectable red-blooded American youth would do. He pulled out his cellphone and began taking photos. And since Hyrum sat between me and a clear view from the truck, I handed him my phone and said, “Here, take some with mine.” (It wasn’t until we arrived in camp and looked at the pictures that I realized phones don’t take the best pictures when the truck engine is still running.)
Then all of a sudden Hyrum said, “There’s another one.” Another buck had slipped into the meadow through a small opening in the scrub oak. Though not as big as the first deer, this buck was already showing significant mass and three heavy points on each side of his antlers. Because the width on this buck’s antlers was similar to those on the first, I couldn’t help but recognize genetics at play.
The antlers of both deer were still encased in the soft tissue covering known as velvet. This vascular tissue provides growing antlers with oxygen and nutrients needed for strength and health. It also makes antlers look much heavier than they will actually be when the antler bone quits growing and the velvet dries and comes off.
The size and shape of a buck’s antlers when the velvet comes off is dependent on three things: genetics, age and nutrients. Some hunters make the mistake of thinking that every buck deer or bull elk has the capability of growing what some define as trophy antlers. Without the genetic makeup to do so, however, that isn’t going to happen. No matter how old they get, some bucks will never grow antlers wider than 20 inches or with more than two points on one side and three on the other.
That’s a discussion for next week.
Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.