Roadtripping for a Velvet Whitetail Buck

One bowhunter’s fascination with shooting a velvet whitetail buck takes him on a multi-year journey to accomplish a feat in an unlikely place and manner.

Roadtripping for a Velvet Whitetail Buck

Hunters, by nature, are collectors. We gather things such as organic protein and mementos that we hang in places where we will see them often and relive an experience that brought us great pleasure or a feeling of accomplishment. Many of us are also interested in milestones. We keep track of things such as our first 125-inch buck, 300-pound bear, trophy pronghorn or whatever the case may be for each individual.

Quest for a Velvet Whitetail Buck

I don’t really remember when I became smitten with the idea of shooting a mature velvet buck. But it became one of those things on my list that I knew I needed to check off. In 2008, I took my first trip to North Dakota in search of a velvet whitetail buck.

There are a handful of locations where a person can collect a whitetail buck when it carries its annual coating of warm, plush fuzz on its antlers. All across North America, the life-giving blood vessels that feed the velvet begin to die in late August. Nearly all velvet is shed during the last week of August and the first week of September each year. That leaves just a short window of opportunity for the hunter. The states with archery openers on or about September 1 is where the time and energy should be focused.

North Dakota is one of those states; the archery deer season opens the Friday closest to September 1. My first trip to North Dakota yielded an opportunity at one velvet buck, a yearling forkhorn. I didn’t travel all that way to shoot a yearling, so I went home emptyhanded.

Every day that goes by is a day when more and more of the deer are shedding their velvet. Three more trips to North Dakota also came up empty. In one case, I took a nice hard-antlered buck that caused me to momentarily set my velvet quest aside. I couldn’t pass that one up.

I’m almost exclusively a DIY public land hunter. I’ve done 30 roadtrips out of state for whitetails, only two of which were guided. In 2012, I went to southeast Montana with Blue Rock Outfitters. I had the intent of closing out this quest for a velvet buck where I felt my odds were high.

The first two evenings I found myself sitting in a 300-year-old cottonwood watching a bachelor group of velvet deer feed out of range in an alfalfa field. One was a really nice, symmetrical 10-pointer.

Day three was September 3 and I knew time was ticking. From another location that evening, I once again observed some bucks; a couple of them without velvet. When I returned to camp, one of the other hunters came up to me with some bad news about the nice 10-point I’d seen the first night. He explained, “I saw him 100 yards away from my ground blind tonight. He stuck his head into a bush and started thrashing around. Fifteen minutes later he pulled his head out and there wasn’t a scrap of velvet on it.”

The morning of September 4, I was settled into another giant cottonwood at the first glimmer of daylight. Watching a group of deer work their way across the field towards me, it soon became light enough for me to realize that one of them was a really good, symmetrical 10-point buck, but hard-antlered. Eventually, he stood broadside of me at 10 yards. I decided my quest for a velvet buck would have to wait for another time. I wasn’t passing up this deer.

Try and Try Again

The following year, I decided to try an opening day hunt in Kentucky. I picked an area of western Kentucky where there was a lot of public land to choose from; I arrived four days before the season opener. My plan was to spend the time pre-season scouting in the hopes of finding and patterning a velvet buck, which I could move in on and kill during the first days of the season.

I spent those days walking, scouting, sweating, ogling scouting camera photos and generally learning where the bucks were not. Part of learning where the bucks are, is eliminating the areas where they’re not. I eliminated a lot of areas, but never found a shooter buck on that trip.

Another passion of mine is bear hunting. I have traveled the US and Canada in search of bears. One of the outfitters with which I hunted bears multiple times is Tom Ainsworth of Grandview Outfitting in the Duck Mountains of Manitoba. In addition to bears, Tom offers some November firearms whitetail hunts, but he wasn’t really aware that there might be an interest in bowhunting early season whitetails. The Manitoba archery deer season opens the last Monday in August each year, the same day as the fall bear season.

While bear hunting with Tom during the last week of August, I was intrigued by some really nice bucks feeding in the alfalfa fields. Tom has 1600 acres; most of it bush, but he has a couple hundred acres of hay ground. I observed bucks come out of the thick Canadian bush in the evenings to devour the alfalfa. I brought up the idea of an early season deer hunt with Tom, and he was receptive to it. In fact, he just told me to have a go at one of those bucks. I would be a guinea pig so to speak, and if I thought there was a market for early season bowhunts, and then he would give it some thought.

According to Manitoba regulations, an outfitter must drop you off at your stand and pick you up at your stand. But other than that, Tom just gave me to run of his place for what would be essentially a DIY hunt.

So in August of 2016, I brought my gear and went right to work scouting and checking trail cams. I quickly identified two nice 10-point bucks in velvet that would make me one happy bowhunter. One of them shed his velvet right away, but the other, larger one got my full attention. I played cat and mouse with him for several days. It seemed like I would pick a trail on the edge of the field, but he would use a different trail that evening. For five straight days this happened as I was getting scouting camera photos of him every day. Then, on the fifth day, I checked my trail cameras and there he was right where he’d been the previous day, only this time he was totally without a stitch of velvet.

That wasn’t enough to stop me from hunting him; he was a really nice buck that I would be proud to take. For two more evenings he came to the field and both times I was on the wrong trail. I just couldn’t guess right! I was starting to think this buck was just plain lucky. Then at last, on the final evening of my trip, I looked back into the bush where I could see a segment of the trail I was monitoring, and there he stood. I had finally picked the right trail!

He came forward ever so slowly, step by cautious step. I was totally focused on his movements and looking for an opportunity to ready for a shot. When he was 30 yards away, he went out of sight momentarily, so I reached for my bow and clipped my release.

When I did, the field behind me blew up. Because I was so laser-focused on the buck, I hadn’t realized that a few does and fawns had come into the field and were feeding within 20 yards of me. Now, they were snorting, stomping and running all over. At that point I gave the buck the name, “Lucky.”

Lucky appeared on camera on September 2 — in full velvet — and then he appeared the following day in the same spot without a stitch of velvet on his antlers (above).
Lucky appeared on camera on September 2 — in full velvet — and then he appeared the following day in the same spot without a stitch of velvet on his antlers (above).

Getting Lucky

In 2017, I arrived on opening day of the Manitoba archery season with high hopes. I had sent Tom a few Covert scouting cameras and he told me he was getting some good digital data. When I arrived, he confirmed it by showing me a few images before I headed out to a stand. The two ten-pointers were travelling together again, and Lucky was bigger than ever. While the one 10-pointer was in full velvet, Lucky was already hard-antlered. As much as I wanted to shoot Lucky, the desire to shoot a velvet buck was burned even stronger.

Incredibly, two hours before dark on my first evening in stand, the velvet 10 walked out into the field 300 yards away. I had a few does and fawns feeding in front of me and I suppose it was curiosity that brought him right on over. At 40 yards he stopped and gave me a shot. However, it’s really hard to draw a bow when surrounded by two dozen eyes and ears. By the time I got the pin settled on his chest, every deer in the field was wired tight like a spring and some were staring right at me. The buck dropped at the release and when my arrow arrived it went through the flesh high on his shoulder.

He trotted to the top of a hill and looked back, then moved off as if he was none the worse for wear. We spent a couple hours looking for blood the following morning, but didn’t find any, which confirmed what I already knew. He would heal just fine, but my chances of getting another shot at him this trip were nil. That was the closest I had ever come to a mature velvet buck, and I had blown the opportunity.

The following night, Lucky uneventfully walked in front of me, 30 yards out into the field, and I put an arrow through him. Just like that. He scored 161 inches and is the largest whitetail I have ever shot.

It was pretty clear to me I had found a gold mine for early season whitetail hunting, and if I would put my time in, there was no better place for me to fulfill my dream of bagging a mature buck in full velvet. No sense going anywhere else for opening day.

Taking a Gamble

I arrived on opening day of 2018 with high expectations and I was not disappointed. I started getting photos right away of a great 10-point buck in velvet. In the first two days of hunting, I never saw the buck in person, but I felt I was really close. I just needed him to make a mistake.

Because it’s virtually impossible to get into a treestand in the morning without spooking every deer out of the area, I only hunted in the evenings. That left me with nothing to do in the mornings but scout. I like to drive the backroads right at sunrise and observe whatever wildlife is out and about. I saw elk, bears and of course, deer. Imagine my shock when that velvet 10 bounced across a gravel road in front of me a mile and a half south of where I had been hunting him. I had scouting cameras on a hayfield to the south of that road, so I hurried in and checked them. Sure enough, I’d found where he had moved.

I decided to move my operation to the south, but I finished my run of trail cams first and was just as shocked to find a photo of him back in the field where I had been hunting him. In about an hour, he had moved a mile and a half and he was back right in front of one of my stands.

At this point I knew I had to make a move on him immediately, even though the wind was wrong. I now knew where he was likely bedded, so it was time to go all in and push my chips into the middle. I soaked my clothing down with Scent Killer and let it dry before heading to the stand that evening.

An hour before dark, I had three does feeding peacefully in front of me when they all looked back into the bush at once. I caught movement in the thick stuff to my left. Suddenly, I glimpsed big, velvet-covered antlers working their way slowly through the pines. My heartbeat surged when he stepped out into the field 15 yards away.

I watched the does carefully as the buck fed away from me another 10 yards, and then as he turned broadside, I did a final check to make sure none of the does were looking my way. I drew, settled the pin on his heart and touched the trigger.

He crashed through the thick brush on a 50-yard death run, tearing at the velvet on the front of his main beams as he went, and then fell into a heap. I was pretty concerned about the condition of his velvet, but once I got to him, I realized it wasn’t too bad and my taxidermist easily repaired the damage.

Velvet antlers are a thing of beauty and a thrilling accomplishment for the hunter who sets out to achieve the difficult task of bagging one.
Velvet antlers are a thing of beauty and a thrilling accomplishment for the hunter who sets out to achieve the difficult task of bagging one.

There is a feeling of exhilaration upon collecting something you have pursued diligently — the reaching of a difficult milestone. That high is followed by a hollow feeling; the realization that the excitement of the pursuit is over. But there are other milestones to cross and other things to collect. I just have to decide what’s next.

Photos by Bernie Barringer


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