At 10:00 am on November 26th, opening day of Pennsylvania’s rifle season, I squeezed the trigger on what I thought was a very decent buck. Even when I shot, though, I realized something was different about the deer, and the thought occurred to me that it might be missing half of its rack. I didn’t mind. After a long, frustrating archery season, I was grateful for the opportunity to harvest the animal.
Walking up to the downed deer, I found that it did indeed have only one side, but the pedicle that had held the other antler was covered in wet blood. It was evident the antler had been shed recently – very recently – maybe even within minutes of reaching my stand. Yes, it was that fresh! Also, I had seen this exact buck the day before the season when I was setting up my blind, and the buck had both sides at that time.
Hoping to find the shed antler, I walked a few trails the buck may have followed on its way to me. I even returned two days later and searched again. No luck.
As I rolled the deer over to field dress it, I grabbed its remaining side and gave a small tug to straighten out the neck. Pop – the other antler came off! It felt mighty strange dragging out a buck with its antler in my backpack.
This experience isn’t as uncommon as many might believe. We’ve had a very dry year here in northern Pennsylvania. In many places, acorns were nonexistent. Overall, the quality of natural nutrition available to deer this year was rather poor, and this can be a major contributor to many bucks shedding their antlers earlier than usual.
When Do Most Bucks Shed Their Antlers?
According to my research, most bucks shed their antlers between December and March. The latest I’ve ever personally witnessed a buck still carrying its antlers was mid-April, and I saw this on two separate occasions that were years apart – one time was a little 8-point and the other time was a pair of spike bucks running together. Both occasions were in agricultural areas where food was plentiful.
Why bucks shed their antlers is a well-documented topic. As soon as bucks are done rutting, their testosterone levels begin to drop and antlers are eventually cast. Good nutrition helps bucks sustain those testosterone levels for a longer period of time; therefore, those bucks will shed their antlers later than bucks living in areas of poor nutrition. Other stress factors can lead to early shedding, too, such as injuries sustained during rutting activities, arrow or gunshot wounds, or vehicular encounters.
Unfortunately, not much research exists that focuses on Big Woods bucks and when they shed their antlers compared to their agricultural counterparts, but I have good reason to believe that it happens consistently earlier in the Big Woods than anywhere else, and not just during drought years. Yes, drought and other harsh conditions can accelerate the process, but overall quality of food in the Big Woods just can’t compete with the agricultural meccas of places like the Midwest.
Since I began running more trail cameras about 6 years ago, I’ve gotten quite a few photos of bucks with no antlers in rifle season, and even more of bucks that drop their antlers before Christmas.
States with Premium Food Sources
Let’s look at a state with traditionally fantastic food sources and try to get a good sense of when bucks shed their antlers. Although Ohio’s habitat is drastically different than what is found in most Big Woods areas, we might be able to make some comparisons. So if you’ll humor me for a moment, here goes…
I recently read an article in The Times-Gazette regarding harvest data from Ohio’s gun season. During the 7-day gun season, a total of 71,932 deer were taken, of which 26,355 were bucks (37% of the harvest), 36,546 were does (51%), and 7,983 were button bucks (11%). The most surprising part of these harvest totals, though, is that bucks that had already shed their antlers or bucks with antlers less than 3 inches in length accounted for 1% of deer taken (1,048).
I looked at harvest data from 2021 in Ohio. The statistics are almost identical. Here’s a little chart for comparison:
Although this represents only 2 years’ worth of gun season harvest data, I’d bet that the percentages wouldn’t change much even if we studied seasons prior to 2021.
Looking at the harvest data for all of 2021 in Ohio, bucks that had already shed their antlers or bucks with antlers less than three inches in length accounted for 2% (3,389 deer) of the overall harvest for the entire season.
Between December 7, 2021 and February 6, 2022, approximately 38,379 deer were killed, of which 10,992 were antlered bucks. That figure includes a weekend of extended gun season in mid-December, a 4-day inline muzzleloader season in early January, and a late archery season that ran until February 6, 2022. According to my rudimentary math skills, that means that approximately 2,350 deer (almost 6%) of deer killed in mid-December or later were bucks with shed antlers or antlers less than three inches in length.
Oddly enough, I recently listened to an episode of the Hunting Beast podcast in which Dan Infalt discusses Wisconsin’s Holiday Hunt that occurs annually during Christmas week in specific agricultural zones. In the interview, Infalt says that harvest data shows that 6% of the deer taken during the Holiday Hunt are bucks that have shed their antlers.
This leads me to believe that even in areas of ideal nutrition, 6% of the late season deer harvest will consist of shed bucks or bucks with antlers less than 3 inches in length.
How Many Deer Drop Antlers by January?
Granted, some bucks with antlers less than 3 inches in length are killed during early archery season in Ohio (and in every other state), but I suspect that number to be minimal. Just the nature of archery hunting and having deer closer means that hunters generally have a better chance to inspect a deer’s headgear (or lack thereof) before taking the shot. Also, during early archery season, weather conditions are more favorable and bowhunters tend to be more selective this time of year.
If we stretch it a bit and make a few more assumptions, it’s likely that bowhunters are more selective during the late season as well. The benefit of having a deer up close for the shot means that bowhunters are less likely to shoot a buck with shed antlers or antlers less than 3 inches in length at any time. Assuming this to be true and reflected in Ohio’s harvest data, very few bucks with shed antlers or antlers less than 3 inches were killed after the conclusion of the 4-day January muzzleloader season which wrapped up on January 11, 2022.
The reason I make this comparison is to try to determine when most bucks shed their antlers, even in areas of good nutrition. If we divide the number of bucks with shed antlers or antlers less than three inches by the total buck harvest (antlered bucks plus bucks with shed antlers or antlers less than 3 inches) and apply that a representation of the overall herd structure, we can estimate that approximately 21% of bucks will have shed their antlers by first week of January.
Interestingly enough, perusing trail camera photos from previous seasons and based on personal observation, I’d estimate that number to be closer to 50/50 on "normal" years in the Big Woods, meaning years when the oaks hit and food is somewhat plentiful. But seasons following drought, such as this year, I'd wager that approximately 80% of Big Woods bucks will drop their antlers by first week of January. This isn’t scientific, of course, and represents just one hunter’s opinion based on limited resources. It would be fascinating to see a broader study of this aspect of Big Woods whitetails.
Also, the x-factor in all of this is that food in the Big Woods can be very localized, even in good years. Oaks and other food sources can be plentiful in one region but void in another, and bucks in each area may shed at different times.
(Photo below: Not all bucks shed antlers at the same time. These two bucks were captured on camera in the mountains of West Virginia a number of years ago. In this particular area, where winters are very harsh and food sources generally poor, finding a buck with antlers after Christmas was an anomaly.)
Why is this Important?
In recent years, late season hunting has gained a lot of traction. Here in Pennsylvania, after-Christmas flintlock is a bonafide tradition. Hunters gather in large groups and push out thick cover and drive deer past other members of their party. It can be hard to identify a shed antler buck in a group of moving deer. Complicating it even more is the fact that many bucks will group up post rut and winter together. A group of shed antler bucks could easily be mistaken for a group of large does. Just something to consider any time you’re hunting late season whitetails.
It's also important because it puts into perspective the life of a Big Woods buck. I’ve seen a number of posts on social media from rifle season where folks have speculated why a particular deer they killed in the mountains or Big Woods had already shed its antlers or why a buck only had one antler. Most hunters assume that it’s a result of that deer sustaining an injury of some sort, but that’s not usually the case. The truth is, many Big Woods bucks shed their antlers earlier simply because life is tougher here.
Although we may never know to what extent Big Woods bucks shed their antlers earlier (or not) compared to deer in other parts of the country, I do know this: the deer that live in this wild country are a unique brand of whitetail. I’m always amazed at the hardships they endure. These bucks must survive harsh winters, meager food sources, predators, and any number of stresses that deer in agricultural areas may not have to worry about. And it’s something that hunters in many other parts of the country, where life is much easier for deer (and hunters), maybe don’t appreciate.
As I sat admiring my half rack buck on opening day of rifle season this year, I couldn’t help but notice its atrophied, post rut neck. Many of its physical features had softened and were almost doe-like; this deer certainly wasn’t the badass buck it probably had been only a few weeks earlier. It was still a big-bodied deer, though, and it took a while to drag it the mile back to the truck. It was hard work, but considering all that Big Woods bucks must do to survive and how special of an animal they are, I wouldn’t want it any other way.