Carlinville, Ill. — Macoupin County hunter Tanner Gillespie had not planned on harvesting one of the most uncommon deer in North America on opening day of the Illinois muzzleloader season.
But that’s what happened. Gillespie took out a rare 10-point buck – a December buck in full velvet.
“So I decided to take the shot knowing I will more than likely never shoot another velvet deer,” Gillespie, 19, said.
Winter storm Electra was making her presence known. Gillespie was hunting on the ground, and the air had an icy chill of impending winter drama. The freezing rain was accumulating, and the real excitement of the day was not going to be the snow for Gillespie.
He heard a twig snap and “[I] turned around and there he was.”
It took Gillespie a moment to get a good look through the scope of his .50 caliber muzzleloader at the very unique whitetail.
“As I was studying him through my scope, his antlers looked really dark so I turned my scope all the way up to ‘9 power’ and studied his antlers,” Gillespie said. “Then I realized he was in full velvet, which was why it looked so dark.”
Most hunters have vaguely heard talk of a late-season velvet buck. To actually see one, much less have a shot at one, is rare. Tom Micetich, DNR’s deer program manager, said he believes that maybe three such bucks in Illinois are taken each year; and out of 180,000 deer that makes it a rare trophy.
Normally a deer’s antlers grow in a cycle that is controlled by their testosterone levels in accordance to daylight length. A deer whose antlers are not lost at the end of their normal cycle in early spring have cryptorchidism. These cryptorchid bucks, commonly called “Cactus Bucks,” never lose their velvet, and their antlers never stop growing.
Micetich likens the growth pattern to a shrub.
You may cut the shrub’s trunk at the ground, but its roots continue to grow, and many stems may sprout from the stump, he explained. The same is true for a cactus buck.
Many cactus bucks’ antlers are severely damaged through the off season. The pedicels, or antler bases, support the ongoing growth of external beams, and never stop growing.
There are two ways a deer comes in to this condition, experts report. It may be born that way, with deformed testes or as a hermaphrodite – having both female and male sex organs.
The second way is through testicular injury, commonly castration by jumping a fence or some similar accident.
Either way, it’s the end of the genetic line for the buck, as they are no longer a breeding deer.
Dave Samuel, a West Virginia State University wildlife management professor and whitetail expert, has explained in his research that “testosterone problems start and end at the source – the testicles.”
With testosterone being the sole factor in the antler’s growth cycle, it is reasonable that any antler abnormalities would be attributed to the testes.
While not being definitive, it could be reasoned that the characteristics of a cactus buck’s rack give a clue as to whether the deer was born with cryptorchidism or acquired the status due to an injury.
Gillespie’s Macoupin County 10-pointer may remain a mystery as to exactly why the antlers was still in velvet. Due to Winter Storm Electra’s tricks, Gillespie was forced to field dress the deer in the freezing rain and did not notice anything unusual.
When asked if the meat of an in-velvet buck is affected by the condition, Micetich said, “not at all.” Despite the outwardly odd characteristics, a cactus buck is safe to eat, he said.
Gillespie, who has several trail cameras and is an avid deer scouter, reported his velvet buck had not been spotted before the fateful day of Dec. 13.
Gillespie’s taxidermist, Terry Day of Life Like Taxidermy, scored the velvet buck at 1433⁄8.
For the record, and as far as anyone knows, the 2013 Illinois deer season included two cryptorchid bucks harvested.
Quality Deer Management Association reported archer Ryne Wade, of Marion, harvested a late-season velvet buck in November.