David Bertsch: 210-Inch Velvet-Racked Ohio Buck
February 11, 2014
I know it's hard to imagine, but the first time I encountered the biggest velvet-racked buck of my life was in January 2011.
When I saw that fresh picture on my scouting camera, my first thought probably was similar to what would have leapt into most other hunters' heads: What's going on here? It's January, and this deer is in velvet! Of course, this question soon was replaced by a burning desire to take this unique whitetail.
I captured images of the buck on my camera a few more times in February 2011, but I neither saw him nor got any more photos until September. In those photos I could tell he was still in full velvet, but he'd grown quite a bit, both in antlers and body.
But then the buck vanished. For the remainder of the 2011-12 deer season he stayed hidden from me — no pictures or sightings. However, another local hunter did get a shot at him in October 2011. That hunter's arrow went over the deer, apparently due to misjudging the distance.
All I could do after the 2011 season was worry that someone else had killed the deer or that he'd been hit by a vehicle. But I never heard of his demise, so I kept my fingers crossed and hoped to capture him on my camera again.
Those hopes were realized in September 2012. Once again I went to check my trail cam, and I saw I had two really good pictures of the velvet buck. To my surprise, his rack had now exploded in size. The added mass and height were just amazing.
I'd been deer hunting for nearly 30 years and have seen some nice bucks; I'd even harvested a 160s-class deer. But this one was like no other I'd ever seen. I just couldn't quit thinking of him. I was blown away by the growth and the fact he continued to be in velvet.
I typically don't hunt until late October. But I knew if I were going to have a chance at this deer, I needed to get after him early. The threat of other hunters or trespassers was on my mind nonstop, as was the fact the deer had disappeared for three months the prior hunting season.
I decided to put in a ground blind a good distance from my normal stand, to give me an option for when the wind wasn't in my favor at the stand. I went in to set up the blind a couple days before the season in a location I could get into and out of in midday without being detected.
However, it didn't turn out that way. As I was leaving the blind location on my quad, I physically saw "Velvet" for the first time. While backing up the machine, I caught movement to my right. To my surprise, it was the huge buck. He was only 40 yards away, accompanied by a small 6-pointer.
They were in a bean field. The deer made a couple bounds and then just walked straight away from me onto the adjacent property. Once again I was blown away by the growth the deer had amassed from 2011 to 2012.
On opening day of bow season I was in my stand an hour before daylight, just hoping to get a chance to at least see Velvet. The thought of this deer was constantly on my mind, along with the fear someone else possibly might take him before I got a chance.
That morning was a good hunt. I saw two really nice young bucks feeding in the bean field, along with several does. However, there was no sighting of Velvet. I left to grab some lunch around noon, but I couldn't wait to get back out for the evening hunt. I was in my stand again by 1 p.m.
Three does entered the beans from their bedding area fairly early, along with a really good 10-pointer that appeared on the far side of the field. All of this activity certainly added to my anticipation of getting to see Velvet. And my excitement and hopes soon became reality.
Velvet was approaching me from a thicket to my north. The wind had been strong from the west all day, meaning it was blowing from me into the field. Velvet worked his way out into the beans, but as he reached a point about 60 yards from my stand I sensed he began to catch my scent. The huge buck became noticeably spooky and then moved back into the woods.
When he stopped, I could see him standing in the wide open about 50 yards from me. The giant was facing straight away. What an awesome look that gave me of his massive velvet rack. And kept giving me. In fact, he tried to figure out my location for nearly an hour before finally getting spooked enough to take a couple of bounds in the direction he'd come from. Then he walked off in the fading daylight.
Will I ever see this deer again? I asked myself. Twice I'd now seen him, and twice I'd somewhat spooked him.
I hunted for the next week and a half with no sightings or additional pictures of this deer. I couldn't help but think I'd blown it. Not only had I spooked him, the previous year he'd disappeared during the season. He might now be gone again for the rest of 2012. Maybe even forever.
I decided to stay away for a couple of weeks to let things settle down in the woods. And as it turned out, that was a smart move.
I worked the morning of Oct. 28, then went home to watch some football. The wind was blowing hard, as Hurricane Sandy was coming up the East Coast and having a significant effect on our weather in Ohio.
As my son, Devin, and I were watching an early NFL game, I looked over at him and said, "It's been a couple weeks since I've hunted. Things should have settled down in the woods. I should be hunting Velvet, not watching football today. No matter how strong the winds are," I concluded.
"No doubt!" Devin replied. "You can watch football anytime. Go hunt that deer!"
So that's what I did. I went back to the same stand from which I'd seen Velvet earlier in the month, getting there around 2 p.m. The weather definitely wasn't the greatest: not only was it windy, it also was mostly cloudy, with a wind chill in the 30s.
I was rocking and rolling while holding onto the tree for the first couple hours, and a couple times I considered climbing down. But I stuck with it, as early deer movement was encouraging; around 3 o'clock a few does fed out into the bean field (which by now had been cut), and they stayed out there a long time.
As it turned out, those does' presence was a major factor in how my quest for the huge buck culminated.
Later in the afternoon, Velvet and another really nice buck walked into the far corner of the cut beans. That's when the three does' presence began to work in my favor. The other buck started chasing one of them around the field, eventually pushing her into the woods just 20 yards from my tree.
The buck and doe stopped dead downwind from my tree. And Velvet wasn't far behind them. I thought for sure the deer in the woods would blow and spook out of there as the velvet buck was getting closer, ruining any chance for a shot at him. But luckily, that didn't happen. I guess my cover scent did its job.
Velvet came over and looked into the woods where the other deer had gone in. But then — fortunately for me — he backed out and walked down the field edge, turning into the woods exactly where my own entrance trail was. He came in heading straight at me at 30 yards.
By now I had my crossbow's red dot scope right on him, just waiting and hoping to get a clean shot. Velvet stopped for a few minutes, looking to see where that other buck and doe were. He then turned dead broadside, and I squeezed the trigger. He fell instantly, as I hit him a little high at 30 yards. I then reloaded and shot the great buck again as he tried to get back onto his feet.
Amazingly, I didn't get nervous until the deer hit the ground. That's when I really started shaking out of my skin. I don't remember hitting a step coming out of that tree. I just couldn't wait to get my hands on this deer!
When I reached Velvet, he was just as amazing as I'd thought. I couldn't believe my eyes: the mass and height of the antlers were incredible. I immediately started calling everyone I could think of, telling them, "I got Velvet! I got Velvet!"
I just feel so lucky and blessed to have taken this amazing animal. Of course, since then some people have asked what my next goal is, now that I've taken a 200-plus-inch deer. I tell them that I just love being in the woods. I don't have to kill a 200-inch deer. I just enjoy being out there and seeing all of the wildlife.
I really don't consider myself a trophy hunter; I'm more a deer hunter who loves being in the woods and was fortunate to have scouting camera pictures of a monster deer, along with the opportunity to hunt where he lived. I became a trophy hunter for the 2012 season because of him. It all worked out, thanks to luck, some experience, planning and putting in enough time in the woods.
Of course, I had help. First, thanks to the friend who obtained permission for me to hunt that property, as well as to the landowner. And thanks to Devin for pushing me to hunt that windy afternoon. What a day it turned out to be.
What could explain the persistent velvet on the buck's rack? An Ohio DNR Division of Wildlife deer project leader said he believed the cause for the velvet antlers so late in the season was a lack of testosterone in the deer's system. My buck apparently never got the surge needed for the antlers to mineralize (harden). That's the bottom line.
The biologist noted it's possible Velvet had an injury to the testicles. In any event, the buck is a true trophy in more ways than one. While bowhunters in Kentucky, just a few miles south of us, have an early bow opener that sees quite a few velvet-racked bucks taken each year, it's for sure a rarity here in Ohio.
"We get calls all the time from hunters wanting us to open our archery season earlier, because they would love to shoot a buck in velvet," the state biologist told me.
Fortunately, in my case the season still opened early enough!
If this buck's ongoing velvet seems odd to you, Dr. James Kroll concurs. But as the director of the Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research, "Dr. Deer" claims there's an interesting reason for this anomaly.
"I think the buck was normal until the year he grew the first rack David photographed," the biologist notes. "Instead of coming out of velvet as he should have (in late summer 2010), he didn't produce testosterone to shut off the growth cycle. He probably continued to grow antler very slowly during the fall and winter, then resumed growing rapidly in spring and summer (2011). That fall he once again failed to shed velvet. This continued until the deer was shot."
Regardless of what caused this Ohio buck to keep growing his antlers all year, one thing's for sure: He's among the most impressive basic 8-pointers of all time — with or without the fuzz.
Of course, deer such as this present an interesting quandary for the record books. Even if the velvet were stripped off, should a rack be eligible for entry if the deer took far more than the normal span of time to grow all of it?
In many cases of "stag" bucks, the typical frame is far less well defined, and there's a far higher percentage of non-typical growth present. But in the case of the Bertsch buck, the only thing really bizarre about the rack (other than its sheer size) is the fact it never came out of velvet.
Regardless of the relatively normal antler configuration, Justin Spring, assistant director of Big Game Records for Boone & Crockett, says all "stag" buck antlers are ineligible for entry into B&C's record book. Of course, this exclusion in no way detracts from the sheer impressiveness of the Bertsch buck's stunning typical frame.