Volume: 19 | Back to issueSubscribe Now
feature By: Jack Ballard | November, 18
The buck showed itself on a warm August morning. An expanse of pastureland and wheat fields at the base of a low mountain on my family’s ranch was the perennial summer home of a pronghorn herd. Its number varied by season, sometimes containing as few as a dozen animals; at other times representing as many as 40. In early summer, a number of bucks might be found hanging about the band. But as daylight waned and grasses yellowed toward the end of July, a dominant buck inevitably became the sovereign of the herd. Winters were a bit harsh and the elevation slightly high for nurturing trophy bucks. Nonetheless, “nice” bucks with 13-inch horns of respectable mass and prong sometimes left their hoofprints on the grainfields and the native shortgrass prairie.
This buck was exceptional. Its horns were not terribly long or massive, but they bent forward at the bases to run perfectly parallel to the animal’s jawline, reaching almost to the tip of its nose. An older brother and I were mesmerized. Our hopes of pulling a pronghorn tag in the impending drawing increased exponentially as we chatted excitedly about shooting such a unique animal. Knuckles clutching the steering wheel of the dusty three-quarter-ton pickup, my dad snorted dismissively as he depressed the clutch and reached for the ignition key. “Why in the world do want to kill a freak?” he asked, disdain clearly inflected in the query.
Why indeed? We marshalled our arguments. This buck might not have trophy measurements, even by local standards, but it was rare and different. Mounted on the wall, it would surely command more interest than the 15-inch bucks sometimes shot on the milder prairies in the next county. The next few seasons found us wishing fervently to draw a tag, but although the odds were generally favorable at least on an every-other-year basis, we never struck pay dirt. Despite the oddity of its horns, the buck was obviously able to repel its rivals. That buck subjugated the doe herd for three years, its outlandish headgear gaining mass with each season. I drew a pronghorn tag for the ranch a few years later and downed a plainly average buck. Though I rued the lost opportunity on the non-typical, my father seemed completely happy.
Modern hunters are not the only ones who find unusual horns and antlers worthy of note. Osborne Russell traipsed thousands of miles over the Rocky Mountains as a fur trapper. He was a rarity among his fellows; a literate, thoughtful man who chronicled his journeys and experiences in a written journal from 1834 to 1843. On August 21, 1835, Russell and several companions ascended the Gallatin Range from “Gardner’s Hole” on the upper Yellowstone River in Montana, then dropped down along a lofty tributary of the Gallatin River.
The party killed a bull elk near their camp. Among a party whose occupation found an animal’s meat infinitely more valuable than its antlers, Russell’s journal notes the animal’s opulent body condition but also records its unusual rack: “Here we encamped on a small clear spot and killed the fattest Elk I ever saw. It was a large Buck the fat on his rump measured seven inches thick he had 14 spikes or branches on the left horn and 12 on the right.”
As a youth, my family found three consecutively shed antlers of a mule deer that wintered in the vicinity of our wheat fields. The first antler had a classic mule deer look with four tines on top, a modest brow tine and a 2-inch “kicker” erupting from one of the upper forks. The following year’s antler was a slightly larger version of the first. The final set saw not one, but three nicely triangulated non-typical points jutting from the rack. In all likelihood, the buck had finally achieved enough age for its unusual antler genetics to more fully express themselves.
Injury to developing tissue is also responsible for non-typical antlers. In such cases, the abnormal set may last but a single year. Velvet antlers, especially during early development, contain a mass of rapidly dividing tissue. The forming appendages are solid but soft. A retired state biologist from Pennsylvania has described them as having the consistency of jelly. Impact from hard objects, or cuts, can easily damage velvet antlers. Injuries in which the developing antler is able to maintain a blood supply past the trauma continue to develop, sometimes resulting in extremely odd racks.
One of the most unique elk racks I’ve observed while hunting was probably the result of a rather severe injury to one bull’s mostly developed antlers. Some years ago I was scouring a long, steep north slope and had encountered several bunches of elk. Inching along through a thick stand of lodgepole and clotted deadfall, my attention was arrested by movement up the slope. Several minutes of looking failed to reveal anything significant, so I prepared to move on. Just then, an elk stepped into view.
Hastily jamming my 8x compact binocular eyeward, I carefully surveyed a spike bull. Movement to the spike’s rear soon diverted my scrutiny. Another elk stood from its bed. Moments later it stepped into view, revealing a heavy, typical 5-point antler on one side and an atypical on the other that turned from the bull’s head just above the antler base and grew nearly straight down. It had the appearance of a nearly typical antler that an impish ogre had grabbed and bent well beyond 90 degrees.
The bull was broadside at 50 yards. I had mentally dressed and caped this unique trophy, but in my haste to shoot before the elk moved, my binocular bumped ever so slightly against my rifle. The barely perceptible clink had a very perceptible effect on the elk, and it was a glum, self-chastened hunter left standing in the timber.
Parasites can also cause temporary antler abnormalities. Ticks or blow flies may invade velvet antlers. The wound sites from such parasites create small or quite notable deformities in antlers. If blow flies lay eggs in the velvet, the wounded area often creates depressions in the antler and may stimulate other unusual growth patterns as well.
My only personal experience with such a phenomenon occurred on a whitetail hunt in south-central Nebraska. A morning spent watching prime habitat near the Republican River in mid-November yielded the sighting of just one modest buck, although the rut was beginning in earnest. Midday warmth produces more ideal conditions for a nap than roaming bucks, so my hunting companions and I abandoned our stands to eat a leisurely lunch followed by a couple of hours of couch time. Planted in a tower blind at a different location later in the afternoon, the air cooled nicely as the clock slipped toward evening. When a “no-brainer” buck jogged out of the brush toward two does feeding in front of the blind, I forced myself to concentrate on the shot, not the animal’s antlers.
A Hornady 95-grain slug from my .243 Winchester pierced the brute’s lower ribcage at less than 100 yards. About the time another round was secured in the chamber, it veered wobbly into a shallow wash toward the base of an ancient cottonwood tree and disappeared. Thinking it unwise to immediately depart from my elevated position, I watched for several minutes before clearing the chamber and climbing from the blind. The buck was stone-dead, and even larger than expected. Though both brow tines were broken, it sported four long tines on a curving main beam on its right antler. The left was deformed with several divots and abnormalities – clearly the work of blow flies. The parasites undoubtedly robbed the animal of the symmetry of what would have been a rack within 10 points (or less) of qualifying for the Boone and Crockett record book. It is nonetheless my largest whitetail and the subject of conversation when any antler aficionado views the unusual rack.
Injuries that alter the pedicles, the bony projections on an animal’s head from which antlers develop, may cause antler abnormalities persisting for the rest of its life. Bucks and bulls that develop more than one antler beam on a side have normally sustained such injuries. Hormonal imbalances and aberrations to reproductive organs are also the sources of non-typical racks. Injuries
to other parts of the body can also create antler oddities, usually suppressing the size and contorting the appearance of the antler on the opposite side of the trauma. In some cases, normal antler development reoccurs after the injury has healed.
Horned animals also develop headgear peculiarities. Pronghorn bucks occasionally sprout all manner of unusual horns. The pointed portion of the horn above the prong may tip in abnormal directions. Entire horns sometimes grow at odd angles to the head, as was the case with the buck my brother and I so ardently desired to hunt in our youth. The pronghorn is the only truly horned animal that annually sheds its horns. The new horns develop around two bony cores on a buck’s head normally carried in an upright position. Extreme oddities among pronghorn horns are likely a result of irregularities in the bone cores.
On a couple of hunts, I have had the opportunity to pursue non-typical bucks. One was in eastern Montana, where I spotted a buck with what amounted to spike horns. The animal’s ebony headgear lacked the prong of a normal buck. Rather than curving inward and slightly back in the usual fashion, its horns extended in straight spikes above its head. After missing a shot at what I deemed a rare trophy in a howling, gusty crosswind, I followed the lone animal across the plains, confident I would get another shot.
The buck at last offered a broadside shot – to another hunter. I heard the report as I crested a rise and saw the prostrate animal below. The fortunate fellow was happy to give me a look at his prize and produced a tape from his pack. A measurement of just over 15 inches was confirmed on both sides of the spike-horned pronghorn.
Several years later, while hunting antelope in north-central Wyoming I noticed what appeared to be an odd buck at the edge of a distant herd. Switching from a binocular to a spotting scope, I locked eyes on a buck with horns growing horizontally from its skull like the wings of an airplane. A long hike brought me within easy shooting distance of the herd, and I sealed the deal on what is certainly one of the most unusual sets of antelope horns I’ve seen.
Unusual horns sometimes adorn other animals. Last spring I hunted black springbok in South Africa with Carl and Malcom Malcomess at Hunts with Hans (firstname.lastname@example.org) near Burgersdorp. After two fine, perfectly normal rams were harvested by both my wife and me, I spied another ram with a horn that looked like it had been bent forcefully downward from the animal’s head. Gaining the guide’s attention, I pointed out the strange springbok. His enthusiasm for culling this oddball was immediately as great as mine for shooting it.
Just over a year later when the trophies arrived at our taxidermist, I discovered my father apparently was not the only one offended by the horns of a “freak.” The taxidermist in Africa had carefully broken the horn and glued it back into the “normal” position before shipping the skull and horns our way. “That’s an easy fix,” insured the taxidermist when I explained the situation.
Non-typcial horns and antlers titillate the senses. They often make an animal with average headgear exceptional. Hunters’ reactions to them are varied, but I find them fascinating. Sorry, Dad, but your son is a sucker for the freaks.