The following appears in the April issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
STORY AND PHOTOSBY PAUL D. ATKINS
From a distance, we could see the small herd working its way into the valley. They were headed south – as usual – and only stopping to feed every now and then.
My hunting partner and I were out earlier in the season than usual, and the late afternoon jaunt up the river proved to be a good move on our part. It was still August, and the temperature for hunting caribou wasn’t what I would call ideal. But there were bulls.
From what I could also tell they were in full velvet. I wanted a bull in velvet, but with the long walk ahead and the never- ending battle with mosquitoes, it was going to have to be a big one.
BACK IN THE EARLY days of my arrival in Northwest Alaska, I had a lot to learn about hunting the Arctic. The term “greenhorn” was pretty apropos back then, especially when it came to knowing where I was or the location we were hunting.
I was usually traveling with someone who actually did know, so I didn’t really take the time to study or find out. I just went along and didn’t worry about it much back then. That was my first mistake; the second was my ignorance of rivers, or more specifically, places on rivers. Yes, I knew where the Noatak River was, at least up past the fish hatchery anyway. But if we were traveling up the Kobuk, it was a whole different story.
After my first year of watching caribou, I became a resident, which allowed me to hunt the subsistence allotment of caribou within my unit. It was an awesome feeling, to say the least, and even more so knowing that my first outing would be with friends up the mighty Kobuk.
I remember sitting in the back of the boat facing the motor (probably another reason I didn’t know where anything was), watching and waiting until we found animals or made camp.
It was the first day of September, which – compared to today – was way too early to be hunting caribou. I knew if we did see animals they would probably still be in velvet, which was something I had never seen, except for the summer whitetails back home in the Lower 48.
There were several of us on this trip, all eager to fill our tags – plus our freezers – and even though we didn’t score on that first day, the second proved more to be more lucrative.
Wes saw the caribou crossing the river while rounding a bend. There were big bulls led by a few cows. We quickly made anchor and waited to see if they would come our way. As I sat there, I noticed the mosquitoes and observed how green things were, signs of the season. But would the caribou come our way or head in the other direction? Luckily, it was the former, allowing me to shoot my first caribou at 50 yards. He was big, dark bodied and had an impressive set of head gear. The cool part was that he was in full velvet.
Early-season caribou and moose hunters will often find bulls that are in full velvet or at least partially covered. It is truly a spectacular sight and often considered unique.
A LOT OF HUNTERS want to preserve that trophy just as they found it, but when it comes to keeping the velvet intact and not spoiling, many – like me on that first hunt – may not know exactly what to do. I do now, but I really wish I had back in those days.
Antler growth is very unique and one of the fastest-growing substances known to man. Basically, velvet is a tissue that covers the antler and provides nutrients and oxygen as the bone grows. Blood flows underneath the velvet and helps produce the hard antler, resulting in the gigantic bulls and bucks we seek. The more velvet, the bigger the trophy.
Many people who hunt in the early season like to take bulls in velvet, and at the same time they want to preserve it for their mount. However, there are factors that come into play when it comes to saving the velvet. First and foremost, it must remain as cool and dry as possible. This can be tough to do when it comes to dealing with Alaska weather. Late August and early September can be fickle and hard to forecast. I’ve seen it below freezing with snow, and also hot, dry and 80 degrees. Velvet doesn’t do well in warm temperatures, and it makes it that much worse if it’s raining.
If you are lucky enough to take a bull in velvet and get it back to camp, you should first find some shade, either in a bunch of trees – if you have trees – or make a lean- to using a basic tarp. Keeping the antlers from direct sunlight will help significantly. The cool night air also assists in the drying process. And it also helps if you hang your antlers upside down to let the blood drain as much as possible.
When it comes to saving the velvet, be sure to handle with care. Velvet slips and in some cases the antler tips are not quite hardened, and the material will break off with the slightest bump. A hunter should get their antlers to a taxidermist as soon as possible, which probably means taking them to the nearest shop. A good rule of thumb is about 10 days max from the kill date; otherwise they begin to spoil and rot.
MY FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH trying to save velvet was a bad one. We shot several early-season bulls and had them shipped to the Lower 48 – a big mistake. When they arrived and the crate was opened, it was not a pretty sight. All was lost.
Hunters who want to save a few bucks and preserve the antlers themselves can do so with a little practice and not too much effort. If this is the plan, here are a few tips and techniques to help in getting a velvet bull from the field to the trophy room.
There are basically two methods of preserving velvet antlers. One is to freeze-dry it over a long period of time. I have done this, and it works fine, but I live here in the Arctic, where the temperatures are cool and the humidity is low. I have at times brought my antlers home and placed them under my porch. After a year or so they are perfectly dried, have no odor and look great.
A freezer is probably a better option than a porch, but either way the key is to get the antlers home as quickly as possible, and keep them as cold and dry as you can. This method will eliminate the messy procedure of the second option.
That second and probably most realistic way is to inject the antlers with a solution of some kind. Formaldehyde has been used a great deal in the past and still is by some. It’s a colorless gas solution that, when injected into the velvet, acts like a preservative. But this procedure can be dangerous, as formaldehyde is a poison. If you go this route, make sure you take every precaution when handling the stuff.
A method that is less toxic is to apply a mixture called Velvet Tan, which comes in a bottle and can be bought at any taxidermy supply store. The process is basically the same as injecting formaldehyde.
My bottom-line advice is to keep the antlers as dry and cool as possible and get them to the nearest taxidermist asap. These professionals know exactly what they’re doing and will take care of it for you. But if you’re a DIY type, you’ll need rubber gloves, safety glasses, a razor blade or knife, syringe, a paintbrush or two, and then basically follow these easy steps:
1) Make a small cut at the ends of the antler tips with the razor blade.
2) Hang the antlers upside down and let the blood drain.
3) Fill the syringe with tanning solution and, starting at the base, inject the veins in the velvet skin and continue until the solution is dripping out the bottom.
4) Let it hang overnight.
5) Brush a light layer of Velvet Tan over the antlers and then let it dry for a few hours.
6) Use a dry brush to go over the vel- vet and give it a uniform look.
At this point, you can let it set for a while. When you’re ready to have the antlers mounted, you’ll be ready to go.
DURING THAT FOREVER WALK on that long-ago August day, the bugs were relentless as advertised, but as we climbed the steep bank and ventured across the deep tussocks of the open tundra, I knew we would be close.
I was soaked in sweat due to the unusually warm weather and could tell pretty quick that I had way too many clothes on. After finding a good vantage point we sat and glassed. The no-see- ums and gnats swarmed us in their pursuit of bare skin, but there were bulls, and from what the Leicas told me, there were a couple of worthy contenders in the small group.
We closed the distance a little further and set an ambush point behind a couple of low-lying spruce trees. It was close, but like clockwork the bulls passed within bow range. The big bull in the group looked like a true giant, with mass I hadn’t seen in a while (they always do when they are in velvet). So I focused on him.
At 43 yards the shot was true and the bull was mine. We took some quick pictures and I began the chore of getting him apart and on the pack frame. It took a couple of long hauls back to the boat before we were done, but it gave me time to think of what I needed to do to preserve the velvet on these antlers. With no taxidermist for 600 miles, I figured I would just put him under the porch. It worked.
A mounted trophy that is in full velvet, whether it be a moose, caribou or blacktail deer, is beautiful and unique. They’re different and remind us of an early-season hunt in the Last Frontier. Hopefully your trophy will last forever with these simple basic steps and directions. ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska, who is a regular contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal. He’s had hundreds of articles published on big game hunting in Alaska and throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. His new book,Atkins’ Alaska, is available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon and everywhere good books are sold. It can also be ordered through his website, paulatkinsoutdoors.com, and if you want an autographed copy, email him at email@example.com.