Deer hunters who refer to themselves as “meat hunters” rather than “trophy hunters” have a saying: “You can’t eat horns.” 

That may be so, but you can certainly look at them, and it’s the quest for unique antlers that has led to the establishment of Tennessee’s first-ever “velvet season,” which is just over a week away.

The velvet season is simply a three-day hunt that is weeks earlier than the Volunteer State’s traditional deer hunts. Approved by the Tennessee Fish & Wildlife Commission last spring, the hunt will begin Friday, August 24 and continue through Sunday, August 26.

The idea is that the early hunt will give sportsmen a crack at whitetail deer while their antlers are still covered in velvet, which makes for a unique trophy.

The hunt is limited to archery equipment only. Unlike the traditional archery hunt, does are off-limits during the August hunt, though hunters can harvest both of their allotted bucks during the special hunt.

There’s also another caveat, one that will prevent many hunters in Scott County from participating: the velvet hunt is limited to private lands only. The North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Big South Fork National River & Recreation Area are off-limits. 

Tennessee isn’t the first state to establish a velvet hunt. Several other states give hunters opportunities to harvest velveted bucks, including Kentucky. Others include Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and South Carolina.

As bucks’ antlers grow during the summer months, they’re not yet hard. Instead, the antlers are soft to the touch, and include cartilage and blood vessels. The outer layer of skin covering the developing antlers is hair-like in appearance and texture, and is referred to as velvet.

After the deer’s antlers are fully developed, the blood vessels around their base die, causing the antlers to calcify and become bone. The lengthening nights, or photoperiodism, triggers deer to begin shedding the velvety covering as they begin to ramp up for the rut, or the breeding season. Around Labor Day each year, bucks begin to lose their velvet. It is lost in bloody strips as deer rub their antlers on trees or their hooves to rid themselves of the dying flesh, which has become a nuisance.

By the time the archery season traditionally opens in late September, bucks are no longer in velvet. By timing its hunt at the end of August, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency is allowing hunters to target deer after their antlers have finished developing but just before the velvet is lost.

Hunters who successfully bag a velvet buck will find that the challenge is just beginning after the shot has been made. Because temperatures routinely soar into the 80s and even the 90s on late August afternoons, much hotter than the typical archery season from late September through October, meat spoilage will be a concern. In this case, though, it’ll be more than just the tenderloins and hams that hunters have to worry about spoiling. The very trophy they’re seeking will be prone to ruin, too. Because the velvet is actually flesh, it can spoil just like the rest of the deer. 

Deer experts recommend getting harvested deer from the field as quickly as possible during velvet hunts, taking care not to handle the buck’s antlers excessively and certainly not to drag the deer by its antlers. It’s also recommend that the antlers be kept as cool as possible and that the buck be transferred to a taxidermist as quickly as possible.