This time of year, most outdoors-obsessed Coloradans grab their cell phones, Nikons, Canons — anything with a lens — and head to the mountains in search of Instagram-worthy photos of changing aspens. Local TV forecasters show detailed maps of peak times in peak areas, guiding caravans of leaf lovers into the hills. For them, the official signs of the change of season are mountains painted yellow and gold.
I, however, wanted to chronicle a different sign of the season — one more interesting to orange-clad hunters: that of mule deer bucks shedding their antler velvet. During the first few weeks of September, a few times a week, I would leave work and head to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge in northeast Denver hoping to find bucks lit by the golden-hour light. At the Arsenal, they have decent populations of both mule and white-tailed deer, but by the time I started this project, the whitetail bucks had all shed their velvet.
Andy Holland, a Colorado Parks and Wildlife big game manager, thinks that the peak date for mule deer shedding is Sept. 15. “But it varies,” he says.
That fits with what I observed. My best and bloodiest photos were taken on Sept. 12, and by the 19th, about a third had antlers scraped clean, a third had mostly full velvet, and the rest had antler beams covered in what looks like a combination of road rash and moss, with some points looking like used Q-tips. So, if you are wanting to see this for yourself, head out ASAP. Or, enjoy these photos and set a Save the Date for next year.
Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine.