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Horn-touching time is almost here. Now, by horns, I mean deer antlers — and before you unleash a storm of emails and letters on your humble outdoors scribe, I know antlers are different from horns.

Antlers are grown by the male members of the deer family (Cervidae, which includes caribou, deer, elk and moose), while horns are grown by various other ungulates (hoofed mammals such as cattle, goats, sheep and, in the wild, a large array of antelope-related critters). Horns are generally permanent; most antlers are shed annually and regrown.

Got all that? There will be a quiz later.

Just in case you don't know, most deer hunters are obsessed with deer horns (antlers). We love to look at them, touch them and compare them to others, and we spend entirely too much time contemplating how to bring home a big buck all of our buddies will envy.

Why are deer hunters like this? I am not sure. Sometimes when we are having these in-depth discussions I will relate back to the ancient hunters huddled around the fire, roasting a big hunk of the herbivore they skewered that day to feed themselves and their families.

It is just my opinion that our early ancestors paid much less attention to the size of the antlers on the beast they collected. These hunters couldn't eat the antlers, so I believe they didn't care about the size of the rack. True, antlers were used for making various tools by early hunters, but providing food for the group was the priority.

Antler growth is one of the wonders of the natural world. Most deer drop their antlers in late winter, and the regrowth process begins right away. From an attachment point on the skull, called a pedicle, a blood supply is established and a fuzzy vascular skin referred to as velvet supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing antler. Antlers in velvet are possibly the fastest-growing tissue known to man and may grow as much as half an inch per day.

Antlers in this velvet stage are soft and easily damaged, which is one reason you may see bucks with broken and oddly shaped racks later in the season. By late summer, when the antlers reach full size, the blood supply stops and antlers harden into bone. The velvet dries up and is shed when the bucks rub their antlers on trees and brush as they prepare for the festivities of the mating season known as the rut.

So back to that antler fascination thing. Many deer hunters extend this by wanting to take a buck still in velvet, considering this an unusual trophy. Tennessee will become one of the states that allows this when a three-day archery deer season is held Friday through Sunday on private land, with only antlered deer being legal. The Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commission voted at its May meeting to establish this short season to give hunters an opportunity to harvest a buck with velvet-covered antlers. The hunt is not open on any Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency's wildlife management areas, and sportsmen are reminded to ask for permission to hunt on private land.

Deer hunting for velvet bucks in August may not be your cup of tea, but let's look at it for a moment.

Having spent more than 35 years of my life in DNR world, you might surmise I have some opinion on this. The first thing I try to look at when any discussion starts about seasons or hunting methods on game animals is this: Is this season or method going to adversely affect the resource? This could be discussed till all of the bovines come home. To me it comes down to this: Does it make much difference if you take a buck in late August instead of in November? I don't think so; bucks taken during the August velvet season still count toward a hunter's two-buck limit for the season in Tennessee.

Reactions to the new early season are all over the board, from calling it a good thing to a work of the devil that will adversely affect deer herds. Some Tennessee bow hunters don't seem to object to the new season, they simply don't elect to join in because it just too warm to start hunting. One of the arguments I do not understand is the "this is a way for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) to get more revenue" complaint. Well, to that I would say this: If the velvet season does no harm to the resource, which is the deer herd, what is the problem?

If the TWRA is like every other wildlife agency in the United States and desperate for funds, I applaud the move.

Will many hunters participate in the new August buck season? My guess is probably not. New seasons tend to be not as well known and not well-attended at first. Hunters who do venture out for this new experience are reminded that bucks taken while still in velvet require a lot of care. Those horns (antlers) are very fragile and can spoil very quickly in late summer heat and humidity. It would be best to have a plan beforehand to get that buck to a cooler or your taxidermist quickly.

Whether you plan to take advantage of the new season or stay on the porch and drink sweet tea, let me know. It would be great to see some pictures of those velvet bucks — send those in and we can decide later if they have horns or antlers.

"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at larryocase3@gmail.com.

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