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One final deer hunt despite the weather

I’ve never deer hunted in a flash flood, but it was looking it might  be that way as I prepared earlier this week for today’s last attempt at an “alternative methods” deer. 

Our son is home for three days and wanted to get in another day of deer hunting if possible. I intended to hunt with a buddy at our property on Wednesday of this past week, but high winds and rain changed our plans. Since then I’ve been banking on today’s hunt to put a little more venison in the freezer before the new year and season’s end. 

But hunting in 60 degree rainy weather the last week of December calls for a wardrobe change from the usual layers of warming wool and other protective layers. 

We spent part of Christmas day shooting in the back yard. It seems someone in the family is always getting a new gun for Christmas, and ammunition is a standard in nearly everyone’s stocking.

As usual we had a blast, pun intended, and my son and I got schooled in precision rifle marksmanship by his sister and my daughter. Of course, we excelled in shooting pistols. Everyone in the family can shoot … as it should be.

But back to late-season deer hunting. I prefer my late season deer outings to take place with a skiff of snow on the ground. Hunting in the snow is a real treat. I enjoy seeing the fields and woods in a way I rarely have a chance to see them.

A dusting, or completing coating, of snow adds a different dimension to the landscape. I like looking at the game trails in a fresh layer of powder. Moving game is far more obvious against the white background. And it’s just refreshing to be out in a chilly day with fresh snow on the ground and fresh air coursing through the lungs.

I like to both deer and squirrel hunt in the snow. But I also enjoy just taking a walk looking for shed antlers … and we’re just getting into the time when the bucks will be losing their annual headgear.

Every year about this time I talk about hunting shed (discarded) antlers as a great wintertime outing. For the readers not familiar with deer, antlered animals (usually bucks [males] but not always, occasionally a female will have antlers) grow a set of antlers starting each late spring. Then in mid-winter — usually between late December and late February in Missouri — those antlers will loosen from the animal’s skull and eventually fall off.

But antlers seldom simply fall off. A biological change in the animal causes the bone antler to loosen from the skull, but they’re still attached slightly by skin which grows up to the base of the headgear. In fact, antlers are covered in furry skin — called ‘velvet’ — until they grow to full size, at which time the skin will begin to dry up and eventually fall off to display the bone antler beneath.

The process apparently really itches, causing the deer to rub the velvet-covered antlers against small trees to help ease the itch … which in turn tears the velvety covering away from the bone. And yes, deer antlers are bone … as opposed to cow horns which are hollow and more closely resemble the consistency of a human’s fingernails, and remain in place throughout the cow’s life span.

For seasoned deer hunters this explanation was neither necessary or very detailed, but part of being a good steward of wild Missouri is imparting outdoor knowledge on people who might just be getting into the outdoor sports, or who may be curious even if they never intend to hunt. And that’s the beauty of hunting shed antlers as a hobby this time of year. Anyone, whether they hunt or not, can enjoy a walk in the woods on a winter day looking for discarded antlers — which, in turn, make great decoration pieces, knife handles, candle holders or lamps, buttons, or adornment for picture frames among other uses.

 For anyone who owns a piece of rural land, there’s something you can do this time of year to help deer grow bigger, healthier antlers (as well as contributing to over all animal health). January is a great time to create mineral licks throughout rural properties. The deer and other animals will visit the sites throughout the year as a reliable source of necessary minerals. Creating a mineral lick is relatively easy and inexpensive, and once you have one or more in place you can “freshen” them up without spending much money at all.

There are two ways to buy mineral lick ingredients. The first is to purchase a name-brand formulated mineral lick mixture (which comes in a powder, pellets or compressed blocks). These are offered by companies who sell outdoor supplies, often at a premium price. A 25 to 50 pound bag of mineral mix can easily cost $40 or more.

But there’s a much more affordable option if you want to create effective mineral licks on the cheap. The formula is an easy one that has been widely distributed for years. It consists of three ingredients all available from your nearest farm supply feed store. A quantity of 200 pounds of ingredients can be purchased for about $65 these days. You mix them up yourself as needed, and keep the remainder stored away in a dry place until needed in the future to “freshen” up your mineral lick locations.

The three ingredients are 1) Dicalcium Phosphate, 2) Trace minerals, and 3) Stock salt. Each comes in a 50 pound bag and you’ll want two parts trace minerals to one part each Dical and salt. A call to the closest feed store this week showed the Dical costing $40 (up slightly from the last time I bought a bag), the trace minerals at a cost of $11 per bag, and stock salt costing just under $5 per bag. That’s 200 pounds of minerals for less than $70.

As a quick explanation, Dicalcium Phosphate is a dairy cattle feed additive which helps with milk production, weight gain and food digestion. Both phosphorus and calcium — ingredients in “DiCal” — can be found in deer antler. Consider it something of an antler fertilizer.

Trace minerals include sodium, potassium and magnesium, which are all important to over all animal health. And stock salt provides the necessary sodium a body needs, but its main purpose in creating a mineral lick is as an attractant to draw the animal to the lick which holds the more beneficial, but less tasty, DiCal and trace minerals.

Mix only the minerals you intend to put out at the time. Don’t mix all 200 pounds together. Keep the bags seperated and mix only a few pounds at time of each application. For example, a good starting point is three pounds of DiCal, six pounds of Trace minerals, and three pounds of Stock Salt. A three pound coffee can is a good measure to work with, but a feed scoop or small shovel will do the job as well.

Add all three ingredients into a container large enough to hold the 12 pounds of mixture and stir it up good. Next, plow or till up an area about six inches deep and three feet square. Of course it’s best to try to do this when the ground isn’t frozen solid. For years we kept one of grandpa’s vintage Farmalls and a set of discs at the farm. A few years ago we moved it to my dad’s house for fear someone would steal it from the unattended barn. While I have one of those vintage tractors, it’s a hassle to haul just for working up smaller areas.

So I use a garden tractor and plow and discs, or a spike aerator on previously-tilled soil. I can easily haul my old but tough Cub Cadet 127 and implements on my small utility trailer. The little tractor is easy to work with and has a tight turning radius for working around trees and in corners. 

Once the ground is prepped, broadcast the mineral mix into the loosened soil and incorporate it well. Tilling the mixture into the soil with a garden tiller works great, but a hoe, shovel or rake can get the job done as well.

It’s important to actually put the mineral mix into the soil as opposed to dumping it on top of the ground. Animals, especially deer, like to root and scrape mineral rich soil as opposed to licking it off the surface.  As example, in the past I’ve set out salt blocks on rocks or stumps for wildlife. While squirrels and other assorted creatures would gnaw on the blocks a little, deer would dig and paw at the salt-soaked soil around the dissolving block.

Once you have your mineral lick mixture tilled in initially, return every six months or so and “freshen” up the areas with another 9-12 pounds of mineral mix. Here’s where I’ll use my spike aerator behind the garden tractor or ATV. Then I’ll broadcast the mineral mix and rake it in. 

At this rate those four bags of minerals — one Dicalcium Phosphate, two Trace mineral, and one Stock Salt — will create and maintain two mineral licks for four years. If you don’t want to create multiple mineral licks, split the cost of the minerals with a friend or relative to be divided between two pieces of land.

 You’ll be amazed at how many deer and other animal tracks you will see around established licks year round. And the mineral licks are a great place to set up game cameras or use a portable blind and watch or photograph wildlife, especially in winter.

Why not make it a point while family are nearby for the holidays to get outside and spend some time enjoying our magnificent Missouri Ozarks. 

It's relatively inexpensive to purchase bulk minerals and make your own mixture for mineral licks on your own land. Weigh and mix the three ingredients properly when you're ready to use them. Until then keep them separate. 

It’s relatively inexpensive to purchase bulk minerals and make your own mixture for mineral licks on your own land. Weigh and mix the three ingredients properly when you’re ready to use them. Until then keep them separate. 

Doug Smith lives in an old house, drives an old truck, tinkers with old tractors, is married to a young woman, hunts and fishes often, and can be found on any given day wearing his Buffalo plaid flannel jacket and matching Elmer Fudd hat (… and can be found in the next couple weeks freshening up his mineral licks.)

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