You Can’t Eat Deer Antlers

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Most deer and elk antlers salvaged by hunters are stashed in a farm outbuilding.
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This illustration looks almost exactly like my brother and me hunting mule deer in the 1960s and ’70s using his World War II-era jeep.
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This “Greetings From Idaho” postcard (published in 1950) shows the timeless humor that surrounds the relationship between the hunter and the hunted.

In the very earliest days in colonial America, big game hunting was a way of life for settlers. In fact, for most of our history, in addition to farm-raised animals, wild game was a significant source of meat for those living in rural America.

As late as the early 20th century, laying in the meat of a deer or elk was considered essential for winter survival for those in rural or remote areas. In our part of western America, it was even the goal of those in isolated areas to harvest a bear once a year. Not only was bear meat considered a treat, the fat from the carcass was needed for cooking.

Of course, in modern times hunting has become something quite different from providing subsistence. Still, almost everyone I know who hunts big game does it as much for the meat as for the sport. There is no greater contempt among them than what they feel for the individual who kills an animal and abandons or wastes the meat. It is an unwritten code that you eat what you shoot.

Collecting antlers

In our area, it is not unusual to visit the farm home of a longtime hunter and see a bunch (as few as three to as many as a couple of dozen) mule deer antlers. Sometimes you’ll see a few elk antlers. They may be placed somewhere they can be seen; other times they are stored in an outbuilding.

When experienced collectors collect and display antlers, it isn’t a show of value. It’s just that antlers are about the only part of the animal that can’t be eaten, and it just doesn’t seem right to throw them away. Don’t confuse the antlers in this discussion with those of trophy hunters who mount their successes for all to see. At a farm or ranch, you are just as apt to see mule deer spike buck antlers as a four- or five-point rack.

Anyone who has spent a lifetime hunting elk or deer, as this author has, can spend hours telling hunting stories. No two hunters’ stories are the same. Most have some unusual or humorous feature that was burned into the participants’ memories. We like to joke that “the first liar doesn’t have a chance,” but that doesn’t mean the events related aren’t true. It is just that most discussions start with some casual observation about hunting and, as time goes by, the really unusual experiences are brought up.

The bulletproof buck

One of my unique deer antler stories has to do with a long shot I took one morning at a big buck that was about as far away as one would want to shoot. This was in open country with no trees around. Happily, it appeared a clean kill was made as the deer immediately fell to the ground. It took quite a long time to cover the distance from where we were to where it was. Much additional time was spent finding it in the tall brush on the hillside. It is amazing how much the color of a deer matches brush, which is everywhere.

Since I am really a “finder” instead of a hunter — hunters don’t mind spending all day with no success, but I do — I was happy I had my winter meat so I could go home and do other things. The deer needed to be cleaned and then carried a considerable distance to where we’d left the Jeeps. As I approached the deer lying on the ground, it jumped up and ran off as if nothing was wrong with it. I was shocked, to say the least.

Our ironclad rule is, if possible, to never leave an animal that we shot to die from its wounds. The hunter has an obligation to track it down and put it out of its misery. That meant that for the rest of the day, I tracked the big buck. Late in the afternoon, I succeeded in dropping him for a second time. This time he was dead.

An examination of the carcass didn’t indicate the buck had been hit other than by the shot that killed him. It wasn’t until later we discovered that my morning shot had hit him solidly at the base of one of his antlers. The lead from the bullet was still there. Apparently the impact had knocked him out and when I got to him he regained consciousness, jumped up and ran away.

Finding the humor in hunting

Hauling home an animal as large as a full-grown mule deer is difficult; hauling an elk is even more so. In the early part of the 20th century, automobiles and small trucks had separate fenders that dead deer could be tied onto. Today, people who have pickups with cargo boxes are ideally equipped for the job. Between those extremes are regular cars and handy small Jeeps.

Hauling a deer home strapped to the vehicle’s hood has become almost a caricature of the whole process. For fun, some individuals just can’t resist the temptation to reverse the roles of the hunter and the hunted in images of game transport.

The “Greetings From Idaho” postcard accompanying this article, produced in the early 1950s, shows a 1947 Crosley. Crosleys are little American-made cars that some people find amusing because of their small size. The driver looks somewhat like an elk; the human body tied to the hood appears to be deceased.

We’ve also seen figurines depicting somewhat more humane situations with those being transported still alive (if somewhat less than happy about the whole situation).

All antlered deer and elk are male (that isn’t true for pronghorn antelope) so in the postcard, it looks like the male hunter met his match with an equally tough male animal. The only problem those successful animal hunters have is they won’t have any antlers to later show how successful they were. FC

Be Careful What You Shoot

Every parent wants their children to adopt their value system. However, youngsters often don’t have the maturity to totally understand and incorporate their family’s values into their lives. Sometimes it takes something somewhat dramatic to impress on them what is important.

My niece’s husband is a dedicated hunter and he too ascribes to the standard of “you eat what you kill.” When his oldest son got his first BB gun at age 8, he was firmly instructed that he wasn’t to go around killing things with it. There were many targets of opportunity on which he could choose to develop his skill with the gun.

His intellectual acceptance of the family rule soon came in conflict with the temptation to let a loud cawing crow “have it.” There was no guarantee he could hit it and he thought that even if he did, the BB rifle probably didn’t have enough impact to kill the bird. So, as the story goes, his aim was good and, to his surprise, the small projectile was sufficient to snuff the life out of that crow.

He thought the “eat what you shoot” standard surely didn’t apply to a mangy old crow, but his parents thought differently. Thus the proper procedures were followed. The crow as cleaned and its feathers removed. His mother did her best to cook it so it was edible. The mother, father, successful hunter and his younger brother all received a portion.

We have all heard the statement that when someone says something untrue, and that untruth is exposed, that he has to “eat crow.” Few people have ever actually eaten crow, but that young man’s family at least tried it. All at the table agreed, unanimously, that it was a most unpleasant experience. The moral of this story is this: The young man firmly adopted the concept that hunters kill animals only for food, and not just for the fun of it. — Clell G. Ballard

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at

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