During a December pheasant hunt in South Dakota last year I made an unusual discovery. On a sunny, warm morning, as I wandered somewhat aimlessly in a marsh in hope of flushing a rooster pheasant, I parted head-high cattails, stepped into an opening and discovered the head and antlers of a big whitetail buck entombed in ice and frozen mud. Just the tips of the antlers and the nose of the skull were visible. I was roughly a mile from the nearest road.
Due to drought the water level in the sprawling marsh was lower than it had been since 1988, maybe longer. Thus the head and antlers may have been under water for a long, long time.
Under a weak December sun I stood with shotgun cradled in my arms and stared at the entombed head, contemplating the buck's fate. I knelt down and brushed away a bit of snow to see if I could learn more. But a closer examination revealed no clues.
Axel, my two year-old Deutsch Drahthaar, sniffed the skull and then dashed off in search of a pheasant. His busy stub of a tail disappeared into the nearby cattails.
Normally I carry a point-and-shoot camera in my hunting vest, but I had packed light that day. A picture would have been better than nothing, but what I really wanted was to take the skull and antlers home. I thought about trying to shoot the antlers loose with my gun, but the bismuth shells I carried cost nearly $2 apiece and I decide against that. I reluctantly left the mysterious relic behind.
Last week, while on a business trip to South Dakota, I packed an ice chisel and returned to the marsh. The temperature was 7 degrees below zero and the ever-present prairie wind stung my cheeks as I walked into the cattails. After a brief search I found the skull and antlers.
Freeing them from their icy tomb was no easy task. The skull was encased almost entirely in frozen mud. But after an hour of chopping I finally liberated the head.
I sat down and examined the skull and antlers. Even in the cold air the icy mud smelled like, well, swamp. I counted 10 antler points despite a sizable chunk of frozen mud still attached to the head.
How did the buck die? Did it fall through thin ice and drown during high water? Was it wounded by a hunter and died after it swam into the marsh? Did it die from wounds suffered in a battle with a rival buck? Maybe it was hit by an automobile and dragged itself into the marsh?
The antlers were fully developed and hardened, meaning the buck had met its fate in fall or early winter. Scratches on the antlers indicated the buck had rubbed on fence posts, a common practice of prairie whitetails. Fence posts are their alternative to the tree saplings used by bucks in forested regions. Ultimately, their antlers are scratched by barbed wire attached to fence posts. Since antler rubbing peaks in mid to late October, the scratches told me the buck had died after that.
After weighing all the clues, I decided the odds were good that the buck had been wounded and lost by a hunter. The wounded deer probably swam into the marsh in high water, obliterating its blood trail and making tracking impossible for the hunter. If indeed the buck had been shot and lost, I only can imagine how dejected the hunter must have felt as he or she stared out into the seemingly endless cattail marsh, wondering which way the animal had gone.
For how many years had the skull and antlers been submerged? Again, that's anyone's guess. Since the head had settled in nearly 12 inches of mud, I assume the buck had died at least three or four years earlier. The antlers had not been chewed on by rodents, indicating they likely had been under water since the buck died. Only recently had low water exposed them.
How and when the buck died on that fateful fall or winter day on the South Dakota prairie will never be known. The skull and antlers now are part of my collection of deer artifacts. The story of the buck, however mysterious, will be told again and again.
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