"There's another one over there, Daddy!" I pretend to see it, but even at the age of four, my son is not fooled by my lack of acting ability. "Don't you see it Daddy? That's a big one. It's over there by the fence." I try with all my might to locate the source of his excitement, but his youthful eyes have once again proved superior to my years of experience. I humbly but cheerfully accept his request to hold the armful of other whitetail antler sheds that he has found during the day, and watch as he runs over to pick up and admire his latest find. As he hurries back, I can see the ear-to-ear grin on his face peeking out through the unmistakable rack of the buck that outsmarted me all season. I had seen that buck many times at a distance, and had even flung an arrow at his feet once while he was chasing a potential girlfriend, but mostly he just toyed with me enough to cause numerous sleepless nights recalling close encounters. The season ended in his favor, but that seems of little importance as I witness the joy in my son's eyes while he proudly displays his newest treasure. Truth be told, I would have let the buck walk past me broadside at 10 yards in exchange for watching the fun my son is having today.
Walking through the woods looking for dropped whitetail deer antlers, or shed hunting, might not conjure up visions of excitement equal to that of an actual big game hunt, but anyone that has tried it would probably tell you different. The thrill of finding the sheds of a buck that you have seen or pursued can be exhilarating, and knowing that he is still out there can certainly bring a sense of relief and anticipation for the next hunting season. Each one found can reveal information about the condition and location of the mysterious buck that carried it proudly just a few months ago.
Shed antlers can be found at any time of the year, but the best time to locate them in their prime condition is late winter or early spring. Once they hit the ground, they begin deteriorating and sometimes with the help of the appetite and sharp teeth of rodents. Even the ones that survive the gnawing of squirrels and chipmunks become very difficult to find when the spring rains begin. Undergrowth can seem to appear overnight and cover them in a thick mat of green, only to be seen again the following winter.
Antlers grow at an amazing rate. Just weeks after the previous year's antlers are shed, the new ones begin to grow again in the early spring. By the time late summer has arrived, the antlers have reached full potential and have stopped growing for the year. The soft, blood filled velvet that has covered them during their growth hardens and is removed by the buck's tree rubbing activities. What remains are the bony structures that are the desired objects of many, whether they are attached to the buck or lying by a brush pile.
It stands to reason that bucks cannot lose their antlers in places where they have not been. By focusing on areas that bucks use during the late winter, you can increase your odds of finding more sheds. Bucks need a good food source at this time of year to recover from the energy expended during the rut. If the food source has thick cover and the warmth of a south-facing hillside close by, it is a very good place to start looking. Many times antlers will be found in areas that seem to encourage their fall from the buck's head. Heavy brush could tug on a tine or jumping a fence could result in enough impact to cause an already loosening rack to be left behind. Any obstacle that the testosterone driven buck would effortlessly plow through in November could be just enough to tug and pull on the loosening headgear and turn it into the object of your treasure hunt in March.
The greatest thing about shed hunting is that everyone can get involved. Age, size and experience do not give someone an advantage, as my son proves to me each time that we return from the woods. Shed hunting can be as simple as a leisurely walk through the woods or fields, or it can be a more physically demanding backpack through steep terrain and thick habitat. With the exception of a few antlers that are carried off by squirrels, once they become detached from the deer, they are not going to go anywhere. This allows shed hunters the option of waiting for a warm, dry day to hit the trail if they chose.
Even the family dog can get in on the fun. Most dogs would probably agree that bones are one of the greatest inventions of all times. They do not know the difference between a leftover bone from the dinner table or one that has dropped off the head of a whitetail deer. In canine rationale, if it looks like a bone, smells like a bone, and tastes like a bone, it must be a bone. As long as it leads to a game of fetch and retrieve, its origin does not matter. Send any dog into the woods that has had experience retrieving a bone at home and chances are he is going to come back with a shed. A high priced dog with a pedigree full of famous ancestors is not necessary to make a good shed hunting dog. All it takes is a dog that has seen a bone, knows how to retrieve and likes to run in the woods and fields.
The efficiency of your rack retrieving Rover can be increased by simply using an antler to play fetch with him in the yard for few weeks. This will help him make the transition from squeaky toy to deer antler and will emphasize what he is looking for when searching the woods. Make sure to grind down the points on the tines to eliminate injuries from occurring while he adjusts to picking up and retrieving this new oddly shaped toy. It won't take him long to get the idea that this is a lot of fun, and next time you hit the woods he could amaze you with his antler finding abilities.
The best way to find shed antlers is to cover a lot of ground, and many people incorporate shed hunting with other seasonal activities. It just so happens that spring turkey season occurs in many areas shortly after most of the antlers have fallen. What better way to spend a day than combining shed hunting with scouting for turkeys? The only way that I can think of is to also include looking for those delectable Morel mushrooms that start peaking up through the forest floor in the spring. Trifecta! A day in the woods that results in an armful of fascinating antler sheds, knowledge of where that big gobbler is hiding, and a skillet full of sautéing Morels is a great day indeed.
The next time your family is sitting around the house bored of the same old activities, suggest a new kind of game, a scavenger hunt. Load up the kids, the family dog, and even invite the neighbor who has never shown an interest in what exists beyond the world of concrete and steel. Check your state's regulations regarding the collection of shed antlers, head to the woods and share with them the excitement of shed hunting. With any luck it will be hard to tell if you, the children, the neighbor, or the tail-wagging dog has a bigger ear-to-ear grin peeking through the tines of their newly found treasure.
Larry R. Beckett Jr. is a full time freelance writer, photographer and videographer. His greatest joy is spending time fishing, hunting and hiking with his wife and son. Larry discovered his enthusiasm for the outdoors at a young age and devotes much of his time trying to instill that same enthusiasm in future generations.