Shed Hunting - In Search of Lost Bone
Any antlers are always appreciated, but I was searching for one set in particular. Worn by a mature buck, I guessed he would be dropping approximately 180-inches of bone. Picking up the matched set the year before, this year the buck was in his prime. Although I’d only seen him once myself, I’d heard rumors that he was still skulking through my favorite deer woods. I’d made it my personal mission to find his sheds.
Scouring his known territory in December, I made a bold declaration forecasting that he’d drop his antlers in one of two locations. One was a stand of old growth spruce trees and the other a harvested barley field located nearly a quarter-section to the west. Gambling that he’d spend most of his time at the food source, and based on the fact that we had over 12 inches of snowfall, I speculated that he’d drop at least one of his antlers near a hay bail at the end of a long strip of bush.
To make a very long story short, I revisited that property religiously throughout January and February, but to no avail. After more hours and miles than I cared to admit, I was on the verge of calling it quits. Then it happened. One day, as I coursed through my daily circuit following the hardened deer trails, there it was! Rounding the corner of the woodlot, I couldn’t believe my eyes! There before me, not 20 yards away, resting ever so gently on the packed snow was one of the massive antlers! Cast off the night before, the object of my desire was waiting for me to pick it up. Golden brown with double eye guards and ivory tines, this impressive antler was precisely what I’d been looking for!
If you are an avid shed hunter, you can relate. Running to collect my prize, I all but cradled and caressed the impressive piece of bone. At that moment, I couldn’t help but reflect on the season I’d invested hunting this wary buck. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of yet another. Like winning a lottery, there was the match laying a hop, skip and a jump away! What a find, and no word of a lie, they were both found exactly where I’d predicted, less than 15 yards from that hay bail at the end of the tree line!
So, did I get lucky? I’m sure to some degree I was. Are there academics to this shed hunting game? Absolutely.
If you want to bring up a competitive topic among the whitetail and even mule deer fraternity, mention the words shed hunting. With a cult following, those who commit heart and soul to searching for the ultimate antler literally live for the annual shedding phenomenon.
When is the Best Time?
February 1st marks the day that I begin searching in earnest. Is this day particularly magical? For those who treasure each and every antler they find, I suppose it does hold some mystical intrigue. But wait! Don’t bucks begin shedding their antlers shortly after the rut?
In consideration of the whitetail’s annual cycle, bucks begin to lose their antlers shortly after the rut. So, for those sub-species, particularly those in the southeastern States that rut in December and January, antlers will shed later but on a similar schedule, slightly offset by a few weeks from their northern cousins. In Alberta where I do much of my whitetail hunting and searching for sheds, the months of January and February are golden. Some antlers drop as early as mid-December, but most fall throughout the months of February and March. That said, with every rule there are exceptions. On rare occasions I’ve seen Alberta bucks still wearing an antler in April.
Where to Look
When I begin my routine of checking likely spots, I first drive as many different back roads as possible to look for well-used trails. Those exiting bigger timber and crossing roads into feeding fields are most visible. By well used, I’m not talking about scant tracks in the snow or dirt that appear to be used every couple of days. I’m speaking of those resembling hard packed cattle trails. We’ve all seen them; they’re the ones that cause us to hammer on the brakes, back up the truck and gawk in amazement! These are the rainbows that may inevitably lead you to your pot of gold! When deer movement is concentrated, it can only mean one thing - they use that trail to move from bedding to feeding and vice versa. Most antlers are found in either of three areas; in or near their beds, on route to feeding areas, or right at the feed itself.
Most sheds are found at feeding areas. Whether corn fields, pea fields, haystacks or even silage pits, it stands to reason that with so much up and down head movement, these locales are likely deposit spots. Particularly in states or provinces that get a lot of snow, food sources can be scarce. Attractants like grain piles and open bins in farmyards can make for easy picking and deer know it. Monitor these spots as deer shed their antlers and you’re sure to pick up at least one or two. Regardless of where you look, be thorough and pay close attention to detail.
A few years back I discovered a grain pile near a stand of old growth timber. It had been a cold winter thus far and the deer were yarding up. With good thermal cover nearby, the deer congregated in high numbers flocking to the readily available food source. On that property, during February alone, I picked up 17 antlers. Among them were four different sets. Other likely spots include trails following the bottom of ravines and fence crossings.
Be Diligent and Thorough
Don’t be fooled though. Yes, you can get lucky once in a while and find the ideal spot. But for the most part, if you want to find freshly fallen antlers, be prepared to put on the miles. It may require endless trudging through deep snow, hiking through biting mid-winter winds, and a highly trained eye. On good days the weather will be mild and you’ll find a few. Other days you’ll have to deal with Mother Nature’s wrath and may come up empty-handed. Sometimes you’ll see an antler from long distances because the entire thing is visible. Other times you may notice only a tip of a tine sticking up through the grass or snow.
As with deer hunting, searching for shed antlers follows suit. Smaller antlers are of course most common. To find a matching set scoring around the 200-inch mark, well that’s something we all dream of. Each time I lay eyes on a set of truly spectacular sheds, my heart pounds. It may be the anticipation that I’ll be the first human to every touch those antlers … words can’t describe the elation. Truth is, only a passionate deer hunter can relate.
Why Do Antlers Shed?
Like other ungulates, whitetails and mule deer lose their antlers for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is to allow for new growth - much like a child loses their teeth to allow for adult teeth to grow; the primary difference being that deer lose their antlers every year. Many suggest that another reason is to alleviate stress during the more difficult times of their annual cycle. Winter can impose harsh conditions on deer and by shedding their antlers, they simply conserve energy.
So how does this happen? Simply put, the dropping of antlers has to do with hormonal fluctuations, diet and stress. Larger bucks will often hold onto their headgear longer. But again, this depends on other factors as well. Bucks that have become fatigued from excessive fighting and breeding during the rut may be the first to lose their antlers. Through a natural process, as the level of testosterone in a buck’s system decreases, the shedding process begins. This is directly correlated to the amount of daylight experienced during an annual cycle. Some biologists also speculate as to the role another hormone called prolactin plays in this process. To my knowledge, no decisive findings have been made. Likewise healthier, more physically fit, deer may hold onto their headgear longer. Those more stressed tend to naturally cast off their antlers in an attempt to eliminate the excess weight.
So how does this information help us in searching for sheds? Knowing why deer lose their antlers can help us in finding them. When weather conditions are harsh, deer movement is minimal. All else being equal, survival instincts kick in and deer tend to stick as close to food sources as possible. In many instances, they will travel only short distances between bedding and feeding, in an effort to conserve energy.
Shed hunting season offers a break from the monotony of winter and gives us an excuse to get back out into the deer woods with a purpose. Why do I like looking for sheds? It allows me scout the properties I hunt in the fall. Looking for sheds allows me to gather important information about the general age and genetics in my area and usually identify a wall-hanger to focus on for the coming season. Scouring my area allows me to inventory the deer. By picking up sheds, I get a feel for which animals made it through hunting season. Probably the biggest value is that it forces me to become acquainted with every deer trail on those properties.
Shed Hunting for Profit
You definitely won’t get rich doing, but you might make a buck or two. Aside from the sheer recreational value, there is a growing commercial demand for shed antlers. Finding and marketing sheds can be profitable. By locating the right buyer – be they craftsmen or collectors, shed antlers can fetch a good dollar. Every year antler brokers travel through rural communities to purchase sheds. While some folks would rather lose an appendage than give up one of these coveted bones, others view them as a source of supplemental income.
I don’t make it a practice to sell antlers, however a few years back I had a buyer come and take several good sets. He had indicated that Bass Pro Shops were using them to make several of their in-store mounts. The most I’ve made from shed antlers was $1,200.00 for a matched set scoring around 183 inches B&C. Smaller sheds; i.e., those measuring 120-inches or less, are bought in bulk and purchased by the pound. Rates vary greatly and are determined by supply and demand. Fluctuating with the economy itself, antler values have gone up and down a fair bit in recent years. White, or bleached antler prices may be valued differently than those with a more “natural” look. Then of course there are lesser values for broken or cracked antlers depending on application and commercial demand.
Shed Hunting – A Competitive Endeavor
On the other hand, with the growing popularity of shed hunting for both recreation and profit, it’s often a race to find them before someone else does. So competitive is this pastime that many landowners are denying access because they’ve been inundated with requests from overzealous shed hunters. If and when this happens, I offer to scour their fields in an attempt to save their tractor tires from haphazard punctures. Typically greeted with a grin, most soften their stance and allow me access.
In my experience, the early bird gets the antler, and that means looking for them as soon as they drop in February and even March. While some prefer to wait until warmer weather arrives and the snows melt in April, I am more than willing to brave the cold and deep snow in search of bone.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.