Shed hunting is a sport in itself.
Many years ago, while we were spring scouting or turkey hunting and would stumble across a shed antler, most of the time we would admire it and toss it back on the forest floor, whence it came. Then, about 25 years ago, I finally tried finding sheds on purpose, and every year it seems I become a more avid shed hunter. I’m not the only one. People now train their dogs specifically to find sheds, as I did with my yellow lab. There are clubs and organizations devoted to the sport. Shed hunting has become so popular that guided weeklong shed hunts in prime areas can cost you $2,500 or more with food and lodging included. Fear not, sheds can be found in your own hunting area or on public land … for free.
The reasons why searching for shed antlers is so popular are easy to see. It’s the perfect way to extend your interest in whitetails, it’s a way to get some exercise and take a jab at cabin fever, it’s a great family-participation sport, and it can be a good way to learn something that may help you get closer to a mature buck the next hunting season. Not to mention that antlers can bring in a little extra cash. Pet stores sell 6- to 8-inch sections of antler for $5-$15 each (retail cost).
Shed hunting is also valuable for helping formulate management decisions such as which bucks to harvest and which ones need another year or two to mature. It helps you identify bucks that have survived the season. Along with trail cameras, finding sheds also helps in estimating the buck population and their ages.
Searching and finding sheds is kind of like catch-and-release deer hunting. It’s a challenge to understand the life and movements of a specific buck. When I find a shed, I feel like I may be one step closer. I get more excited, though, to know his rack will likely be more impressive next year, with greater mass, longer beams, maybe extra points, but usually in the same basic form.
A great story for bigger – better next year is Stephen Tucker, who killed the Sumner County, Tennessee, buck that has been getting so much attention recently … and rightly so. I spoke with this young gentleman at the recent ATA Show, in Indianapolis, and actually got to hold the massive rack, said to score 313 2/8" gross and 308 3/8" net.
"I have the sheds from this buck from the year before," Tucker said, "and he was just an average 5x5."
The buck has 47 scoreable points and was harvested with a muzzleloader on Nov. 7.
My main reason for going on these searches is to learn more about my hunting area and the patterns of the animals. Finding shed antlers can make you a better hunter by showing you which areas mature animals utilize. Late winter through spring is a valuable time for seeking out the travel patterns of mature bucks. Take note where the shed was and try to pinpoint whether it was a travel corridor, a bedding area, a spot only used for wintering or a spot providing food for the period.
When should you begin? On a lease I used to have in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota, I’ve seen bucks drop their antlers as early as late December. This is very unusual, however. Most deer hold their racks through January and begin to drop during February and March. Around my home in Minnesota, it’s usually the second week in March when most bucks go bald. If you wait too long to start searching, however, weeds and grasses will start to grow and make the antlers more difficult to spot. Mice and chipmunks may also gnaw on them to obtain calcium and phosphorous.
While deer may shed both of their antlers within minutes, even seconds of each other in the same spot, this is the exception rather than the rule. Once, while walking a tract I used to hunt in Manitoba, I found a matching pair of 5x5 sheds stuck upside-down, side by side in the snow. It was like the buck stuck his head in the snow and placed them there for safekeeping. Sometimes you’ll discover just one and never retrieve the other side. In other cases, you may find it, but far away from the other half. More often than not, however, the match is somewhere in the area.
It’s possible to find a few sheds by just taking a random walk, but you’re better off to focus your efforts. Instead, begin searching areas where you’ve seen deer during the winter before or, better yet, where you’ve seen some recently.
Prime locations will be winter food sources, swamps with conifer trees for thermal cover and heavy cover adjacent to leftover agricultural crops. Thick stands of conifers, south- and southwest-facing slopes and benches, freshly logged areas, and ravines and stream bottoms offering some protection from cold winter winds are all good bets for shed hunting. Also, check fence crossings and narrow gullies or creeks where an animal might jump across and jar the antler loose as it lands on the other side.
Always bring binoculars – they can save a lot of leg-work. If you see something that looks like an antler far away, you can often cut down excess walking by examining it through your optics. Set up a grid, but concentrate on the spots where there has clearly been more activity … read the sign.
Also, always bring kids! Most youngsters love to hunt for sheds if given the opportunity, so bring your kids or a neighborhood youngster – the more eyes the better for this task. To them, it’s like hide-and-seek or a mystery to solve.
As I mentioned earlier, many are training dogs to find the sheds for them. They can cover so much more ground than we can, they can get into areas humans simply cannot and, besides being able to recognize antlers by sight, they can smell them!
My advice if you wish to train your own dog is to get them started young. Have small sheds they can chew on and play with as soon as you bring them home. I chose to have some professional help and guidance from Tom Dokken’s Oak Ridge Kennels. They got my Annabell started and gave me the necessary advice to hone her skills after the initial introduction.
I also believe in some of Dokken’s training tools. To begin, I think I’ve watched and read every one of Mr. Dokken’s DVDs and books – he is simply my go-to source for anything regarding dogs. They have wonderful visual antler decoys, so the dog gets used to recognizing the shape of a shed. I also use their Rack Wax.
Make sure to store the sheds you use for training outside. I always wipe the shed clean after every use with Wildlife Research Center’s Scent Killer Gold to make it as odor free as possible and only touch it while wearing rubber gloves. Once clean, before using it in the field for training, I put on a small amount of the Rack Wax on the shed in several spots. With a nose that keen, I really can’t tell you if the process takes away any smell that may be on the antler from a person gripping it or the dog mouthing it, but I know this process worked for me. I was SO proud when she found and retrieved her first shed in the wild. It was just a small forkie, but we treated it like a side from a Boone & Crockett head.
Even if you make it a fun, social event, don’t forget to keep the dual purpose of post-season scouting and learning about the animals in mind as you search. By also being on the lookout for rub lines, scrapes, trails, transition corridors and beds as you walk through their turf, you’ll find key pieces of information that can make you a more knowledgeable and successful hunter the next fall.