If you’ve never hunted “sheds” before—as in shed antlers, the racks cast aside by male members of the deer family after the tussles of the rut—you may fail to see how the practice could compare to the excitement of pursuing the critters that grew those antlers. But more and more deer and elk hunters (and plenty of non-hunters, too) have discovered the joys of seeking out these dropped ornaments: a treasure hunt that can liven up your winter and spring, not to mention offer valuable clues to next year’s bowhunting season.
Here’s a general overview of the basics of shed-hunting: another excuse to get out into the backwoods, and maybe even a chance to identify a monster buck worth seeking out in the fall.
Shed Antler 101: The Biological Backstory
For male deer, elk, and moose, antlers are both weaponry and status symbols: A massive rack suggests a healthy, well-fed buck or bull, and can ward off many would-be challengers by appearance alone.
Antlers are the fastest-growing bones in the mammalian world, and they serve their primary purpose during the autumn rut. Once breeding season is over, a male deer or elk’s testosterone levels drop. The ebbing hormone levels result in the formation of osteoclast cells at the base, or “pedicle,” of the antler, which resorb bone and erode the connection between the pedicle and the antler. Eventually this causes the antler to break or simply fall off. The bloody pedicle heals up and begins growth of a new set of antlers initially covered in the richly vascularized skin we call “velvet.”
Why do deer, elk, and moose go through the trouble of growing such hefty armaments each year, only to drop them and start over again in spring? The basic idea is that antlers, being fighting weapons, are easily broken or otherwise damaged, and the shedding process gives male deer the ability to replace a banged-up set for next year’s rut. Furthermore, especially in northern latitudes, males have to focus on regaining strength immediately after the rut to survive the winter, and toting a heavy rack around in this harsh season would be a major energetic burden.
When to Look for Shed Antlers (and a Word About Ethics)
There’s quite a big window for when deer, elk, and moose drop or cast their antlers. Roughly speaking, as we’ve said, it occurs after the rut, but the timing of the rut varies between our deer species and can vary within a species across the country, which influences when antlers are cast. Also, hormone levels play a role: Healthy and dominant mature bucks and bulls, the ones that tend to do most of the breeding, usually drop their antlers earlier than smaller, younger counterparts. For example, prime bull elk often cast their antlers between January and March, while younger bulls may not drop them until April or May.
So basically you may come across “fresh” shed antlers anytime between early winter and late spring. It won’t come as a surprise that you’ll find most sheds in the areas where your local deer, elk, or moose winter. This all brings up an important point: You shouldn’t go intensively hunting for shed antlers early in the shed season, as there’s a good chance you’ll be disturbing wintering animals during their toughest, most demanding stretch of the calendar. Flush deer or elk in mid-winter cold or the barren weeks of early spring while looking for cast antlers, and you’re forcing them to expend valuable energy when it’s most important for them to conserve it. A herd that has to keep running away from over-eager shed hunters may well lose more members to starvation or exhaustion.
Shed Hunting Seasons
In some states and some specific areas, authorities impose a designated season for shed-hunting for exactly that reason: to give nutritionally stressed animals some peace and quiet during the winter and early spring. Alternative approaches may be taken, too: In Utah, for example, individuals who want to look for sheds between February 1st and April 15th need to take a free online “Antler Gathering Ethics” course and carry the certificate they earn with them when out hunting during that period.
Check with the pertinent state wildlife agency to find out whether there’s a season or any other regulations applying to shed-hunting in your area.
Where to Look for Shed Antlers
We already covered the obvious: that shed antlers are most likely to be found on the winter range of deer and elk. But when you’re roaming that winter range in search of sheds—ideally in mid- or late spring, after wintering herds have migrated or broken up—where are likely places to find them?
Consider the thermal refuges deer and elk seek out during winter storms or deep freezes. This may be a dense conifer grove, for example, or a south-facing hillside. Because the animals spend a fair amount of time “yarded up” here during the winter, more than a few antlers are cast in these havens.
The same goes for winter foraging areas and the travel corridors between them and bedding sites. The take-home message isn’t rocket science: Wherever bucks and bulls are spending a lot of time in winter and early spring, you’re likely to find their antlers. Some knowledge, therefore, of where deer and elk herds in general and males specifically (which, as in elk, often winter separate from females) winter, and whether there’s a transitional early-spring range, will help your shed-hunting considerably.
You can also boost your shed-finding success by looking where game trails on winter or spring range traverse obstacles such as heavy thickets or stream crossings. Wherever a buck deer or bull elk might knock his loose antlers against tree trunks, branches, boulders, and the like, you’ve got a chance of locating dislodged ones.
Other Shed-Hunting Strategies
As shed-hunting has increased in popularity, some areas receive a lot of use, which means slim pickings. As in deer or elk hunting itself, you may be rewarded by pushing deeper into the backcountry and farther from easily accessible areas. Fewer shed-hunters are probably slogging out into that big cedar swamp to look for casts, for example, even though they’re there.
If you’re serious about shed-hunting, you might consider enlisting the help of dogs. Train your pup to sniff out antlers, and you’ll be boosting your odds of finding them.
These days, it’s possible to hire a shed-hunting guide in many areas, which can be a great choice if you’re new to the pursuit or chronically coming up empty.
It may seem crazy, but if you have an antler on hand, simply placing it in the woods or fields and studying it briefly at the start of your shed-hunting can lock the search image more firmly in your mind. Bring binoculars so you can scan for white objects or gleaming from vantages. While sunlight can make an antler helpfully flash, rainy days can sometimes be even better: A wet antler may stand out all the better amid the gray, dripping gloom.
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