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The Bones Of Winter: Shed Hunting

by Jody Hadachek   |  September 22nd, 2010 2

The author, who lives in Kansas, finds shed hunting to be a fun and beneficial off-season activity. Photo by Elaine Purcell.

They say the first step of coming to grips with a problem is admitting you have one. Well, in that case, let me start by saying, “My name is Jody, and I’m a shed-antler addict.”

Believe me, I’m not the only one. There are plenty of us out there. In fact, if you hang around other serious deer hunters long enough, you’re bound to hear someone bring up the topic of sheds and shed hunting.

More and more, people are taking to the woods to find the treasures left behind by the bucks that wore them. But many of these new converts to shed hunting soon become frustrated with their inability to find antlers.

Throughout my discussions with people on this subject, whether in person or on the Internet (I go by the handle ‘Kansan’ on several Web site message boards), the same two questions pop up more than any other:


(1) When do bucks drop their antlers?


(2) Where do I look for them?

Let’s look at those in order. First, in late December, daylength begins to increase. This causes the hormonal changes that ultimately lead bucks to drop their antlers. The bucks that participate most actively in the rut usually shed first; not only are they worn down from the rut but also toting around that extra weight on their heads doesn’t do anything to help them to conserve calories.

As daylength increases, it stimulates the pineal gland to reduce testosterone production. As a result, the bond between the skull and antler gradually weakens, finally causing the antlers to drop.

Some bucks will begin shedding as early as December, particularly if they’re unhealthy or really worn down from the rut. Watch for half-racked bucks in your area to give you an idea of when shedding begins.

Although some bucks do cast their racks before year’s end, I tend to concentrate my shed hunts in January through April. Fresh finds will be less common in January and February than later, but many of the biggest bucks seem to drop their antlers pretty early in the period. By starting to look early, you could hit the jackpot.

For me, March and April are the most productive months. In my area of Kansas, I see the majority of antlers being dropped during the first two weeks of March, continuing on into early April. In most of North America, spring greenup arrives by the latter part of April, making antlers much harder to find. Before long, the weeds are tall enough and the ticks and insects bad enough that most serious shed hunting is over.

If you’ve ever talked to another hunter about sheds, chances are he said, “I just can’t find the darn things!” Although there aren’t any real secrets to finding sheds, I’ve learned there’s definitely a knack to it. Here are some suggestions on how to improve your success rate.

Knowing when to look is definitely a key issue but even after you’ve narrowed that down you still must know where to look. The simple answer is to key in on winter food sources and bedding cover.

This might sound pretty obvious, but failing to look where the bucks are in mid- to late winter is one of the biggest reasons many people fail to find sheds. Think about it. During a long, cold winter, the deer like to be where they can get food easily, yet have decent cover to protect them from predators and the elements. If there’s no such area where you’re searching, odds are the antlers you find will be few and far between.

If you get a chance, take a drive during the winter and glass any type of fields where deer feed after the season. Winter wheat is one of the best winter food sources where I hunt, but it could be different where you are.

Try to find where deer are seriously congregating or even “yarding up.” Of course, the more bucks are in a relatively small area, the more antlers there usually are to be found there, and the easier the shed hunting figures to be.

Even when you’re in the right area at the right time, of course, it’s quite easy to miss seeing sheds. But my success rate has improved a lot since I came up with what I call the “3-inch rule” several years ago. Now I absolutely live by it when looking for antlers.

The rule goes as follows: Whether you’re searching in grass or brush, look for no more than three inches of antler at a time. If you try to look for an entire antler, or you’ll walk past so many you won’t even believe it.

I always look for a little piece of a tine or a beam sticking out of the ground cover. Being able to train my eyes to pick out a subtle little difference, perhaps a curl, or something that just doesn’t look quite like a stick, has made a big difference in the number of antlers I’ve found.

One of the best ways to improve your ability to spot antlers is to practice. Whenever you find a shed, throw it ahead of you in the brush 20 feet or so without marking exactly where it lands. Then, look around and see if you can spot just the tip of a tine or beam. After you relocate the shed, throw it into another spot and repeat the process. As you do this, your eyes will start to figure out what they’re looking for. Trust me, it helps.

I’ve found most of my sheds by using the “3-inch rule,” but a few instances stand out in particular. The first occurred a couple years ago, a friend and I were walking out of the woods following a long afternoon of shed hunting. We’d each found a nice shed, and it now was nearly dark. As we were walking back to the truck, I looked off to my left up a sidehill covered in hardwoods and thick, brushy ground cover. There, 70 feet up the hill I noticed the tip of a single tine sticking up.

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