As the hunting season winds down, many hunters and outdoor enthusiasts focus their efforts on finding shed deer antlers. As an avid shed hunter with more than 25 years of experience, I have learned a few tricks to increasing my shed hunting success each season. Here are a few of my shed hunting tips.
I’m from Kansas, which is a state that consists of flat ground and rolling hills, and most of the sheds I uncover are located in food sources. To an inexperienced shed hunter, this may seem like an unlikely location for shed antlers. After all, the tendency among outdoorsman new to shed hunting is to return to locations where a particular buck was spotted during the previous hunting season. But during the late-season winter months, when most bucks are getting ready to drop their antlers, the bucks are gathered in bachelor groups and are likely sticking to a strict food-to-bed travel pattern in an effort to minimize the expenditure of energy and regain fat stores that they’ll need to survive the winter months.
As an avid antler collector, I own many of the world’s largest whitetail shed antlers ever found. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the first-hand stories of how these world-class sheds were picked. Incredibly, more than 90 percent of the shed antlers I own were found in crop fields, in the wide-open, visible to the naked eye.
Based on that observation, it stands to reason that the first lesson in becoming a successful shed hunter is to extend your effort beyond glassing crop fields from the warmth of your truck. These antlers might be out in the open, where seemingly anyone could find them, but it’s simply not that easy. Ground variation, terrain undulation, even sunlight angles and shadows can make a shed antler obvious from one direction and virtually invisible from another.
Thus, it is absolutely critical that you actually bundle up, leave the comfort of your truck and physically walk these fields if you want to find more than the occasional shed.
If you live in parts of the country that aren’t dominated by agricultural fields, there are far more barriers to success and far more reasons to actually burn up some boot leather. You’ll need to search those thick, nasty bedding areas where mature bucks spend much of the daylight hours during winter. Likewise, check feeding areas, water sources and trails where deer concentrate travel due to deep snow packs.
In Kansas and many parts of the country, it’s common to encounter drainages that are accompanied by ridge tops that run for long distances. Oftentimes, the deer will bed up on the ridge tops or right below the top of the ridge. During the evenings, deer will filter down from the ridge tops and stage in woodlots before entering the open fields to eat. These woodlots adjacent to fields are excellent spots for finding large numbers of shed antlers.
In my experience, it’s common to find shed antlers from spikes to 160-class whitetails in the same areas. During the late-season months after the breeding season has passed, bucks will form bachelor groups, often traveling in groups as big as 10-15 deer. Obviously, if they are traveling together, then they are likely frequenting the same bedding and feeding areas, which improves the odds that their antlers will be shed in the same general vicinities.
World-class deer, however, seem to have a different method of operation. In my experience, it seems that the largest bucks tend to separate themselves from bachelor groups with average-size deer. Normally, they’ll run with a sidekick that scores 140 inches or lower, and they’ll often be found as much as three miles away from the larger bachelor groups of more common antler size. To be clear, I have certainly seen super bucks moving with average bachelor groups, but it seems to be a common phenomenon to see high-caliber bucks acting in some degree of isolation.
When searching crop fields for shed antlers, you’ll often encounter ditches or waterways that are designed to drain agricultural fields and prevent soil erosion. These areas are often grass-covered and can present some of the best opportunities for finding shed antlers. Essentially, these terrain anomalies afford deer some protection from visibility and wind, allowing them to bed down for rest and digestive purposes without actually leaving the feeding area. In many cases, I have found shed antlers in these areas with the tips of the tines hooked in the grass and the base of the antler sticking up in the air.
Note that it is critical to avoid disturbing bucks during the shedding season. We’re all looking forward to getting out of the house and into the field, but it’s better to avoid known buck bedding and feeding areas while the bucks are still holding their antlers.
In some states, it’s legal to spotlight deer at night in an effort to pinpoint areas where bachelor groups are feeding. Be sure to consult with your state’s Department of Natural Resources or other regulatory agency before assuming that spotlighting is legal, and be sure to gain the permission of any nearby landowners before spotlighting their fields.
If it’s legal in your area and you have permission to do so from the landowner, spotlighting deer during the winter months can provide critical insight into where your chances of finding shed antlers are best. During my spotlighting surveys, it’s common for me to see 10-15 bucks on a single food source, then drive several miles before seeing another buck. One time, I actually witnessed a group of approximately 60 bucks and 130 does on a single food source. It stands to reason that if you can identify food sources that are being used by a large number of bucks at the same time, you are likely to find shed antlers in it.
Still, effective spotlighting means observing bucks at night without disturbing them. Do not shine the light directly at them for a prolonged period of time. Doing so may scare them away. Instead, get a good overview of the estimated number of deer.
Periodically return to these spots and check the groups of bucks to see if they are starting to lose their antlers. Eventually, as time goes on, you will notice the group of bucks getting smaller, which probably means there are antlers on the ground. If you are able, it’s best to drive by these places every day during the shed antler season and glass the fields with binoculars in hopes of finding a shed antler.
Once you start finding antlers, then you know the deer are starting to shed. It is important not to follow the trails leading to the bedding until adequate time is given for the other antler to fall off. If you don’t allow time for this to occur, you may disturb the carrier of the other antler and he could move out of the area, diminishing your chances of finding the matched shed.
Most importantly, successful shed hunting and antler collection almost always requires access to multiple tracts of ground, and this means acquiring permission from landowners. Never hunt for shed antlers on property that you haven’t secured permission to access, and when seeking permission from landowners, maintain the highest level of courtesy and respect. Ask them if they would mind if you walk their fields to look for shed antlers, and leave out any mention of “hunting.” Who knows? Once you’ve developed a foundation for an amicable relationship with the landowner, your permission to search for sheds could turn into permission to hunt!