The Bones Of Winter: Shed Hunting
September 22, 2010
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.
THE 3-INCH RULE
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.
"There's a shed!" I shouted. My buddy couldn't believe it. I'd seen only about three inches of a G-2 tine sticking up from a distance of 70 feet, and I'd done so in nearly total darkness. No way could I have done this without a lot of practice and imprinting that "antler" look on my brain.
The largest known matched set of non-typical whitetail sheds was picked up in northern Minnesota a decade ago. With the inside spread approximated, this massive buck would have had a net Boone and Crockett score of 334 0/8 points: the overall world record by 1/8 inch! As far as is known, no hunter ever got the 39-point wilderness giant.
The "3-inch rule" proved itself again last May 4. As I was walking through some thick grass (total greenup had occurred by that time), I saw what looked like a piece of antler standing up in the grass. I walked over and within seconds was holding a big 4-point side. Although I never found the other side, if the two had matched, that buck would have had a gross score of nearly 160 inches as an 8-pointer, with an inside spread of around 25 inches!
PLAYING A HUNCH
Another thing I'm sure serious shed hunters will agree with me on is that some areas just took "sheddy." Over the years, as we find antlers, we keep mental notes of where they were found, what kind of cover, the general look of the area, etc. (I remember exactly where the majority of my sheds were found.) Now, as I drive past certain places, I find myself saying, "There must be sheds in there."
How I pinpoint such spots is difficult to put into words; all I know is that over time, you'll find that some places are special. For instance, I've learned that certain places in certain creek bottoms are like shed magnets. In one particular bottom I search every year, there will almost always be one or two sheds lying in a 100-yard stretch. It's automatic.
Even if you think you're doing everything right, there are those times when, no matter what you do, you just can't seem to find a shed. It happens even to the most dedicated of us. What's more, it happens even in areas with prime bedding cover and winter forage.
This could happen for any of several reasons. First, we just might be missing some sheds that are lying out there. It happens. In fact, I've walked past sheds and then, the next year, look over in a direction I hadn't looked the year before, and bingo: I see an old, weathered antler lying right by a log. There are so many antlers people walk right past and never see. Shed hunting can really humble you.
Another reason we might fail to find sheds is because of the rodent population in an area. In some places, mice and squirrels chew up antlers in short order. In other areas, such as parts of Canada, not nearly as many antlers get chewed; they can lie out there for years, just waiting for someone to pick them up.
Experience has led me to believe that the amount of chewing on an antler depends greatly on where it was dropped. Some sheds the rodents just don't find, even after several years. Although these sheds show some weathering, the chew marks just aren't there.
Some sheds fall in open areas where rodents are willing to chance traveling and being picked off by predators. Other antlers drop in wooded areas where rodents abound, and these are often chewed quickly. But these aren't rules to live by for any means because I've found many exceptions of each type.
A third reason few antlers are sometimes found is that the winter is relatively mild. In such cases, deer don't yard up nearly as much; instead, they're relatively scattered out across the countryside, making numbers of sheds more difficult to locate.
WHY HUNT SHEDS?
There are many reasons to look for dropped antlers. Personally, though I'm an avid whitetail hunter - in fact, I shot a B&C typical with my bow a few years ago - I actually like shed hunting more than deer hunting itself. Shed hunting is one of the most serious parts of my life, ranking close to my family and my job.
Some might call me crazy, but the rush I feel when walking up to a big shed (or any shed, for that matter) is just as intense as having a monster buck only yards from my stand. During deer season I can shoot one buck, but when shed hunting I find many antlers each year.
But there's also a very practical reason for getting into this hobby. In my opinion, there's no better way to scout for next deer season than by shed hunting. At this time of year you can walk right through bedding areas, find rub lines, look for potential stand sites and learn so much about what the deer are doing in different areas. Last fall's sign is still fresh enough for you to read. And, of course, if you find one or more big antlers, that will tell you there's indeed a large buck somewhere around.
But don't fall into a common trap. Just because a buck might drop his antlers in one spot doesn't mean he'll necessarily be there next hunting season! So many people find an antler and fail to take into consideration how much deer patterns can change over the course of a year. Finding one shed means you're on the right track, but it's no excuse to stop scouting or to bet your entire season on killing the buck in that very spot. The deer that dropped the antler you just found might be a couple miles away during hunting season.
Again, there are always exceptions. I found one buck's sheds lying two feet apart in his bed one spring, then saw the buck the next November as I walked to a tree stand not 100 yards from where I'd found his sheds. The next spring I found his matched set again, this time a mere 50 feet from where I'd picked up his previous set! That old, wary buck felt really safe there. But despite his predictability, I never did get a shot at him.
One of the biggest single sides I've ever found was picked up on March 25, 1999. I was late for supper and I was walking back toward my truck when I decided to check a small hayfield that had potential.
Sure enough, I spotted what looked like a medium-sized set lying about 50 feet from me. But the closer I got, the more it looked like one big antler. I can sum up my reaction up for you in two words: I ran. I picked up the shed and saw it was a big non-typical single that had 10 points, not counting the three that had broken off! This shed scores an even 90 inches and no doubt would score well over 100 if the other points were intact.
Another of my outings yielded two sheds from Boone & Crockett-class bucks the same day, one was a 5-point side that scored 77 6/8; the other was a 9-point non-typical shed that measures 94 6/8. A good day, to say the least!
One of my most memorable sheds I picked up on March 12, 1999. This 60-inch 5-point shed was hanging in a bush and has approximately 10 feet of barbed wire tangled around it! My biggest matched set is from a colossal non-typical. This rack had 6-inch bases, 19 total points, tines in excess of 14 inches, a 12-inch drop tine and an estimated 30-inch spread! I have four sheds from this giant buck, but I've never seen him alive.
If you have a chance this year, get out there and look for some antlers, It's a great way to spend quality time with your family, get some exercise and scout for next hunting season, all at the same time. Just remember to be patient, keep a good eye out . . . and walk, walk and walk some more. No matter how long you've been at this game, you never know when you'll drop over that next hill and pick up the shed of a lifetime.