Shed hunting is my biggest passion. Shed antlers can be large, small, fresh, old, chewed, muddy or clean. They can come from a buck I'm familiar with or from a total stranger. Whatever the case may be, each individual antler that I find brings a huge smile to my face and reminds me of why I value my passion for shed hunting right up there with my family, religion and job.
When the folks at North American Whitetail gave me an opportunity to write about finding sheds, I jumped at the chance. My first article about sheds, "The Bones Of Winter," was published in February 2003. In that article I coined the phrase "the 3-inch rule" and concentrated on providing practical advice for finding sheds on your hunting properties. (Simply stated, the 3-inch rule suggests that instead of looking for an entire antler, look for no more than 3 inches of bone at a time, and you'll have much more success in finding shed antlers.)
Now, years later, I find myself typing a different type of article about shed antlers. I wish I could write about the big antler lying on the trail, or the small one hanging in a branch. Unfortunately, this piece is quite different, and it's an article that I honestly wish I didn't have to write. This article addresses a dark cloud surrounding the sport we love so very much -- shed poaching.
A GROWING PROBLEM
Think back to your shed hunting adventures last spring, and maybe even the ones you've already been on this year, and see if this scenario sounds familiar: You either own, lease or have permission to hunt an area that's off-limits to other hunters. Since deer season ended, you've gone out of your way to stay out of the area, other than to possibly check a few of your trail cameras. You've gone to great pains to let the deer traverse the property naturally without any sort of human interference. Furthermore, you have a good idea of where a very large buck's shed antlers might be found.
The time comes, and you are filled with excitement and anticipation. As you walk over the property, however, you don't see any sheds. Instead, you see boot tracks scattered over the entire place. Has this ever happened to you? If so, your property has probably been shed poached. Let's take a minute to investigate the ins and outs of shed poaching, what to look for, and what you can do to try to fight it.
When I wrote "Bones" several years ago, the popularity of shed hunting was beginning to explode. I knew times were changing, and I suspected that the woods would become more crowded with people hunting cast antlers. I was right. The fascination for antlers and the enjoyment of shed hunting have drawn thousands of people out to search for these one-of-a-kind works of art. Sadly, though, the frequency of shed poaching today is dampening the spirits of many long-time shed-hunting fans, including me.
Since shed poaching involves trespassing on someone else's property with the express purpose of picking up shed antlers, this act is nothing more than an intentional form of stealing.
I'd like to think that the majority of sportsmen around the country are honest and try to obey all game laws and respect landowners' rights, but that's not always the case. I'd also like to believe that when a big shed (from a buck I know about) doesn't turn up, it's because I haven't looked hard enough or possibly because the buck hasn't dropped it yet.
But having seen enough boot tracks on properties where I have exclusive permission to shed hunt, and having listened to the sad stories of others, I have to face the reality that a thief might be holding one of the very antlers I've dreamed about finding for months.
WHAT'S REALLY HAPPENING?
What would make someone break the law just to find shed antlers? Most likely it's for the same reasons some individuals choose to poach deer -- possibly for a cheap thrill, or maybe because these individuals are so desperate to find a big shed that they'll do whatever it takes to get one in their possession. This includes intentionally breaking the law. Or perhaps these individuals know about a certain buck and they become obsessed with owning that buck's sheds even if it means stealing someone else's property.
Another motivation for shed poaching is money. We live in an age when antlers bring cash. The bigger the shed, the more its worth, and you can bet that someone out there will pay good money for a nice shed or set of sheds. If you have any doubts about this, go to e-Bay, type in "shed antlers," and look at what some of the bigger sheds are bringing these days. Regardless of the reasons behind it, shed poaching is definitely on the increase, and I don't see it going away anytime soon.
If you trespass to find sheds, you are a thief. In addition to good woodsmanship, most hunters want to teach their children honesty and integrity. Most want to be good role models and lead by example. But what about those who don't? What if you were hunting a 200-inch buck? How would you feel if you thought a trespasser had sneaked into your private hunting area and taken an antler from your special buck?
Trespassing is trespassing, and stealing is stealing, even if you're "just" shed hunting. Landowners have a right to grant or deny property use at their discretion. If you see a big shed lying in a wheat field and you know that property is off-limits, will you leave it alone? Just because it's "only" a shed doesn't justify running out there and grabbing it. The landowner or someone he lets hunt on the property might very well be looking for that special shed to keep and treasure forever. Remember, trespassers give all other hunters a bad name, and they drag the sport of hunting through the mud.
HOW SHED POACHERS GET AWAY WITH IT
Like anything else, if you practice long enough at something, you'll probably get pretty good at it. Shed poachers become pretty effective in their tactics. I've talked with landowners who have caught trespassers wearing plain street clothes and bright colors that stood out like a sore thumb. Apparently these trespassers didn't seem to care who saw them on the property. A conversation with one landowner really stands out in my mind.
"It was around 4 o'clock in the afternoon when I saw this guy walking across my pasture," the landowner said. "He was wearing blue jeans and a bright red shirt, and he came walking by with several deer horns in his hands."
The landowner then went on to tell me that he called the authorities and pressed charges against this guy. Good for him! I've also heard plenty of stories about the sneaky shed poachers. Some guys openly admit to shed poaching, bragging about how their buddy or their spouse drops them off at one end of a property and comes back later to pick them up at the other end. These guys wear full camo and move very cautiously. They don't want to be seen.
Like anything else, though, the more risks a person takes, the likelier it becomes that he or she will get caught. It may not happen today or even next week. But it will happen sooner or later, and hopefully that person will be exchanging those big sheds for a pair of handcuffs!
WHAT YOU CAN DO
I doubt if you'll ever truly eliminate illegal "stomping," but there are ways to fight back. Here are several ideas to try.
Patrol Your Property -- As simple as it sounds, the best way to reduce trespassing is to make your presence known. Drive the roads. Stop often to look and listen. Don't let yourself be patterned when you patrol. Just as deer pattern hunters, trespassers may be looking for obvious patterns the landowner exhibits and then use those patterns to their advantage. Drive around the section from different directions at different times. For that matter, patrol your property by borrowing a friend's car or truck. Keep the poachers guessing.
Have you found tracks? Perhaps the poachers are leaving their own patterns. Try scouting for poachers the way you scout for deer. Look for tracks and pieces of clothing material on fences. Take full advantage of stealth, just as you would if you were actually hunting. Sit back in the weeds from a distance with a good pair of binoculars and a spotting scope. Wear your own camouflage. Watch for trespassers to enter, and videotape everything you see. Then use your cell phone to call the police. I don't recommend confrontation. It could result in violence. If someone is crazy enough to trespass, a confrontation might be best left to law enforcement officials.
Develop a Reputation -- A sure-fire way to show you mean business about your property is to actually get the word out that you have zero tolerance for unwanted guests. Prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, and post your property heavily with signs. Close off gates and entranceways with locked chains. I recommend POSTED: NO TRESPASSING signs, or better yet, ones that say NO TRESPASSING WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.
The "without written permission" stipulation lets a conservation officer write a citation without needing a landowner to press charges. Should a trespassing issue arise, contact a local conservation officer immediately and notify him of the situation.
Use Trail Cameras -- Trail cameras are amazing tools for the serious deer hunter. And because they can scout when you can't, they are outstanding tools to help catch shed poachers. For this to work, it's crucial that you keep your cameras hidden. One of my best friends made a shed hunting trip back to one of his local hotspots last spring only to find boot tracks everywhere and a bare spot on a tree where his trail camera had once been attached. He never found a single shed. Since shed poachers are thieves, they'll just as likely steal your trail cameras, too!
Therefore, "brush in" the camera like you would a blind. Also, to keep from being noticed, use a camera with an IR flash rather than a visible flash. If you're lucky enough to capture the picture of a trespasser, share it with your local law enforcement agency. For that matter, you could even print the picture off and post it on the bulletin board of the local convenience store. Let everyone in your community know that this guy is a trespasser and a thief! Also, let everyone know that you plan to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.
SET SOME HIGH STANDARDS
With all the discussion about shed poaching, I need to clarify something here. Just as with actual deer hunting, in which hunters sometimes have to make moral and ethical decisions, the same should apply to shed hunting. I like to believe that the majority of whitetail hunters are honest and have good hearts. However, I read a discussion on an Internet message board one day where several people claimed, "Shed poachers think they're special. They think that trespassing rules don't apply to them."
In some cases this has been true. Some shed thieves will tell you they are not doing anything wrong. But again, stealing is stealing. I've lost several awesome places to shed hunt because of trespassing problems. I've also lost some properties because they were leased to others. These are rural properties away from most houses. I could easily sneak into some of these leased places, and I know I'd find some good sheds because I know right where to look. It would be easy to get away with, but I know in my heart that it wouldn't be right.
Try this: If you ever do find yourself in a situation in which you stumble across a nice shed antler just across a property line, go find the landowner and ask him if you can keep it. You'll be surprised how many times you'll get a "yes." What's more, he'll really appreciate the effort you made to be up front with him.
Not all shed hunters cross property boundaries. Not all shed hunters steal. Not all shed hunters give our sport a bad name, but the bad apples sure spoil it for the rest of us, and they certainly don't help to improve the commonly held public perception that we're all poachers!
Shed hunting is a fantastic sport, and it's something I live to do, as already mentioned. I feel so lucky being blessed with such a satisfying hobby, and even luckier when I actually find a shed to take home. However, with shed poaching on the increase, we must all be proactive and do our part to get poachers out of the woods or our beloved sport may be damaged forever. Remember: If we can help to educate landowners and if we can keep a watchful eye on our hunting areas, perhaps we'll get to spend more time staring at tines and less time staring at footprints!