February 03, 2022
By Steve Sherk
My obsession with monster big-woods bucks in my home state of Pennsylvania has turned me into a year-round deer enthusiast. Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter, there’s always a reason to be in the deer woods. But one of my favorite times of year is what many of us call “shed season.”
When it comes to shed hunting, I’ve never been a numbers guy. My goals are centered around targeting individual bucks, just like my approach to hunting them. If I spent the entire spring and only found the matching set of antlers to my target buck, I would consider it a huge success. I hunt sheds with my focus solely on an individual buck, because I’m trying to learn all I can about him in hopes of collecting his antlers as soon as they drop.
Trail Camera Strategies
I use trail cameras just as much for hunting sheds as I do for hunting bucks. I do all my hunting on public land, so when a buck drops his antlers, I need to get on them before someone else does.
Trail cameras are the ultimate tool for knowing when you need to make your move. Whether it’s late winter or early spring, mature bucks are very sensitive to human pressure. During spring the hunting season has finally ended, so the pressure of being pursued for several months has taken its toll on whitetails. If you don’t play your cards right, you can bump a buck into the next zip code and likely never find his sheds.
I like to place cameras on food sources and along trails that go to and from bedding. I’ll check cameras as often as two or three times per week during the peak shedding months, typically February and March. However, I try to check those cameras during the mid-day hours, between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. I’m not worried about scent or making a buck go nocturnal, but I want to avoid physically spooking him out of his bedding area.
One of my favorite bucks of all time was a buck I named “Crazy 12”. I was able to find at least one of his shed antlers most of the years I hunted him. The last year he lived before someone harvested him, I hunted his antlers during the first week of January, simply because of trail cam photos.
I had placed several trail cameras around the perimeter of his winter bedding area, specifically for shed hunting purposes. Once I knew he dropped both antlers, I went into his bedroom and fortunately found his right antler the first time looking for them. That buck ended up gross scoring around 160 inches.
Most shed hunters target food sources for sheds. Often, you’ll find a greater number of sheds around food sources, but not likely the biggest ones. Mature bucks spend more time on their bellies during the winter months than they do on their feet. This is a crucial resting and recovery period for them. They have been worn out from the rut and have also spent a great amount of energy and fat reserves evading hunters.
Also, in much of the big woods of the northeast, severe winter weather forces deer to spend a lot of time in bedding areas. During the worst phases of winter, it is better for a deer to bed and preserve calories than to get up and search for food. In many instances, a deer will burn more calories searching for food than lying down and preserving them.
You have to remember that in most big-woods settings, there’s little to no agricultural food sources. If there’s deep snow or ice, digging up mast crops is nearly impossible. I’ve encountered winter buck beds that were beaten down to the mud. Clearly, you could tell that a mature buck had laid there for days, moving very little. These were telling signs that traveling distances to find food was not an option for survival. Mother Nature has a way of telling its animals how to survive even the most brutal winters of the northeast.
I prefer to shed hunt bedding areas simply because I know that’s the area a mature buck spends most of his time during the winter months. But if you go into his bedroom before he drops his antlers, you might blow your chances.
One of the biggest deer I’ve ever encountered was a buck I named “Goliath”. One of the most interesting facts about Goliath was that he would winter roughly seven miles from his summer and fall range. Every December, he would show up in his wintering area and then leave once spring arrived. In fact, in December of 2018, I accidentally bumped Goliath out of his bedding area. I was so worried I bumped him for good; I didn’t even run cameras to know when he would drop.
He preferred to bed on a remote hemlock point, and I was confident he wouldn’t be bothered by any other humans the entire winter. To play it safe, I didn’t go look for his sheds until early April. I was shocked to find both of his antlers in the same bed I bumped him out of in late December! That was also my first hunt looking for his rack.
I’ve found that habitat is the biggest key for mature bucks during the shed season. A big-woods buck will shift several miles from his fall range to winter range, knowing that he needs quality habitat to survive the winter. The three biggest keys are food, cover and low human pressure. If there’s potential for severe winter weather, thermal cover is also extremely important.
It seems like a lot of these big-woods bucks go to the same place each winter. I’ve found a specific buck’s sheds multiple years in a row inside a 100-yard radius. The overall movement is minimal. If the habitat and pressure stay the same, he will likely keep using it year after year.
My favorite shed hunting habitat is a young clear cut mixed with hemlock, spruce or pine trees. These cuts give a buck the best of both worlds: prime food and prime bedding. The browse regeneration often sticks up above deep snow, making it somewhat easy for a buck to feed regularly. You’ll also find buck beds under most of the evergreens, especially the ones on a south facing slope. Make sure to check every single evergreen in a clear cut, that’s the most likely place to find an antler.
Mild vs. Severe Winters
Even though a mild winter will often lead to more time shed hunting, a light winter is usually harder to pattern a buck to get his sheds. A mature buck will often travel more during milder winters, and he will likely extend his winter range, making it much harder to find his sheds.
During a harsh winter, even though you may have to wait months for the snow to melt, it is much easier to collect bone from a big-woods bruiser if you know where he’s bedding. I would bet my last dollar that his sheds will be in his bedroom or close by.
I’ve also noticed that during a mild winter you’ll see bucks hold antlers much longer, and a severe winter will cause a lot of them to drop sooner. Antler shedding often can be related to stress.
I’ve seen individual bucks drop antlers at different times of year from one year to the next. Once again, I believe this is related to stress. Some bucks may have rutted harder from one year to the next. That can also impact the timing of when the buck’s antlers eventually fall off.
Several years ago, I found more sheds from December to January than I did from February to March. We had several early winter storms that put a hurting on our buck herd. It definitely had an impact on bucks shedding early.
Learning Specific Bucks
As much as I love antlers, learning about a particular buck is far more rewarding than collecting his antlers. Putting my focus on individual bucks during shed season makes me a better buck hunter. This is a time of year when you can really get to know a buck. Not all bucks have different ranges from summer to winter. Some bucks winter where they live in the fall if the habitat is conducive to winter survival.
I killed one of my best bucks because I found one of his sheds. I got random trail cam pictures of the buck during the hunting season prior to shed hunting him. But where I found his antler was not the same area I was getting him on trail camera. Furthermore, the ridge I found his shed on was the same ridge where I killed him the following season. That shed was a prime clue on where to begin my hunt for him. Had I not found that shed, I guarantee you I would have never killed that buck.
If you are a mature buck hunter, I encourage you to put a greater focus on shed hunting individual bucks. In the end, you’ll gain way more than just a set of antlers!