By Dan Cole
Undoubtedly, the off-season sport of hunting shed antlers has exploded in popularity within the past decade. If you’ve worn out a few pairs of boots searching for sheds, you can probably recall a time of little competition and easy land access. I remember walking for days and never seeing another human track. Back then, many landowners were willing to let you walk their places, and farmers wanted shed hunters to pick the antlers from their ag fields before tractor tires did.
But times certainly have changed. Nowadays, if you lack exclusive land access you can just about count on seeing tracks of other shed hunters. Most farmers now have family members or friends they save their fields for. A serious shed hunter will need to be flexible and willing to work a little harder than before. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little competition. It tends to keep you aware of what’s happening within an area, and it can push you to a better year of shed hunting.
KNOWLEDGE TO BE GAINED
No matter where we find sheds, there’s a wealth of information in them. For instance, they can tell us a buck’s overall condition and whether or not he’s been on a nutritious diet. We also can get an idea of his age, especially if we have more than one year of his sheds.
In my opinion, there are two types of shed hunters: those who go purely for recreation, and those looking to gain information for hunting season. With purely recreational shed hunters, some of the potential information from antlers is often overlooked. But for those who enjoy finding sheds from specific bucks they’re hunting, the information becomes a vital part of a database of knowledge about those deer.
Some savvy trophy hunters were picking up sheds decades before the current explosion in popularity. And for good reason: Those antlers, and the information gleaned from them, have directly led to the demise of many great whitetails.
What have these hunters figured out? That finding a targeted buck’s sheds can help pinpoint his core area. Knowing core areas of mature bucks is vital to consistent hunting success, and sheds can be the ticket to finding such places.
AT THE CORE OF SUCCESS
One of the hardest things to learn about a particular buck is where his core area is located. We need to find that one place where he spends the majority of his time, because it’s where he feels most comfortable and secure. It’s also where he goes when the pressure’s on and where he goes when he needs rest and recovery. Once you know for sure where a mature buck calls “home,” you’ve solved a big part of the hunting puzzle.
How do sheds help us find core areas? The answer is relatively simple — but arriving there is a bit more complex.
We know mature bucks need post-rut recovery time. After all, they’ve run hard and battled hard for a month or longer, losing 25 percent or even more of their pre-rut body weight. Most bucks then will head for the heaviest cover they can find, preferring locations seldom if ever disturbed. In my area of northwest Minnesota, this move to security/core areas will usually begin around the first week of December; which up here is right after breeding is completed.
Many factors affect shedding. Bucks wounded by hunters or injured in fights are usually the first to head back to their core areas to recover. These stressed bucks will also be the first to shed. In most cases, these extremely early sheds will drop within bucks’ core areas.
It’s important to avoid confusing these early- shedding bucks with healthy deer, which will cast their antlers on a more normal schedule. The last thing you want to do is go into a buck’s core area in hopes of finding sheds, just to end up bumping him and/or other bucks from the area. They won’t give you a second chance this time of the year; once they’ve been disturbed, assume they’ll relocate to quieter areas. Most healthy bucks will carry antlers at least until the last does are bred.
It’s also imperative to pay attention to the weather, particularly to any winter storms hitting the area. Snowstorms that cover existing food sources will cause deer to relocate to areas with more accessible food. These storms will often initiate early antler drop, as well. And that can throw us a curve.
If we glass a field of deer in mid-January and see a mature buck that’s already shed, we might guess he’s close to or in his core area. However, we could just as easily be wrong by several miles, for the reasons already mentioned. This is a key mistake we don’t want to make. If you’ve ever focused on a “core area” all season and wondered why you never saw the target buck, chances are you weren’t in his core area after all.
Of course, nailing down the period in which a buck uses a certain location is crucial. If we know where he spends his time during the post-rut recovery period, there’s a better than good chance we’ve found his favored area.
If the area offers all a buck needs, in terms of food, water, cover and lack of human disturbance, there’s a good chance he won’t leave it. If the buck is able to stay within this area long enough, and not be forced out by disturbance and/or weather, he’ll eventually shed his antlers right where you want them: inside his core area.
PUTTING THE PLAN INTO PRACTICE
North Dakota’s Justin Berg credits information gained from a set of sheds with his taking a giant, heavy-antlered buck during the 2017 archery season.
“I found out about the deer during the firearms season of 2016, when one of my trail cameras captured him on a scrape,” Justin begins. “I live close to Manitoba, and there’s a provincial park directly across the border from here. It’s a big sanctuary, and most of our mature bucks head there as soon as the rifle hunters show up. In fact, I thought the buck was residing in Canada, and (getting him on camera) was just a one-time deal.”
However, a few weeks later that all changed. After hearing rumors of a big buck being seen in a particular field, Justin made a scouting trip around the area. Sure enough, the hungry buck was feeding in the field during midday!
Justin started watching the area morning and evening, and it was common to see the buck. As temperatures fell and snow increased, the buck started feeding in a nearby cattle feedlot. At almost any time of day, he could be seen there. A lot of people were talking about the buck, and Justin grew worried someone would poach him. Then, one evening the buck showed up with no antlers! The next morning, Justin and friend Cole Haberstroh went searching for his sheds.
“It didn’t take long to find them, either,” Justin says. “I’d walked up a low hill and looked down the other side into a valley, and there they were. They looked like two branches lying in the field. They were side by side about 150 yards away. It was certainly a beautiful sight!”
Justin not only had the antlers in his hands, he’d also learned something he hadn’t previously considered: He now knew the buck was residing on the American side of the border. And even more importantly, he learned the buck was living within a public hunting area. That meant he could be hunted.
In August ’17, Justin started placing cameras within the area where he’d found the sheds. The location made a good starting point, and it was there he’d focus his cameras. And the first card pull showed several photos of the buck!
Archery season opened Sept. 1, and Justin wasn’t going to miss it. “Once the buck shed his velvet he disappeared for a while. I hunted him three or four times and never seen him. I was worried that a poacher had gotten him or at the least had spooked him away,” he notes. “On the thirteenth, I hunted close to a food source and just before last light the buck stepped out 33 yards away. I was able to make the most of the opportunity.”
Justin’s buck had everything an antler lover could want: extreme mass, chocolate color and great height. Is there a more rewarding experience than to find a set of sheds from a monster buck, then take him? Many feel this is the pinnacle of accomplishment in whitetail hunting.
“Everything I needed to know about that buck I was able to learn from finding his sheds,” Justin points out. “If I wouldn’t have found his sheds, I wouldn’t have gotten him. They’re the only reason I got that buck.”
Finding any shed is fun. But an entirely different level of satisfaction is reached when a hunter can display his or her favorite set of sheds alongside the buck that once carried them. If you don’t believe me, ask Justin Berg.