By Mark Kayser
Do you remember the days when nobody gave a second glance at a shed whitetail antler? Farmers would pick them up to avoid tire punctures and stack them against a dilapidated shed. Some hunters would give them an admiring glance without even picking them up.
Those days are gone like the days of cheap fuel for your truck. Farmers still want the tire terrorizers removed from their fields, but people now pay to do it by leasing ground for hunting and picking up the cast antlers of winter whitetails. Shed antler hunting has become so popular it's getting increasingly difficult even to gain access to pick up a shed antler in trophy-producing states. If you haven't run into a closed gate, get ready, as antler nuts are now traveling cross-country to pick up the bone fruit of spring.
So why the explosion in shed antler interest in recent years? Whitetail management has become more than a hobby. As more and more private landowners take it upon themselves to manage for trophy bucks, they want to see the results of their efforts. If they can't put a buck on the wall for hunting season, they want to grasp a shed antler to verify the expense and effort. Bucks are getting bigger, and as they do, more and more whitetail enthusiasts want to reap the rewards, either via hunting or through shed antlers.
Shed antlers are also worth more than a big smile. You can cash in on antler sales. World-class, free-range shed antlers sell for thousands of dollars and you can sell a pile of garden-variety antlers by the pound to fund your next shed antler scavenger hunt. But you can also learn about the buck that carried those antlers and zero in on his whereabouts for the upcoming hunting season.
Proof of Life
On average, whitetails shed their antlers annually from December into April. Most jettison headgear during February and March at approximately the same time each winter. Deer living in severe latitudes, north or south, may drop earlier or later. Plus, the strain from a severe winter may push the drop date earlier. Nevertheless, whitetail breeders conclusively note that in the perfect world of a whitetail enclosure, bucks consistently drop around the same date year after year.
This winter antler discarding schedule means that most bucks shed their antlers well after hunting season across the country. A few states such as Iowa and Texas have seasons that extend past January, providing hunters with the dilemma of possibly shooting an antlerless buck, but careful hunters can pick out bucks with muscular necks and rosy pedicles prominent on their antler-missing foreheads.
In brief, that means the buck that sported the shed antlers you find will likely be alive. That's because the vast majority of whitetail mortality is from hunting. A lucky buck that made it through hunting season and shed its antlers could still have an unlucky twist of fate. Car collisions, predation, early-spring snowstorms, natural accidents and disease could take a buck's life, but unless a buck lives near the I-80 corridor west of Chicago, odds are good the buck will be alive during the upcoming hunting season.
Find a set of trophy shed antlers and you might have the hardcore, CSI evidence that a buck is still haunting the nearby woods. Or is it?
Proof of Residency
Unfortunately, finding a fresh set of shed antlers doesn't mean the buck that donned that headgear is living nearby. In nutrition- and habitat-rich environments, whitetails might not wander far during winter. Areas in the lush South and manicured habitats in the Midwest with food plots galore will hold whitetails to their textbook, one-square-mile rule of home territory. That may change in other locations. In the Great Plains, West and North Country, whitetails will wander if they can't find creature comforts or even the basics for survival nearby. I've personally watched bucks travel anywhere from five to eight miles to take advantage of standing crops, riparian zones and haystacks during average and outright nasty winters.
That means you can't take for granted that shed antlers automatically mean a buck is living nearby. Even Midwestern deer will abandon a homey woodlot to take advantage of standing corn a section of land away. They may still go back and forth to timbered security, but finding a shed antler a mile or more away might mean backtracking for you to find the owner during the summer. It's not impossible to locate a buck, but it does mean more scouting on your behalf.
My basic rule is to watch wintering deer groups and chart their travel patterns if they provide daytime evidence of movement. If a nutrition source has ample offerings, it will attract more than just the bucks and does that oftentimes stay at the food source or move there during daylight. Watch their pattern, scour the area later for shed antlers and then home in on where the travel corridors lead during your scouting trips. This springtime home invasion also reveals buck presence in the form of past rub lines, primary scrape locations and the beat down paths of favorite travel hubs. By summer, bachelor groups of bucks will begin to show themselves boldly, hopefully giving you a peek at your target, but with a bit more bone to admire. Read on.
Growth Spurt Potential
Shed antlers also provide evidence of the growth a particular buck may exhibit and the potential growth for others in the area. Savvy shed collectors who manage properties note not only where an antler was picked up at (an aerial photo works great), but they also mark the year the antler was found with a measured score. Even if you don't find the opposite side, you can double the score of the antler in-hand, add an average inside spread and determine if it's a keeper for next year or a catch-and-release candidate.
Annual growth rates vary depending on genetics, nutrition and stress. That's why it's important to score your antlers and, if you want even more detail, mimic biologists by collecting main beam diameter measurements. Boone and Crockett's scoring system can reveal if a particular buck is charging forward or stuck in neutral, but the beam diameter right above the burr reveals true health and genetic potential. Contact a local biologist to acquire normal beam diameter and then compare it to what's occurring on your property.
How much should a buck grow year to year? Some bucks are like Shaquille O'Neal, while others have the makeup of Pee-Wee Herman. Normally a buck sports 70 percent of its potential at 3 years and 90 percent at 4. Maturity peaks at 5 years, and after that, a buck adds on character but doesn't explode in size as it does between 3 and 4. I've picked up sheds where bucks added an overall 20 inches to their frames and a buddy of mine has several sets of sheds where the buck jumped 30 inches between years before it was added to the hunt list.
Shed antler hunting is as addictive as hunting itself, but adding it into your annual scouting trips provides you with more clues to tag your next buck.