I caught the flash of white in the corner of my eye as a shining white glow emerged from the darkened ground. Immediately my heart rate accelerated and my hands began to shake.
It may come as a surprise that this excitement wasn't caused by the flashing antler of an approaching monster whitetail. Instead, it was the result of my discovery of a proverbial needle in a haystack – a shed antler.
For me, shed hunting provides much of the same excitement I can garner from an autumn whitetail hunt, and I know many of you shed hunters can relate. If you haven't tried shed hunting yet, now is the time to make it happen.
Here's the low down on everything you need to know to get started finding fallen antlers this spring.
When it comes right down to it, shed hunting is a pretty simple activity. It requires just two things – walking and focus. While that does sound rather easy, the actual execution of these two basic actions is much more challenging.
First and foremost, to find shed antlers you'll need to do a lot of walking. Even in the best whitetail states, finding an antler, as I mentioned before, is like looking for a needle in a haystack. You're typically looking for just a handful of available antlers over hundreds of acres, and in order to find those few diamonds in the rough you'll need to cover a lot of ground.
As a friend of mine says, it's all about "miles for piles." So if you want to find antlers, you had better plan on doing a heck of a lot of walking.
Secondly, you're going to need to maintain focus. Walking 10 miles is great, but if you're just taking in the scenery, you're going to miss a lot of antlers. The key to shed hunting success lies in staying fully focused on the ground and looking for antlers. No matter how tired you are, no matter how futile the search seems, you must keep on looking. Antlers are tough to see. You'll need to constantly scan across the ground in front of you, ahead of you and off to the sides.
One of the easiest traps to fall into is getting disenchanted and losing focus after walking all day and not having found anything. But just like in deer hunting, your luck can change in just seconds, so you need to keep your focus and be ready for your one opportunity when it comes.
When To Look
If you think you can handle long walks and keep focused on the task at hand, you're ready to start shed hunting. But when should you actually get out there and look for antlers? This decision is a critical one for several reasons.
You don't want to shed hunt too early. If you're in the woods and walking around before sheds have dropped, you may put enough pressure on the local bucks to force them to move off before they drop their antlers on your property. At the same time, you don't want to start shed hunting too late, as you may lose out on sheds to rodents or other shed hunters.
That said, keep the following factors in mind to ensure you start walking at the right time.
First, of primary importance is the biological timing of the antler drop. The casting of antlers is tied to a decrease in testosterone within bucks, related to declining levels of sunlight. This annual biological cycle typically causes most antlers to drop between Jan. 15 to March 15, making the months of February and March, most often, the best times to find antlers.
But this can vary widely based on location and local weather or habitat considerations. For example, hard winters and heavy snow can lead to earlier antler drop for some deer. On the other hand, an easy winter and the presence of many nutritional food sources could result in slightly later antler drops.
To keep tabs on local timing, run trail cameras to monitor when bucks in your area are actually dropping their antlers. Once most bucks have dropped their antlers, it's probably a good cue to get out there.
Once you know most antlers are on the ground, it's just a matter of being able to see them. This is most effected by the amount of snow cover. Typically, you'll want to wait until the majority of snow has melted before heading out on your first shed hunt. Overcast and light rainy days also make for great shed hunting conditions, as antlers just seem to pop out against the leaves in this kind of weather.
Where To Look
When it's finally time to start looking for antlers, you need to know where to search. If you're limited to shed hunting one small property, you may be able to search the entire piece. However, when there are large tracts of land, you'll need to whittle down the area you walk to just those sections that are most likely to hold antlers.
At a basic level the most probable places to find a shed are in the areas deer hang out most at this time of year, their winter feeding and bedding areas.
Food sources at this time of year tend to be corn, bean, winter wheat or other agriculture fields supplemented by certain late season food plots such as rape, kale and turnips. Search out these food sources. Walk them carefully, surveying not just the fields, but also the grass and brush along their edges. Very often bucks will bed just off the edges of these food sources during the night while feeding and drop their antlers.
Bedding areas can come in many forms as well, so hopefully your previous knowledge of a property will help you locate these. But if you're not familiar with the property you're shed hunting, look for thick cover, cedars and other conifers, or south facing hillsides. All of these types of areas can be popular bedding areas during the winter.
In addition to these core areas, there are a few "wild card" spots that can be good for a shed or two. Popular trails leading between food and bedding are always worth checking, as well as any obstacle that will require a deer to jump over it. These include popular fence, ditch or creek crossings.
Also, if you ever see isolated cedars or pine trees in grassy fields or on hillsides, be sure to check those out. They seem to be buck magnets during the winter, and countless sheds have been found next to those pine tree sentinels over the years.
While writing this, I look at that antler on my shelf and, just like a head on the wall, it brings back a flood of memories and emotions. It seems to me that the hunt for antlers, just like whitetails, is good for the soul.
Mark Kenyon runs Wired To Hunt, one of the top deer hunting resources online, featuring daily deer hunting news, stories and strategies for the whitetail addict.