Antler Hunters – Shed-Hunting Techniques
By: Lindsay Thomas Jr.
Hunting shed antlers has become a sport in its own right in the last few years. Some people believe the spread of the Quality Deer Management (QDM) philosophy has resulted in balanced deer populations with more and older bucks, leading to higher success rates for shed hunters. Some people believe the reverse, that the hope of boosting shed-hunting success has led enthusiasts to QDM. Both are probably accurate. Regardless, it is true that hunting for sheds is an enhanced benefit of QDM and that shed hunters are finding many rewards beyond simply adding a new shed antler to their collection.
Many different people are hunting for shed antlers, some who are not even hunters. And there are different levels of seriousness. In Chester County, South Carolina, QDMA member Vernon Peers has figured out from several years of notes in his journal that February 22 is the best day of the year for him, his 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter to find sheds on their 200-acre farm. For the Peers, hunting sheds has become an annual tradition and a good way to find arrowheads, scout for the spring turkey season and spend time together.
In Udall, Kansas, QDMA member Randy Hoffman watches his trail cameras for bucks missing antlers on his 200-acre property. When the last antler has dropped, he begins glassing fields of wheat stubble on windy days, walking trails between food and cover, and checking bedding areas — the one time of year he enters them.
Dan Hess in Lyndon Station, Wisconsin, doesn’t stop with his own hunting property in looking for sheds. He travels to multiple states and to Canadian provinces to hunt sheds in the off-season. He is part of a group of friends who are the officers of the North American Shed Hunting Club (NASHC), founded in 1991 (www.shedantlers.org). Dan serves as the assistant marketing director for the organization, an all-volunteer group made up of hunters who love “picking sheds” and who even keep an official record book of individual and matched sets of sheds. Dan’s personal best is a single, non-typical shed that measures 95 2/8 (beam length, total tine length plus four circumferences, as in the Boone & Crockett Club method). His best typical is just under 80.
There are many reasons that all three men point to for why they enjoy and benefit from hunting sheds. And it’s clear from talking to them that there is more to hunting sheds than walking in the woods.
When to Look For Sheds
As the information on this page explains, the timing of antler shedding varies from region to region, and local factors such as weather and nutrition can cause annual variability on a given site. For most areas of the country, February and March are peak months, though some hunters will find sheds earlier and later. Looking too soon or too late means wasted effort.
“If I don’t find them before April 1, I won’t find them,” said Vernon. “The mice and the squirrels get them.”
“Here in Wisconsin, squirrels and porcupines really chew up shed antlers,” said Dan. “You want to get to them as soon as you can. I once found a large shed that had not lain there long, and already two thirds of the antler was gone — it happened to fall by a big squirrel den tree. I’ve also found antlers that were three or four years old but pretty much intact, but that’s uncommon.”
Observation of deer, whether first-hand with binoculars or with trail-camera pictures, is the best guide to timing your search. Already this year there are reports of earlier-than-usual shedding in some areas. QDMA member Ken Gallman of Virginia reported two bucks mistaken for does and shot in December. Both had already shed their antlers.
Where to Look For Sheds
The basics are simple according to experienced shed hunters: look for sheds in winter food sources, in bedding areas, and along trails in between these two areas.
“I’m very much a believer in checking a good, quality food source first,” said Dan. “If you have a good food source that you didn’t pressure a lot during the season, the deer spend a lot of time there. My best luck in Wisconsin has been alfalfa fields that weren’t cut late, with corn fields and bean fields being next in line. Any field that’s got food left in it for the deer when they’re dropping antlers is my number one pick.”
“We mostly find them in food plots, and mostly in the clover patches,” said Vernon, “partially because that’s an easy place for the kids to walk, it’s an easy place to spot a shed, and also because the deer spend a lot of time in those fields.”
Many deer managers have flattened ATV or even tractor tires on sheds. “If a farmer has lost a tractor tire to a shed, they have a tendency to let folks shed hunt,” said Dan. “A neighbor of ours had a soybean head on his combine get plugged when it picked up a big shed. They found the match a short distance away in the same bean field, and that buck was shot this year — it was right around 200 inches.”
In Kansas, Randy always starts with wheat fields and carefully scans large sections with binoculars. Shed antlers are well camouflaged in wheat straw and stubble, but wind can help, because sheds don’t move in the wind. Also, glassing wheat fields is non-intrusive, said Randy.
“I ended last year with a couple of matched sets and several singles just off wheat fields,” he said.
In areas where open water sources are scarce, water can be just as productive as food for shed hunting. This is often the case in the arid Southwest as well as in the North, where most water is frozen. “In the North, flowing water is the only open water you’re going to find,” said Dan.
After searching winter food sources first, these hunters begin working their way along all visible trails connecting feeding areas with bedding cover. Sheds may be found in and along trails at random locations, but certain sites tend to be more productive. Randy said he looks for places along trails where limbs, brush or other structures crowd the trail.
“I found a matched set last year, side by side, and they were in a place along a trail where the buck had to duck his head and wiggle through some brush,” he said. “It knocked both of them off right there.”
Fencerows are another great place to look. The impact of landing after a buck jumps a fence often jars antlers loose.
“We’ve had good luck with fence crossings and creek crossings,”?said Dan. “In fact I’ve found several sheds in water over the years. Any place where the deer have to jump is a good place to look. I’ve also had great success with railroad tracks, right in the ditch line where they’re having to jump down.”
What About Sanctuaries?
Besides winter food sources, the most productive area to hunt for sheds is winter bedding cover. To some hunters, walking bedding areas sounds sinful. Creating sanctuaries has become popular in recent years, particularly on small tracts. Owners of smaller properties have learned that making their land more attractive to deer than surrounding lands — including sanctuary areas — is crucial to hunting success. Is it OK to enter these areas to hunt sheds?
“That’s a real concern, because I?hunt on a small tract, and most of the tracts around me are small tracts,”?said Dan. “We have to be careful about kicking the deer out, because it’s never far to the neighbor’s property.”
Dan said he saves his bedding areas for when he knows most if not all bucks have shed their antlers, then he searches them quickly but thoroughly.
“I almost feel like I’m doing something illegal by being there,” said Dan. “But I go in one time, I’m thorough in searching it, then I get the heck out of there and I don’t go back. Several of the guys I hunt with have areas that they go into only one time a year, and that’s to hunt for sheds.”
Dan said he does not see signs that his activity, even in bedding areas, impacts deer use of his property. Randy and Vernon agree. “They’re in a different pattern that time of year,” said Vernon. “Also, I think deer get used to our patterns. We’re on our property just about every weekend of the year, planting trees, working on stands, mowing trails or doing something. We keep a pretty good population of deer on the land in spite of all that.”
Randy also said he doesn’t think the disturbance is a problem that time of year, but he is still careful. “I’d rather leave the bedding areas alone until I?know those sheds are on the ground, and by using the trail cameras I can do that,” he said. “The cameras also give me clues to where specific bucks are hanging out when their antlers drop. I already know where to start looking.”
Ovals in snow or in bedding cover where deer actually bed down are productive for shed hunters because of the increased likelihood of finding matched sets as well as small shed antlers.
“We have a competition to see who can find the smallest sheds, and beds often produce those,” said Dan. “One guy found a shed that was 1 3/8 inches long, a matched set lying together in a bed. One of the neatest sheds I?ever saw was a matched set: they were four inches in circumference and about an inch long, just knobs or silver-dollar sized blobs of antler. The guy never would have found that without finding it in a bed. It’s very difficult to find small antlers.”
Many hunters think of bedding areas as being large areas of impenetrable thicket, but any small spot of grass or other cover tall enough to conceal a deer may serve as bedding cover. Beds may also be found in unexpected or unlikely places, and Dan said he believes this is particularly true for mature bucks.
“My biggest typical matched set that I’ve personally ever picked up was in an area like that,” he said. “I had hit every likely area I could possibly think of trying to find the match to this shed. There was a really thin strip of grass that was maybe a foot to 2 feet tall out in the open near a field, and I was going to pass it up, but I decided to look. I started to find really big, oval beds in this little strip, and then there it was.”
One final note for Northern shed hunters regarding winter cover: In the far northern regions of the United States and Canada, whitetails “yard” during extreme periods of harsh winter weather. Yarding is a survival mechanism, and deer that are driven out of yards by predators or people during extreme weather suffer high stress levels. If there are known yarding areas on your hunting land, avoid hunting sheds in these areas when winter weather is at its worst. Naturally, this isn’t a difficult order — chances are good you’ll be by a fireplace yourself and save shed hunting for clear, warmer days.
Being involved with the Shed Hunting Club, we hear a lot of people tell us they walked 16 hours and didn’t find anything,”?said Dan. “A lot of that is because they’re just stumbling through the woods. The number one mistake people make is they’re not looking at the ground. I?know that sounds crazy, but you get out there and start seeing rubs, trails, scrapes, things you didn’t know about, and you say, ‘Oh my, look at all the deer sign!’ You can still look at the deer sign, but you have to slow down and look at the ground. I’ve found small antlers in alfalfa fields that you couldn’t see even when you were within six feet of them.”
In woods and fields, be conscious of where your eyes are focused, Dan said. Though Dan said he stops, looks downrange around him, and even uses binoculars to scan fields, he spots the majority of his finds within six feet of where he stands.
“If you start picking up a lot of sheds in a hurry, it’s time to slow down and look carefully, because they blend in so well, and you are not seeing all those antlers,” he said. “I’ve had days where I found several sheds in a good field. When I went back the next day, I found more that I hadn’t seen. If I’m in a really good area, I put in the time.”
Because sheds can be harder to spot than most hunters think, training dogs to find sheds is growing in popularity. Advice on training a range of breeds to locate sheds, professional trainers, and trained dogs for sale can all be found on the Internet. Vernon has followed this advice and is working with his labradors with some early success.
Dan said he is considering this option because of the success many of his friends have had, but he is also hesitant. A dog can rapidly increase your success rate for finding shed antlers, but benefits such as property scouting will be reduced. Knowing exactly where a shed was dropped can offer useful hints for hunting season.
“There are dogs that are trained to retrieve the shed, and there are dogs that are trained to bark and wait for you to get there,” said Dan. “I would personally recommend a dog that will sit and alert you to the shed. Sometimes, where you find the shed, and the way it is lying, are just as important and interesting as the shed itself. We often take pictures of the sheds before we move them, because a lot of them are found in a unique way. Sometimes they are hung up in brush above the ground. I?can understand why people enjoy using dogs, because I love watching a bird dog work, but I?haven’t decided if I’m going to try it with sheds. I just enjoy doing it myself.”
Outside of defined food sources, bedding areas and trails, hunting for sheds brings random success, but there is also the benefit of scouting all areas of a given property. Without a canine assistant, most shed hunters find that the biggest difficulty, particularly with large tracts, is ensuring thorough coverage of large blocks of woods.
“You could spend two days walking 50 acres of timber and not cover it the way you should,” said Randy. “I try to take it by sections and then follow a grid pattern in these smaller areas.”
Foresters use plot sampling to “cruise” and appraise timberlands, a method that ensures equal coverage of a tract. This involves evenly spaced cruise lines on an accurate tract map. The forester measures a set number of paces from a fixed landmark, such as a property corner marker, and uses flagging tape to mark where grid lines enter the woods. A compass is used to stay on these lines. Such a method could be useful for shed hunting a tract or block of woods, although having to regularly refer to your compass will slow you down somewhat.
Another technique is to use a GPS unit to track and visualize the ground you have covered on your wanderings and any gaps or holes that you missed.
Why Hunt for Sheds
Shed hunters mention numerous rewards besides collecting antlers or even finding a shed worthy of the NASHC record book. These include scouting for deer and turkey sign; learning a particular property or patrolling it for signs of trespassers; introducing young children or non-hunting family members to a hunting-related, outdoor pursuit; and exercise. For QDM practitioners, shed hunting is also a good way to monitor habitat, discover (and later encourage) preferred plant species, and track the whereabouts and antler growth of individual bucks over the course of seasons. Collectively, the sheds found annually give a clue as to the number of bucks by age and quality that survived the season, offering a glimpse of what to expect next year.
“Shed hunting is taking off beyond what we had hoped,”?said Dan. “It’s a great scouting tool. It’s a great way to be outdoors with your children.”
Deer hunters who practice QDM often find their way to this philosophy through different routes.The growth in shed hunting, Dan said, is leading many hunters to QDM who wouldn’t otherwise have gone that direction.
“There aren’t many people who care about shed hunting who are shooting yearling bucks,”?he said. “Once you discover shed hunting, you tend to want to see things grow. Shed hunters are serious about the animals, and we spend 12 months a year, or dern near it, in the woods. In that respect, shed hunting and QDM complement each other very well.”
About the Author: Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of QDMA's Quality Whitetails magazine.