From late winter through early spring, whenever I’m in the woods, I keep my eyes peeled for shed antlers. Sheds, the antlers white-tailed deer bucks lose each year, are a terrific addition to my collection of natural artifacts.
The first few I found were still attached to skulls, antlers of unlucky road kills, so it might be a stretch to call them sheds.
But I quickly discovered finding individual shed antlers was much more challenging. And when I recently heard shed hunting discussed on an outdoor-themed radio show, I learned avid deer hunters have been collecting sheds for years.
Think like a deer
Searching for sheds is a great way to learn how to think like a deer. Sheds are just one more clue that indicates good deer habitat.
Find a few sheds in a relatively small area, and there’s a good chance (but no guarantee) deer will be nearby next fall.
Plus, there’s no limit on sheds. Bag limits may restrict the number of bucks hunters take each season, but the results of a shed hunt are limited only by one’s persistence and skill.
Shed hunting is a great cure for cabin fever, and hunters and non hunters alike can use the activity to sharpen their powers of observation.
Finding a shed antler among the leaf litter on the forest floor requires keen eyesight and sharp powers of observation.
From my limited experience and modest success, I’ll offer a few tips to the beginning shed hunter.
First, you’ve got to know when to begin the search. Bucks shed their antlers after the rut. Antler drop is triggered by changing daylength.
After the first day of winter, days start getting longer. This stimulates the pineal gland to reduce the production of testosterone.
One result is a weakening of the bond between antlers and skull, and the antlers eventually drop.
The shed season can run from December through March. Bucks in poor health or those worn out after an exhausting rut probably drop their antlers earlier than others.
Many sheds are probably still to come. Plus each snowfall buries sheds and pushes back the season.
As soon as snow disappears from your favorite haunts, the hunt can begin.
My second tip is to actively search for sheds where bucks spend most of their time — near food sources and bedding areas. Find active beds near food sources. In mid-winter, deer bed close to food if possible.
Then follow active trails. Right now trails criss-crossing my woods look like super highways.
Furthermore, developing a search image for sheds requires practice. Just a bit of antler emerging from the leaf litter can be almost impossible to spot.
So take some time and teach yourself what to look for. Take an antler into the woods, and toss it 20 to 30 feet without watching where it lands.
Better yet, use just a piece four or five inches long. Then find it.
Spotting a shed antler can be a lot like finding morels. Sometimes they’re right at your feet, but impossible to see.
Work with a child, and copy their technique. Maybe it’s because they were closer to the ground, but my daughters could always find morels better that I could. Or maybe it’s just those young, fresh eyes.
Another practice tip is to do it with friends. Make it a game, and be competitive; first one to find five wins. Loser buys.
After a few hours practice with the kids or a few friends, you’ll learn to spot even a single tine sticking up through the leaf little.
Finally, be prepared to compete with rodents. Sheds are rich in calcium, and mice and squirrels gnaw them like candy.
In fact, it’s unusual to find a pristine shed. Even after a snowy winter, it’s difficult to find a perfect shed.
And sometimes it just pays to be lucky. I found my best shed in the backyard at the base of a swing set.
I had been outside the day before on a warm March day checking a nest box on one of the swing set’s posts, and there was no antler.
The next morning — a perfect shed.