Hunting for sheds after deer season ends

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a shed antler in a field of tall grass
Each year, whitetail deer and other ungulates, such as mule deer, elk and moose, lose their antlers and slowly grow them back by the following autumn. (Photo by Jon Sailer)

Ohio’s deer seasons have ended but that won’t stop some dedicated hunters. These men and women will continue to pursue their quarry in hopes of gathering a trophy rack. The difference? There’s not going to be a whitetail standing beneath those antlers they’re looking to find.

Each year, whitetail deer and other ungulates, such as mule deer, elk and moose, lose their antlers and slowly grow them back by the following autumn. Antlers are a honeycombed, bone-like material that grows from nubs called pedicles. On yearling bucks, these maturing antler bases are most commonly called buttons.

While growing, the antlers are covered with a skin called velvet that carries blood and nutrients to support growth. During the final stages of formation, the velvet layer dies, and the deer will use trees and shrubs to rub it off.

Sheds

Antlers are shed due to a drop in testosterone following the breeding season. When a buck’s testosterone levels fall, the tissue and bone at the pedicle weaken, causing a weakened attachment, and the antlers fall off. Ohio whitetails can begin losing their antlers as early as January, and most are shed by March.

This process can happen quickly; antlers that are firmly attached one day can weaken and fall off within 24 to 48 hours. A buck in peak physical health will shed his antlers later than a weaker buck, and injured deer often shed their antlers early.

The shed antler becomes the target of hunters hoping to still get a piece of that one that got away; a chance to still follow a hobby and an animal that they have truly grown to admire and love.

Training a shed dog

No matter whether you want to enjoy the great outdoors and find an antler or two, or are looking for the biggest or most unusual set, it’s a sport for all seasons with no limit or license required. You can even involve your family dog, whether it’s a svelte hunting breed or a couch potato mooching your popcorn.

Roger Sigler, of Smithville, Missouri, has developed a bit of a business in training dogs to find those sheds. While Sigler has trained several disciplines of hunting dogs, he has also worked with some of the best bomb and rescue dog trainers in the country. There’s a common thread in that training — they all need to find a particular scent.

“A dog’s keen sense of smell can find something as small as a drop of blood in gallons of water. The tough part of training a shed dog, just as it is with a drug or bomb dog, is letting the dog know which scent it’s looking for,” Sigler explained.

Locating live scent is a bit easier than inanimate objects. Game animals have a lot of scent and move about, giving the dog a better chance of locating them. They can follow a trail or catch scent on the air. By contrast, shed antlers can sit for months, only being located by a few gnawing rodents or squirrels. This makes the shed dog somewhat more difficult to train.

Sigler’s experience led him to open “Antler Ridge Antler Dogs” to train and develop shed dogs. He also designed a training program that can be used to teach the family canine, including authoring a book about the subject, “Antler Dog Tales.” Another popular shed book, “Shed Antler Dog Hunting Training Handbook,” was written by Jerry Thoms. Both can be found on Amazon.

Sigler offers these tips for judging whether your dog may be able to become your antler magnet:

Hunt drive: In other words, how long will the dog search for an object that has caught his attention?

Prey drive: In many ways, dogs are wolves that never quite grew up. Even though shed antlers rarely run away, the chase imperative is vital.

Play drive: Put simply, which of you gives out first during playtime?

Retrieve drive: Will he continue to bring it back to you after you’re tired of throwing it?

Leadership drive: Dogs are pack animals and have an inborn respect and desire for leadership. One of the reasons that dogs are more easily trained than cats and kids; they like to be told what to do.

Tips for shed hunting

Whether you’re taking your dog, family, a friend or going solo, these tips might help you find a few more sheds:

• Shed antlers are easier to see on cloudy days. The shadows and enhanced colors that sunlight offers often distract the eye from the target.

• Practice by taking an antler and tossing it randomly into a woods or field then wait a few days and go look for it. You will be surprised how a little eye-conditioning will help you find the real thing.

• Avoid using an ATV with the idea of covering more ground. The most successful shed hunters walk the ground slowly and enjoy the adventure. Remember to watch for partially buried antlers. They can be obscured by leaves, snow or ground clutter.

• Have a plan. You scouted deer and their movements during the hunting season, but their movement patterns may have changed. Start thinking like a deer and explore those areas. It also helps to hunt in a methodical pattern.

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