If you're feeling a bit glum now that deer hunting is over and most outdoor shows are finished, I know the perfect cure. It's an activity that will lift the spirits of any outdoorsman or woman, and get you in shape for the coming turkey season at the same time: shed hunting.
In most years deer in our area lose their antlers in February and March. This year the antler-drop seems to be right on this normal schedule. The first bucks I saw with "nubbins" instead of antlers were right around the first of March. By now most deer have shed these bone-like appendages.
In recent years searching for cast off deer antlers has become increasingly popular in the Shenandoah Valley. It's easy to see why. For starters, it's terrific exercise. You'll likely walk several miles during a day of shed hunting. The sheer challenge of trying to find these discarded pieces of "bone" is also appealing. Another reason to walk through woods and fields searching for cast-off deer antlers is because it can make you a better hunter.
Walking the woods and fields searching for sheds helps you understand your local deer herd and their travel patterns, unraveling the puzzle of why they use of some parts of the land and neglect others.
In addition to looking for antlers, you should also be scouring the woods for sign such as rubs, scrapes, tracks and droppings. Study the terrain and vegetation for natural travel funnels and take note of prime feeding and bedding areas. This information is crucial for deciding where to hang stands or build blinds for this fall's hunting season.
Odds are good that when you find a shed, in all likelihood you have found part of that deer's core home range. The thickest, most remote areas are the ones dominant, older bucks will claim.
The only time the buck will not be in the area where the shed was found is during the rut, since males shift their home ranges then, abandoning the rugged, thick cover to hang out with and breed does in gentler terrain.
Keep records of what you find on your shed hunting forays. Write down the antler's circumference, beam length and the number of points in a notebook and record its location or mark it on a topographic map so you have the exact spot pinpointed.
Try to determine what part of a buck's daily routine he was engaged in when the antler fell off. If it's a thick, remote location away from roads, you may well have found the animal's bedding area. If it's on a trail, backtrack and follow it forward to see where the deer came from and where he was going. A buck may vary his travel patterns, but if you find his antlers, you are at least on one key route he uses.
If you find a shed, but it's not on a trail or in an obvious bedding area, use the spot where you discovered it as a center point and explore all around in every direction. Work in circles, trying to trace the buck's movement back to his main bedding territory.
Try to find key features such as escape routes that lead into dense thickets or steep, rugged areas. These can be good hunting spots for opening day. Also look for funnels such as strips of timber between fields, a brushy stream bottom or a dip in a ridge line.
Search methodically in a grid pattern as you work through the woods so you don't overlook any habitat. Try to do most of your shed hunting before late April. If you don't, vegetation will start to green up, hiding the cast-off antlers.
Mice and chipmunks may also eat the sheds if you wait too long, or at least gnaw on them and disfigure them. They're attracted by the calcium in the antlers.
Prime spots to search for sheds include heavy cover near food plots, fields, swamps, conifer stands, brush-choked hollows, saddles in ridges, benches and creek bottoms. I've found sheds in cover so thick you could barely crawl through it and others in open fields, dropped by deer at night.
To enjoy success at this sport, the best advice experts give is to simply cover lots of ground and look very carefully, even going back over some of your best areas in case you missed some the first time. If you have a choice, hunt during a light rain or on cloudy days: the antlers show up better then.
Keep your expectations realistic. Don't expect to find an arm full of antlers. If you pick up two or three on a half-day outing, consider it a successful shed hunting expedition. Once you find your first deer antler, though, chances are you'll never let a spring pass without searching for these cast-off mementos deer leave in the woods.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.