Gerald Almy: Looking for shed deer antlers

Gerald Almy

Lace up your hiking boots. It’s time to start searching for shed deer antlers. And while you’re at it, you’ll be getting yourself in shape for the coming turkey season.

Deer in the Shenandoah Valley typically lose their antlers in February and March. For 2015, the antler-drop seems to be right on schedule. Very few bucks have any “headgear” now. In fact, they’ll soon be sprouting the start of next year’s racks.

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. Finally, searching for cast-off deer antlers also makes you a better hunter.

Trekking through the woods and fields searching for sheds helps you understand your local deer herd and their travel patterns, unraveling the mysteries of why they use of some parts of the land and neglect others.

Besides 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. Information of this type is crucial for deciding where to hang stands or build blinds for this fall’s hunting season.

Chances are good that when you find a shed, you have found part of the core home range of the deer that dropped it. 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. During that period bucks abandon their home ranges in thick cover to hang out with and breed does in gentler terrain.

To get the most out of shed hunting, keep records of what you find on your 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.

If possible, 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 to see where the deer came from and where he was likely heading. 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 that’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 major bedding area.
Pinpoint 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.

Try to work methodically in a grid pattern as you walk through the woods so you don’t overlook any habitat. I also suggest doing most of your shed hunting before late April. If you don’t, vegetation will start to green up, hiding the cast-off antlers. Besides, you’ll probably want to be turkey hunting or trout fishing then.

Chipmunks and mice 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 and phosphorous in the antlers.

Good 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 stumbled upon sheds in cover so thick you could barely crawl through it and located others easily in open fields, dropped by deer at night.

To succeed 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. If you have to hunt during bright, clear weather, keep the sun at your back.

It’s also important to 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 make shed hunting a regular part of your outdoor activities each spring.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.