The buck’s long main beam and sweeping tines seemed to glow with their own inner light on that gray, drizzly day. It was one of the most impressive racks I had seen in many years of hunting. It was definitely a large deer for Shenandoah County.
There was something different, though, about this encounter from other deer hunting experiences I’ve had. It happened in March. And instead of a brace of antlers atop a buck’s head, it was just half of a rack – a single five-point antler resting softly on a bed of oak leaves, left there by a male deer that no longer needed it.
But while the buck had no use for it, for me finding that cast-off antler was exhilarating. It let me know this deer was in fact still alive, traveling these woods and slowly beginning the process of creating yet another set of antlers. And this year they would likely be even bigger than the impressive rack he carried during the last season.
If you don’t think hunting for shed antlers can be exciting, you’ve probably never given it a serious try. I started hunting for sheds near my home west of Toms Brook in Shenandoah County many years ago, and every year it seems I become a more avid antler hunter.
I’m not the only one. Shed hunting has become so popular that guided week-long “shed hunts” in prime areas with food and lodging included can cost $2,000 or more. But don’t let that scare you. You can also hunt for antlers by yourself or with a friend in your own hunting area or on public land for free.
The reasons why searching for shed antlers is so popular are easy to see. It’s the perfect way to extend your interest in deer and your time spent “hunting” for them. And it’s a good way to get exercise and keep fit after the season is finished. Shed hunting can also be a great family participation sport.
But one of the major attractions of this activity for many of us is the pure challenge of it. The feeling you get when you spot a bone-colored antler protruding from a bed of fallen leaves brings a special joy that’s hard to describe. To me, the experience is a lot like spotting a small buck while hunting, one you just plan to watch and pass up before moving on.
Shed hunting is more than just fun, though. It’s also valuable for helping formulate hunting strategies for the coming season and making management decisions such as what bucks to harvest and which ones need another year or two to mature.
Finding sheds lets you identify deer that are still out there to challenge you next fall. But it also helps, along with trail cameras, in estimating the density of the buck population and age structure of those animals. You can also take notes on genetic traits such as long or short tines, main beam shape, and those fascinating, odd points that make some animals non-typicals.
The most important practical information I get from sheds regarding specific animals is a good estimate of age. Measuring the main beam is helpful, but most important of all is mass. By seeing the exact mass of a rack, in your hands and under the tape measure, you can usually tell accurately how old a buck is, based on circumference measurements and ages of past deer you’ve harvested in that area.
You can also test and improve your field judging skills by shed hunting. Here’s how. Estimate mass measurements, tine length and main beams for bucks you capture images of on trail cameras or see in the field while hunting. Write it down.
Then compare this with the actual inches you get when you find the shed and measure the real thing. This should tell you how good you are and also where you tend to over or underestimate the antler’s measurements.
I consider searching for sheds to be “hunting” – just a different form of it. “Catch and release” has become popular among fishermen. Searching for sheds is “catch and release” deer hunting. Find the rack, or half of it, from an animal in your hunting area and you feel in one sense like you’ve “bagged” him, or at least one of the most intriguing parts of him – a part he no longer has use for.
Grasp the rack in your hands, run your fingers over it and feel the rough and smooth textures. Count the tines, study the abnormal points and stickers, all the while knowing the buck that left the antler is still out there, alive and elusive, challenging you to hunt for him next year. Then his rack will likely be even more impressive, with greater mass, longer beams, maybe extra points, but in the same basic form.
I often combine post-season scouting with shed hunting, doubling the benefits of the time spent in the woods. Note where the shed was and try to pinpoint whether it was a travel corridor, a bedding area or a spot with winter foods. Mark that on a map or in a journal to reference next year when searching for a late season buck or trying to pinpoint bedding areas and travel routes.
And if you really want to multi-task, carry a light rifle on your back for coyotes you spot and also listen for gobblers and watch for turkey sign as you shed hunt!
Next week: more strategies for finding cast-off deer antlers