Last week’s column looked into some of the rewards and attractions of hunting for antlers that deer have dropped in late winter. But besides the fun and internal satisfaction it provides, hunting antlers has practical benefits as well. It can also make you a better hunter. It does this by showing you exactly what areas bucks do and don’t use on the land you hunt.
While some people start hunting sheds as early as February, the longer you wait, the more likely most or all bucks will have dropped their racks. Right now is the perfect time to start searching. Almost all animals have dropped their racks by now.
But if you wait too long weeds and grasses will start to grow up and make the antlers more difficult to locate. Mice and chipmunks may also gnaw on them to obtain calcium and phosphorous.
While deer may drop both of their antlers within minutes of each other in one spot, this is the exception rather than the rule. Once I found a two-year-old buck’s eight-point rack neatly laid out at the edge of an oval bed in a grove of cedars. That deer must have gone to sleep and woke up “hornless.”
But that’s one of just a small number of sets I’ve ever found so close together. Sometimes you’ll discover just one antler of an animal and never retrieve the other side. In other cases, you may find it, but far from where the other half of the rack was—up to a mile away.
It’s possible to find a few shed antlers by just taking a random walk in the woods. But for better results, focus your efforts more.
Start searching in areas where you’ve seen the quarry late in the hunting season. Prime locations are spots with native foods or leftover agricultural crops located near heavy cover where the animals can hole up during the day and sneak out late in the evening or at night for a bite to eat.
Thick stands of conifers, swamps, south and southwest-facing slopes and benches, ravines and stream bottoms that offer some protection from cold winter winds—all are good bets for shed hunting. Check out stands of rhododendron, plum, olive, laurel, and pine as well as thickets with greenbriers, honeysuckle and sapling growth.
Some bucks drop their antlers along heavily-used trails, so these are definitely worth following. Freshly logged areas are good spots to try because animals will gravitate there in the winter to feed on the tree tops left from the cutting. Burns are great places to hunt for deer sheds because the antlers stand out clearly against the black background with the weeds and grasses removed.
Try to use a systematic approach for the best results. Work in a straight line across the area you want to investigate and then move just above the area you covered and work back along a fresh strip of ground.
Some of the best shed hunting takes place right after a rain or even during a light drizzle. The antlers seem to shine with an inner glow when the rain moistens them. Cloudy days are also good. A harsh, glaring sunlight makes it harder to detect the antlers, but not impossible. Wear polarizing glasses to cut the glare.
Always bring binoculars when shed hunting. If you see something that looks like a deer antler far away, you can often cut down excess walking by examining it through optics.
If you like to make your outdoor pursuits a social event, gather a few friends and put on a “drive” through the area, with each hunter walking 15-40 yards apart as you scour the landscape. Most youngsters love to hunt for sheds if given the opportunity, so bring your kids or a neighborhood youngster. Some hunters get pets involved, training their dogs to find antlers.
Even if you make it a fun, social event, though, don’t forget to keep the dual purpose of post-season scouting and shed hunting in mind as you search. By also being on the lookout for rub lines, scrapes, trails, transition corridors, and beds as you walk through the woods and fields, you’ll find key pieces of information that can make you a more knowledgeable and successful hunter this fall.
Things You Can Do With Sheds
One. Find two close in size, saw off the brow tines and string them on a lanyard for rattling antlers.
Two. Mount a matched pair on a plaque using a 45-degree wedge so they hang at the proper angle.
Three. Buff with paste floor wax and place on a coffee table or mantle as natural art or conversation pieces.
Four. Cut into 4-inch pieces, sand the edges smooth, drill a hole and epoxy in as replacements for the handles your fireplace tools came with.
Five. Make antler handles for hunting knives.