The Off Season Hunt
As the end of January closes the books to the hunt and my chase of pheasants and mallards comes end, there's a empty lull between the end of my hunting season and the countdown to hearing the call of that spring gobbler or the beautiful chaos that is Lake Erie Walleye fishing begins. Most conservationist have to find a way to fill that void, that call to be outdoors, enter.... the shed hunt.
What is a shed?
This is actually not a silly question, most of the people that I've talked to this week about my plans to "Shed Hunt" this weekend ended in me explaining that I indeed was not headed to my local Home Depot to look for a new place to store my lawn mower.
While most people think that deer antlers are a fixed part of the skeletal system the American Whitetail Buck actually drop their antlers once a year during the late winter due to a drop in testosterone which triggers the release of cells called osteoclasts, which essentially eat at the base of the pedicle (where the antler attaches to the head) causing the bucks antlers to fall off. The buck will then grow a completely new pair of antlers during the spring and summer in preparation for the fall rut season (more on that another time).
The best part of shed hunting is the fact that you don't even have to be a hunter to do it. It's a great way to get out into the wild with your family or by yourself and enjoy a good challenge (and it is challenging). Theres something magical about finding a fresh shed, you find yourself standing in the exact spot that nature did it's thing, and it left you a trophy in the process.
When To Start
Northern Whitetail Bucks will tend to drop their antlers starting in February, so a good timeframe to start finding fresh drops is anywhere between February 15th and March 15th.
I typically will plan out 5 or 6 different places to look and will hit each one of them in this time frame. ONX is an amazing app that can help you navigate both public and private lands, you can easily drop pins and map your way through these lands. I tend to end my hunts towards the end of march as the spring vegetation starts to take hold it gets harder and harder to find dropped antlers.
Where to start
If you want to have any luck you need to find a good starting point. Any land public or private holds the potential for finding fresh antler sheds.
If you're going to go the public land route, ask around. Find a local park officer or someone who manages the land and ask them where the deer bed and where the deer feed. These are the two best places to find a good shed. You can also map out the area between the two and check beaten down deer trails as well.
If you have access to private land the best place to start is the edge of the fields. Bucks tend to hang back in safer places when they feed, they like to feed right on the edge of the fields just a few steps from the woods, this can be a great place to find fresh sheds.
Another good tactic is to follow the fence lines, check for anywhere that deer may be jumping over fences. Sometimes a simple hop over a fence is enough to shake an antler loose and cause it to drop.
Tips and Tricks
Binoculars are your friend in the field- When you're checking in crop fields typically the harvest has been cut down, allowing for a good visible landscape, binoculars can be a good tool that will allow you to stay put and scan the field for potential antlers, from there you can navigate to potential finds and save yourself a good amount of energy.
Don't be afraid to get deep- Especially when you're on public access land, most people like to stay on the beaten path or the easiest route. Get deep into the bedding areas, wear long pants and long sleeves and get ready to navigate thorns and thick weeds. This is where you'll find the bedding areas that are for the most part, untouched by others.
Check for rubs- If you hunt deer, this is obvious, if you don't hunt deer, you've probably seen tree rubs and may have never given it any thought as to ow those marks got there. Whitetail bucks rub their antlers on trees for several reasons, one reason is to remove the early season velvet from their antlers, and another is to mark territory. Bucks will typically rub on smaller, younger trees. Either way if you can find a location that has a lot of fresh rubs... well.. it tells you there are bucks that have been in the area. Scan these places slow and with any luck you'll come up with what you're looking for.
Beware the Deadhead
If you spend enough time hunting for sheds or in the woods in general, at some point you might be lucky enough to come across a fully intact Whitetail Buck skull. While these things are really cool and would look great on your wall, in most states it is illegal to remove them without following the proper procedures. Typically when you do find one, a call to your local wildlife officer is a good start. Some wildlife officers will allow you to send a photo of the skull, some may want to stop on site and see for themselves, they typically will then give you the proper documentation to take possession of the skull. Check your local regulations before removing any fully in tact skulls.