It seems like one of deer hunting’s great mysteries: Some guys pick up shed antlers like a kid collecting quarry stones, while others can’t find bone on a bet. Actually there’s no great secret, and only a little luck, involved. Highly successful shed hunters find more antlers because they spend more time at it, they cover more ground, and they have developed a specific set of skills. We can’t help you with the walking, but here are 10 tips and tricks that will get your skill set on a par with the shed-magnet guys.
Skill 1: Find the Food
Late-winter bucks are all about keeping their bellies full. So you need to find the top food sources in your grounds that are drawing in deer. In farm country, nothing tops standing crops like corn or soybeans, but even picked (though not plowed) fields of the same will hold deer unless the snow is too deep. In the big woods, focus on clear cuts and hard mast (if it’s available). The best shed hunters will tell you that a buck’s antlers are never far from his groceries.
Skill 2: Go to Beds
It's just as important to find winter bedding areas that offer both security cover and thermal protection. South-facing slopes are the ticket in cold climates because they allow deer to soak up a little warmth from the sun, which also keeps snow depths down for wintering deer. it's also the first bare ground that will be revealed when the snow melts and where you might spot the first shed of the spring.
Skill 3: Scout the Drop
Timing is everything in shed hunting. You want to find bone soon after it drops, before mice, porcupines, and other hunters get their turn. If you can glass food sources from a distance, you’ll know when the majority of bucks have dropped their antlers. Otherwise, visit prime food sources at midday, hang scouting cameras, and check your cards weekly. When your pics reveal a bunch of antlerless bucks, it’s time to hit the woods.
Skill 4: Walk the Circuit
When it’s finally go-time, prioritize your prime areas and work out a walking plan. The first places on your list should be those easily accessible to others; shed poachers are an unfortunate reality these days, so you should hit those close-to-the road spots first. At each site, start with a quick loop through fields and open areas (where antlers are easily visible). Then slow down and work the woods, high grass, or thick cover. Some of the best antlers are found in the latter, but they aren’t going to jump up and call your name.
Skill 5: Learn to Focus
The best shed hunter I know once told me, “I started finding more antlers once I taught myself to look for a small, acorn-colored stick lying on a carpet of brown oak leaves.” His point was, even big antlers rarely lay tines-up, begging to be found. Look small and you’ll find almost every shed in the woods. Wait to trip over the 80-inch side of a Booner and you’ll walk past a bunch of bone.
Skill 6: Glass for Bone
Part of this is a simple numbers game: The more ground you can cover, the more antlers you’ll find. When the grass or stubble of an open field is short enough, or the forest floor of a hillside bare enough, you can cover ground quicker with a binocular than you can with your feet. A decent 8X40 will help you spot a tines from 100 yards away, or reveal that what you think is a tine is actually a stick.
Skill 7: Learn From a Guru
Some people are just great shed hunters—and you should try to learn from them. Beg and plead to tag along, volunteer to be blindfolded for the trip there, offer to give up every antler you find. And once he gives in, just watch and learn. Is he walking different areas than you do? Going slower? Faster? Is he spotting details you overlooked? Shed hunting is no different than any other activity; your game gets better when you play with the best.
Skill 8: Find the Jump-n-Bumps
When a buck is carrying a loose antler, any rough terrain or obstacle the deer has to jump over may pop it free. Check out fence crossings, steep ditches, creek jumps, and any rugged funnel that would jar a buck’s body as he crosses it. The last matched set I found was on a trail that came off a steep hillside, and then dipped into a rocky ditch. I found both sides of a pretty 8-point 10 yards after the ditch crossing.
Skill 9: Get the Rebound
It’s not unusual to walk a killer spot and finish up boneless. But don’t rule the place out because of one busted trip. In some areas, bucks just hang on to their antlers longer. Some believe it’s a genetic thing; others think better feed creates lower stress, which postpones the drop. What’s important is that you don’t give up when you know the bucks are there. Wait a while and go back.
Skill 10: Train a Pup
Worried about your hunting dog getting fat in the off-season? Put him to work looking for antlers. With a little thoughtful training and a lot of encouragement, most hunting breeds can be taught to find sheds. For a simple but proven training regimen, visit sheddogtrainer.com, where noted retriever trainer Tom Dokken can supply you with the program and the tools to train a shed hound. And hey, if Trooper can’t find sheds any better than you can, at least the two of you will work off that winter fat together.