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Shed hunting comes at the perfect time of year. Big-game seasons are over in most places, and turkey seasons haven’t started yet. That means most of us are looking for a reason to get outside, and what better reason than a chance to get your hands on some antlers? But even if you’re not a big-game hunter, you should give shed hunting a try. Why? Because hunting for the shed antlers of North America’s deer species (whitetails, mule deer, elk, moose, and caribou) has something for everyone. It gets you outside and exercising at a time of year when not much else is happening, and it can turn into a fun hobby—if not an obsession—that results in a tangible reward. Meanwhile, you’ll be learning more and more about the deer or elk your areas, and for whitetail hunters especially, it can teach you something about the big buck you’ve been chasing for years. More on all that later, but first, let’s take a quick look at shed hunting and some of the basics you need to get started.
What is shed hunting?
Shed hunting is the pursuit for antlers cast off by members of the deer (cervidae) family. Every year in late winter or early spring, bucks and bulls jettison their current headgear to begin growing a completely new set of antlers. And every spring, shed hunters hit the woods and fields and mountain slopes to find and collect the cast-off antlers. You’ll catch plenty of experienced shed hunters called them “horns,” as that term has just become part of the shed-hunting lexicon. But as a technical clarification for beginners, we are hunting antlers, not horns, which are grown by members of the Bovidae family—including sheep, goats, buffalo, gazelles, and antelopes—and are not shed yearly. That said, if you hear hardcore shed hunters calling them horns, remember that you will not endear yourself by correcting them.
Being among nature’s most fascinating phenomena, the antler growing process is worth a quick review. It starts in spring when hormones surge in male cervidae and kick-start antler growth. And does it ever grow. Covered in velvet, antlers start as living tissue that’s among the fastest-growing substances known in Nature. Some estimates have placed antler growth at 2 inches or more per day, fueled by vessels in the velvet that carry blood and nutrients to the beams and tines and points all summer.
As fall begins, the hormones that spur antler growth fade, causing the velvet to dry and peel away, exposing hard antler. While biologists don’t know all the reasons bucks and bulls grow antlers, the headgear is clearly used in part to impress females of the species and fight off rival males during the breeding season.
As soon as breeding is complete, males no longer have need for antlers, which will nonetheless linger for many weeks or months until they simply fall off. Sometimes a buck will shake his head or rake the antler against a tree to help the process along. Antlers then lie on the ground until they are nibbled away by mice, squirrels, porcupines, or other critters—or until some lucky shed hunter scoops them up. Maybe you.
Why Go Shed Hunting?
The main reason to pick up shed antlers is the simplest; it’s fun. Antlers are one of the most amazing examples of Nature’s art, each one unique. They range from tiny spikes (the smallest whitetail antler I’ve found easily fit in the watch pocket of my jeans) to the branching antlers of bull elk weighing many pounds. Once, while paddling in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area, I stumbled upon a moose antler (called a paddle) that must have weighed 25 pounds and covered my entire torso, from my belt to above my head. Thinking we’d return via the same route, I stashed the paddle. When another route took us home I realized I’d lost the chance to haul a perfect totem from one of the country’s most treasured wild places, and I’ve regretted it ever since.
Some people buy and sell sheds. I’ve made several trips to one of the bigger antler auctions in the Midwest, held each year in Iowa. Buyers and sellers haggle over shed antlers from all species, which can fetch some serious cash. Many of the buyers at these auctions are artists who use sheds to make chandeliers, lamp stands, knife handles, and more. The value of antlers depends greatly on size, condition and source; huge sheds from a wild buck or bull can be worth thousands, while a box of sheds from pen-raised bucks will be sold by the pound to crafters. As with anything bought and sold, value is in the eye of the beholder. There are people who make a living just by finding and selling shed antlers.
But the vast majority of shed antlers are kept by the finders, who recognize them for the beautiful objects they are and the reward for miles of walking and effort. Sheds can also help hunters assess the number and quality of next year’s buck herd, and in some cases can be a valuable scouting tool. Much of this depends on where a shed is found; if a buck has moved far out of his home range to a winter food source, for example, the antler really only tells a hunter the buck (or bull) is alive. But if the hunter finds an antler in the animal’s home range, it can provide one more clue about where the animal beds, feeds, or travels.
When Do Deer Shed Their Antlers?
The general answer to when deer shed is late winter or early spring. But when any given buck or bull will shed its antlers depends of a host of factors. Wintry weather and cold temperatures can cause these animals to drop their antlers shortly after the end of the breeding season, as can a rigorous and stressful rut. Conversely, an easy winter can result in a later antler drop. If you want to know when animals typically shed their antlers in your area, give you local state-agency game biologist a call. I’ve found them very knowledgable and eager to help. If you’re lucky enough to be able to observe deer in your area, or you have trail cameras on good winter food sources, you’ll be able to figure out when bucks are no longer carrying their headgear.
In several western states, it’s actually illegal to start shed hunting before a certain date (more on that, below). Wintering bucks and bulls are doing their best to simply survive, and intruding on their favorite areas can result in stress that can be fatal to them. Be sure to check state and local regulations before you go shed hunting.
Where to Find Shed Antlers: Three Basic Spots
1. Food Sources
Since antlers typically fall before spring arrives, count on finding shed antlers at or near the best winter food sources in an area. In farm country that’s often any standing crops or residual stubble from corn, soybeans, or alfalfa. Food plots are another good location for a shed search. In the big woods or other non-ag areas, wintering deer will focus on the best browse or mast sources. For a good refresher, check out this article on favorite winter deer foods.
2. Bedding Areas
Wintering deer, elk, and moose are all about conserving energy, so count on them to bed fairly close to food sources if possible. Ideally, they’ll choose a south-facing slope, which offers more hours of sunlight and protection from winter winds. Other good bedding areas are conifer stands and swamps that reduce snow depth and shield deer from strong winds.
3. Transition Areas
These are the zones connecting feeding and bedding areas and many shed hunters feel they’re the most productive places to find antlers. Deer are actively moving through these areas, and all that walking, crossing obstacles, sparring with other bucks, etc., can shake antlers loose.
20 Expert Shed Hunting Tips
Once you’ve identified the three basic areas to start, finding sheds is mostly a matter of walking and looking. That said, spotting sheds is something of an art form, and there’s nothing like advice from experienced shed hunters to help you find more antlers. To that end, here are 20 advanced tips from hardcore bone collectors.
1. Wait for prime shed hunting conditions.
It’s natural to want to start shed hunting early, especially in areas where it’s a competition sport. But if you want the most antlers for your efforts, wait until you know the majority of bucks have dropped both sides. Observe hot food sources from afar and keep trail cams out in popular feeding and travel areas. When you start seeing half-racks, gather your shed hunting gear. Spot a bunch of bald bucks, and it’s time to go scoop up some antlers.
2. Search deer bedrooms for shed antlers.
“Food is important,” says Dan Johnson, veteran shed hunter and whitetail blogger. “But to me, shed hunting is a lot like early- and late- season hunting; you want to know where bucks are bedding. Usually it’s in cover close to a food source, but also in an area with lots of direct sunlight (think south-facing slopes) and protection from the wind.” Johnson, who lives in southern Iowa, recently proved his theory by picking up eight sheds in a single day in such an area.
3. Walk along the water.
Whitetails need, or at least like, to grab a drink of fresh water regardless of season. This makes any open water sources—springs, creeks, and rivers—as the trails and funnels leading to and from them, excellent places to search for sheds. In fact, one of the most memorable sheds I’ve ever found was one I spotted as I glassed a major trail that led off a south-facing slope to a flowing river over a quarter-mile away. Deer were making a nightly run from their bedding area to grab a drink before dispersing to several nearby ag fields. So, while winter food sources are always a solid bet for shed hunting, don’t neglect open water in the area, as deer will visit it regularly to hydrate.
4. Slow down to spot more bone.
Spotting a shed antler usually means spying part of a nut-brown beam against an oak-leaf backdrop or a white tine tip against a patch of snow. The only way to do that—other than sheer luck—is to take your time. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that finding more sheds is as simple as covering more ground. It isn’t. Instead of covering three miles as fast as you can walk it, cover half that amount at a leisurely pace. You might not walk as far, but you’ll probably find more horns.
5. Look for shed antlers within bow range.
It’s human nature to let your eyes bounce all over the landscape, hoping you’ll spot that tall-tined shed screaming to be found. But that’s a mistake, says whitetail expert Mark Drury (druryoutdoors.com). “Most of the antlers I find are within that same range I’d expect to kill a good buck with a bow,” he says. “I’ve learned that if I can keep my focus in that 30-yards-and-under area—including frequent glancing right at my feet— I simply find more sheds.”
6. Don’t forget to look up now and then.
Shed hunt long enough and you’ll inevitably adopt the slumped posture of a Cro-Magnon. To avoid a trip to the chiropractor, make a point of looking up now and then, especially in brushy areas—because you might spot a “hanger” shed. While it’s certainly true that the vast majority of antlers will be lying on the ground, every now and then bucks will shove their heads into shrubs or small trees to work an antler loose. While finding a hanger shed doesn’t happen often, it makes for a memorable find and gives your neck a much-needed stretch.
7. Wait for ideal shed hunting weather.
It seems counter-intuitive, but sunny days—when bright light should highlight antlers—present some of the toughest shed hunting conditions. Too much contrast is to blame. Sure, a sunbeam can highlight a horn if it hits it just right, but that same bright sun creates harsh shadows that can hide even a dandy antler. Wait for an overcast day, and you’ll spot shed antlers that you would walk right past in harsh sunlight.
8. Go for the green in big-woods habitat.
Pennsylvania whitetail guide Steve Sherk, who hunts in the big woods of the Allegheny Mountains, says that finding sheds can be as simple as finding the thick green growth of conifer trees. “In a hard winter, our bucks go to stands of pine, spruce, and hemlock located low on the mountain,” he says. “Those spots offer them good thermal cover and protection from the wind, so they just bed up there and don’t move much. I keep cameras on the edges of these areas, and when I start getting pics of shed bucks, I just move in and start looking. I’ve found a bunch of antlers–including matched sets–lying right in a buck’s bed.”
9. Save your shed hunting for the prime hours of the day.
Of course, we have to go shed hunting whenever we have the time, and if that means a sunny day, don’t stay home. But instead of pounding ground all day, focus your effort on the same prime time morning and evening slots you would if you were hunting deer instead of just antlers. Keep that sun—now low in the sky—at your back, and sheds should jump out at you.
10. Keep a shed-hunting journal.
You can take some of the random bumbling and roving out of shed hunting by keeping a journal. Every time you take a shed trek, simply write down the date, location, and duration of your search. Follow that info with data on any sheds you scoop up, including location, size, etc. You can also include weather conditions and time of day. Over time you’ll have accumulated a personal data bank of the best spots, times, and conditions for maximizing your shed hunting efforts.
11. Go back to the same spots to find more sheds.
It’s tempting to write off an area you’ve already searched, but don’t. Remember, antler drop is a bell-shaped curve, with some bucks dropping early, a bunch casting a few weeks later, and a handful seemingly waiting for their new antlers to pop the old ones off. Keep working tried-and-true spots until you are sure deer are done dropping antlers.
12. Be sure to check green food sources for sheds.
Most winter deer feeding focuses on high-carb sources like corn and beans, so it would be silly to ignore those spots while shed hunting. But in the prime antler-drop weeks of late winter and early spring, the first green forage of the season (grasses, forbs, and alfalfa) starts popping up. Whitetails crave green food now and will abandon the winter stuff in a heartbeat. Follow them and you’ll pick up horns everyone else is missing.
13. Score and scribe your shed antlers.
If you find more than a couple sheds every year and you’re like most of us, you’ll probably toss them in a pile. And given enough time, you’ll not only forget where you found the antler but also what year (trust me on this). If you don’t want to keep a journal (see Tip 10), then just take a minute or two to grab a No. 2 pencil and write the date and location you found the antler itself. This is useful information in any case, but especially helpful if you’re trying to match a shed with a buck that’s still walking. I also rough-score my larger sheds and pencil that on the antler too. Pencil marks can easily be erased with a finger or a damp rag if you want to see your antler “clean” again.
14. Gather friends and family and then split up to search.
Shed hunting can be a great social activity, a time to gather with other deer nuts and enjoy some time in the woods. But while there’s a definite advantage to having extra legs and eyes, too many guys on the same hunt can also work against you, according to Mark Drury. “We used to make a skirmish line, like an old deer drive, for our team shed hunts,” he says. “Then we learned that one guy would see a buddy getting ahead of him and hurry to catch up, and then the next guy would see that and pick up the pace…and before we knew it, we were racing through prime ground, which is a sure-fire way to miss sheds. Now we just divide up in groups of three or four, take smaller chunks of ground, and focus on really covering them well.”
15. Use a Grid Search to Find a Matched Set
What’s the toughest shed on the planet to grab? Right, the matching side to a dandy you already found. Sometimes those giant deer are kind enough to drop both sides next to each other, but not often. While snatching a single side is certainly cause for celebration, it inevitably leads to a desperate search for the elusive match. Experts like Mark Drury and Don Kisky long ago told me the value of setting up a grid search in the immediate area. Get out or pull up a map, pick a manageable block of real estate adjacent to the first find, and systematically walk it. If that block doesn’t produce, create another one and start over, repeating the process until you’ve walked every square foot within a 500-yard circle around the initial antler. Extra eyes help here too.
16. Turn you dog into a shed hunting machine.
Think of how many more sheds you could find if your eyes were only two feet off the dirt and you could smell antlers! Well, that’s not happening, but you can teach your dog to find antlers and increase your shed finding many-fold. For a rundown of training tips from one of the country’s top dog men, check out the story we did last year on training your own shed dog.
17. Take the kids out shed hunting.
My friend Steven Koenen and his wife, Melissa, started taking their daughter, Braelyn, on shed hunts in a toboggan before she could walk far, and now, as a toddler, she is already a veteran shed hunter. “It’s fun to see her excitement when we find a shed, and she’s kind of turned into a bit of a snob,” Steven laughs. “Melissa found a nice side off a 2-year old buck the other day, and Brae turned to me and said ‘Look dad, mommy found a small one!’” Like fishing and small game hunting, shed hunting is a perfect introduction to the outdoors for youngsters, as it’s active, allows them to talk, and can be cut short whenever kids get tired. Hint: Don’t be afraid to up the odds by planting an antler or three for kids to find, as nothing breeds excitement more than success, even if it’s engineered. Koenen notes that going with a youngster slows the entire process down which, not surprisingly, has helped him find more sheds himself.
18. Check the places where bucks duck and jump.
Ditches, creek crossings, and fence jumps are all great shed-finding spots, mainly because the effort required to cross the obstacle frequently jars a buck’s antlers loose. I find more antlers in these spots after a low-snow winter, and I think it’s because bucks are traveling widely as they switch to different food sources throughout the season.
19. Keep your eyes near the road to find more sheds.
Let’s be clear: I am not advocating distracted driving here. (It should go without saying that no antler is worth a wreck.) But do keep your eyes peeled for sheds as you drive low-traffic back roads in good deer country. I’ve found many road sheds over the years, and most follow a similar pattern: I slow way down when I know I’m approaching a fence jump, farm field, or ditch crossing, and then I just scan for anything that looks antler-ish. If I spot something, I stop, pull out the binoculars, and verify. Finally—and this is a critical step—unless I know the landowner won’t mind my scooping the shed (I’m going to offer it to him anyway), I don’t set foot on the property until I secure permission. I found the only matched set of the season last year this way. When I walked up to admire the four-point left side, I spotted the right side lying 10 yards away.
20. Scout for Next Fall
Let’s face it, shed hunting is often a low-odds endeavor that can get mind-numbing in a hurry, especially if it’s one of those tough years when deer are spread out and horns are hard to find. While it’s tempting to throw in the towel, stay in the woods and switch your focus instead; rather than grinding out long walks with your eyes on the dirt, start walking out rub lines, inspecting last fall’s scrapes, nailing down funnels, and picking out this coming fall’s stand sites. Invariably, I stumble on to several sheds this way each spring. I attribute part of this success to simply covering more ground, but just as important is a broader, more relaxed perspective; sometimes finding sheds is easier when you’re not trying so damn hard. And you might find a killer new stand location in the bargain.
Shed Hunting Gear
One of the beauties of shed hunting is that it requires minimal gear to have an enjoyable experience. Other than solid outdoor apparel suited to the prevailing weather conditions, here’s all you really need:
You’ll be covering some ground, so you’ll want a pair that fits you well, offers good traction, and is largely weatherproof. There’s usually some snow or mud on the landscape when I’m shed hunting, so I like an above-the-ankle boot with a quality leather upper I can treat or a leather-and-nylon combo with a Gore-Tex liner designed to keep my feet dry. My go-to is the All-Leather Danner Pronghorn, but there are lots of good ones out there.
I live in hilly country, and even when snow leaves the landscape, there can be ice and/or mud underneath the leaves, which makes for some treacherous footing. Tired of falling on my keister, I started toting ski poles or cutting a pair of staffs from a sapling. Of course, a pair of actual hiking poles are even better.
You can save yourself a ton of walking by surveying likely areas for antlers, or zooming in on a stick-that-could-be-a-shed by toting a quality binocular and using it often. I like to keep mine in a bino harness that keeps the glass on my chest and readily available.
If there’s snow on the landscape, and of course on sunny days, sunglasses can save tons of strain on your eyes. They can also help you find sheds on mildly sunny days; while a bluebird day might seem to make sheds easier to find, it’s actually just the opposite. High sun can create harsh shadows that seem to hide antlers, and sunglasses can cut through the glare and help you spot that tine or beam that results in the best find of the year.
Shed hunting can last for hours and involve tons of walking, so I always pack water or a sports drink so I can stay hydrated, as well as some snacks. Spotting sheds involves lots of concentration for extended periods, and I always find more antlers on treks when I take a lot of breaks and spend a couple minutes refueling. Oh and the pack comes in handy if you luck into one of those multiple-horn days!
There are so many great apps out there these days that it’s hard to pick one, but smart shed hunters use their favorite constantly. Not only will a good mapping app help you find (and mind) property lines, you can also use it to mark the locations of sheds you find and refer to historical finds as a reminder.
Don’t Break the Law While Shed Hunting
As fun and seemingly harmless as shed hunting is, you can get in a whole lot of trouble if you screw up. How can that be, you ask? Well, here are three ways to break the law shed hunting. So, be warned.
1) Fail to Register a Deadhead
Shed hunt long enough and invariably you’ll stumble on a “deadhead”; the skull of a buck that died, often long before he cast his antlers. The most natural thing to do is pick up the remains and tote them home, especially if the buck is one you know.
Trouble is, in many states, you need a possession tag to even move that skull. I actually learned this by mistake many years ago, when I found a dead buck in the woods behind my home.
I found a 10-point, dead from unknown causes. I wanted to keep the rack and, since the game warden in our area is my friend, I decided to call him so I could know if there was a proper way to proceed. “Thanks for checking,” Mitch said when I told him what I’d found. “Just leave him there, and I’ll mail you a possession tag. As soon as you receive it you can take the head.” Now I never touch a deadhead until I inform a warden. And as I’ve talked to shed hunters from all over, I’ve learned that moving deadheads is generally a no-no. Be sure to check the regulations in your state.
2) Shed Hunting Out of Season
Folks from the Midwest, East, and South–where it’s legal to scoop up deer antlers as soon as they drop–might be shocked to learn that there are actual shed-hunting seasons in many Western states. While this might seem like government overreach at first glance, shed hunting seasons protect wintering animals from harassment by eager shed hunters.
Here’s the deal. Winter in the mountains can be brutal, and it’s not unusual for mulies and elk to herd up in areas that help them survive. Obviously, yarded animals create a shed hunter’s dream, but moving in on these critters (which many western shed nuts do with snowmobiles) causes them to flee and exert the energy they were trying to conserve. By February, March, and April, bucks and bulls are running on their last fat reserves, and they don’t need any more stress if they’re going to make it to spring and start growing another set of antlers.
Consequently, states like Wyoming and Colorado don’t allow any shed hunting until well into spring, and anyone caught wandering the state’s big game refuges too early can expect a ticket and a hefty fine. So, again, check regs.
3) Setting a Trap To Catch Shed Antlers
I first heard of “antler traps” only a handful of years ago and immediately thought “that is nuts.” In case you’re unfamiliar with shed traps, they come in several forms, but they’re typically a latticework of metal rods or bungee cords placed above a baited site. The goal of the shed trapper is that a hungry buck (whose antlers are ready to pop off) goes for the bait, gets his rack tangled in the trap, and, as the deer jerks away from the trap, he leaves his antlers behind.
Sound ludicrous? Well of course it does. If a buck isn’t ready to shed, he’s suddenly caught in a web of stuff. All kinds of bad thing can happen. But apparently, shed-trapping is common enough that state game agencies like the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries have had to create laws banning the contraptions. So, if your shed hunting addiction has grown so severe that you’re considering methods to rip antlers off a buck’s head before he’s ready to give them up, don’t.