Looking to fill more deer and elk tags next fall? Start your season now, with shed hunting.
As the tail of my dog, Echo, wagged faster and faster, I knew she was on to something. Quickly she was engulfed in tall, green ferns. When she emerged with a freshly shed blacktail antler, I was elated, and couldn’t give her enough praise.
There was no way I would have found that shed in the thick ferns on my own. Not only was I proud of Echo, but I was excited with the size of the 4-point shed, confirming where my fall deer quest would begin.
Before the day was over, Echo found four more sheds, none of which I would have found without her.
Dogs are just one valuable tool that can help hunters find deer and elk sheds. Using trail cameras and quality optics and covering ground are other important facets of the sport.
Prior to finding any sheds, however, you have to be in the right place at the right time.
WHERE TO FIND SHEDS
When shed hunting, determine whether you’re looking for sheds of migratory deer and elk, or homebody animals.
Some states have restrictions in place where shed hunting can’t begin until a certain date, later in the spring. This is usually to ensure the migratory animals have left the area and aren’t stressed by intruders.
While the sheds of migratory deer and elk are often found on flat, semi-open ground, that’s not always the case.
In hill country, concentrate shed hunting efforts on south facing slopes.
This is where animals often spend the most time, as that’s where the sun is.
During the actual antler shedding months — January and February for deer, March and April for elk —bucks and bulls can be quite sedentary.
This is why it’s important to not go into an area too early, for fear of spooking an animal before it drops its antlers. Late February and March are good times to start looking for sheds of non-migratory deer, and May is good for elk.
More on Shed Hunting
- Tips for Shed Hunting with a Dog
- G&F Guide to Shed Hunting Tips
- 12 Items to Help Train Your Shed Dog
Make sure not to wait too long to start your search, as tall grass can cover up what you’re searching for.
Concentrate efforts along trails, near bedding areas and around logs or in brush by nearby trails. Often, when deer and elk get up from a nap, they shake, which sometimes busts the antlers free of the pedicles.
Likewise, when the animals hop over a log, brush or fenceline, the jarring breaks the antlers free. Sometimes the racks drop when the animal is simply walking or standing, which is why trails and feeding areas are worth searching.
Dogs can be trained to find sheds by sight and by smell. Teaching a dog to recognize a shed is easy, especially with today’s synthetic training antlers.
These training antlers are white, just like bleached-out old sheds. Dogs don’t see in color, so the contrasting white coloration and unique shape of a tined shed are something they quickly learn to recognize.
Teaching a dog to hunt sheds by smell is more challenging. Start when the pup is young, by introducing it to pieces of antler.
Never let an antler be a chew toy, for fear a dog will not retrieve what it later finds in the woods.
Introduce the antler, let the dog mouth and play with it for a minute or two, then take it away. Remove it while they still desire it, as this will develop drive.
When placing antlers in the field for dogs to find, wash the antlers of human scent and wear rubber gloves.
Be sure to toss the shed away from where you are standing.
Dogs have incredibly powerful noses and can easily smell the oils from your hands on the antlers, and the tracks from your boots. If you handle the antler bare-handed, the dog will smell you. If you drop an antler where you’re standing, the dog will follow your tracks.
Make your dog work at finding the planted shed. Mix up where you toss them, be it in tall grass, thick brush, sage or timber. The greater the variance in terrain you train your dog in, the more sheds he’ll find.
I trained both of my pudelpointers to find sheds, and they continue to impress me. Last year they found blacktail sheds near my home and mule deer sheds while hunting quail and chukar in rocky, mountainous terrain.
They also found a moose and some whitetail sheds while on a spring snow goose hunt in Canada, and they did well on elk sheds last May. Once a dog gets a sniff of an antler, they never forget it.
Shed hunting with dogs will take the number of antlers you find to a whole new level. In one area I hunt, if I found three sheds a year there, I considered myself lucky. With dogs, it’s common to find nearly 10 times that many in the same place.
Whether you shed hunt with dogs or not, trail cameras can be a big benefit. Trail cameras reveal exactly when bucks and bulls drop their antlers.
If targeting non-migratory animals, then go in and look for the sheds before a canine runs off with them. As with dogs, both coyotes and foxes like chewing on freshly shed antlers, and you don’t want them taking off with them.
When setting trail cameras during shed season, position them so they shoot up and down trails.
The more of the trail you can capture in frame, the greater the chance of getting a shot of a deer or elk that you can study at home.
Check trail cameras every few days, in the middle of the day if possible, when the deer and elk are bedded. Going in early and late can spook the animals.
Covering ground is key to finding high numbers of sheds. Dogs cover a lot of ground we often can’t see, no matter how hard we try. Riding horses through shed country is also another great way to locate sheds, and it elevates your viewing point.
Some folks simply take off walking with a pack frame on their back, looking for sheds with each step. Others drive ATVs or trucks to high points, glassing from there.
If glassing for sheds, it’s nice being in position early in the morning and the last few hours of daylight. This is because the rising and setting sun moves at a sharp angle, reflecting off the antler. The more reflective the antler’s surface, the greater the chance of spotting it.
When glassing for sheds, go about it as you would glass for game during hunting season.
Grid the land, look for parts of the rack — not the whole rack — and keep going over the same spots as the sun continues to shift.
The better the quality of spotting scope you have, the less eye fatigue you’ll experience, which means you’ll locate more sheds.
I like using my Swarovski 15×56 binoculars to locate sheds in open habitat. Antlers are easier to see in areas of sparse cover, and powerful binoculars are ideal for this.
If I’m looking across a canyon at a great distance, or into thicker habitat where sheds may have fallen, I’ll use my ATX spotting scope with a 95mm objective lens. This allows me to look through brush, finding holes where sheds may be. It’s tedious glassing, but it allows ground to be covered that would take days to search on foot.
As spring approaches, get ready for shed hunting season. Start hanging trail cameras, and work with your dog. Dogs learn fast, and can locate sheds we’d never find.
No matter how you go about shed hunting, the key to success is spending time in the field and efficiently covering ground. Be prepared and start pounding those hills, for the reward of shed hunting isn’t just in the prize you find, but in what you learn about the game you’ll be hunting next fall.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular book “Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt,” can be ordered at www.scotthaugen.com, or send a check for $20 to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489.