The popularity of shed hunting has followed the same arcing trajectory as our obsession with mature bucks, even if it has lagged behind a few years. In the time the sport of locating cast antlers has taken to catch up to our overall love of big deer, it has witnessed an influx of willing participants. It’s not just the diehard deer hunters who covet bone, it’s a wider audience smitten with the reality that each year a fresh crop of tined-treasures will fall upon the landscape. In some ways, although not limited to adults, it’s our version of an Easter egg hunt. If you want the best shed hunting tips, you’ve come to the right place.
Some folks hit the fields each winter and spring to find antlers simply because it’s fun, and that’s a worthy-enough reason. Others, though, take to it with a vengeance because there is much more at stake than simply finding a couple of cool antlers with which to decorate the trophy room.
One such shed addict is Midwest Whitetail owner Bill Winke. Winke is easily one of the most well-known whitetail hunters in the country, and he devotes plenty of time to scrounging up sheds, and just like his hunting, he considers timing and location before ever lacing up his boots. “Where I live in Iowa, probably 70-percent of our antlers hit the ground by February 20th, so that’s the unofficial start to our shed hunting.”
“Prior to the 20th, we sporadically look to make sure there aren’t any easy-to-spot antlers in the food plots or fields that trespassing shed hunters might find.” Winke’s comments about shed poaching echo complaints issued by landowners across the country. A surge in shed poaching has increased nearly in lockstep with the overall interest in shed antlers. This is a sad reality and is especially prevalent in areas known for holding mature bucks.
As far as when to time your shed hunt, there really isn’t a bad time to go. However, there are conditions which will make things easier. North American Whitetail TV co-host, Stan Potts, loves to scour the woods in search of cast antlers, but the days he covets more than others offer a specific set of conditions. “I have found more sheds right after a rain or a warm spell. The snow cover melts somewhat and exposes more antlers. It’s even better on cloudy days.”
Potts’ reference to cloudy days is important. Even light erases much of the contrast found on days where bright sun and shadows clash. It’s similar to photographing songbirds in that many amateurs would believe pupil-shrinking sunlight would make bright-colored plumage pop, but overcast days with even light do a much better job. A beige, brown, or off-white antler laying in the grass or on the forest floor has the tendency to blend into the environment very well and it only gets worse if that antler happens to be deep in a midday shadow.
As Potts referenced, soft drizzle often goes hand-in-hand with great antler-spotting light and adds an extra benefit. Antlers, unlike branches and leaves, tend to glisten when they are wet. Untrained eyes might not notice, but as soon as you spot an antler or two in these conditions your brain will be on constant watch for an eye-catching glint. It’s no different than the neophyte morel mushroom hunter who can’t pick out the fungus until they’ve stumbled right on a few and learned to look for the brainy texture amongst the leaf litter and emergent vegetation.
There are few better ways to extend your season and learn the habits of mature bucks than shed hunting. The very act of traversing miles of whitetail habitat in the immediate off-season will expose you to hidden bedding areas, rub-lines that stand out like neon signs in the bare forest, and lightly-etched trails in the earth that lead to and from areas bucks spend their time. Stan Potts said, “Grassy waterways and fencerows leading to and from food sources are hotspots for me if I can find an antler or two because that shows me where a particular buck likes to travel.”
Deer are creatures of habit, and they have their preferences on where to spend their time during the winter and spring. Learn those areas, and any the travel routes between, and you’ll find more antlers.
- Not all are created equal, but any agricultural fields or natural food sources where whitetails winter are good bets for dropped bone.
All Photos by Tony Peterson