Photo by Scott Haugen.
For hard-core deer hunters, there really is no off-season. In fact, if you want to gain insight to the caliber of bucks in your hunting area, now is prime time.
From mid-January through February, bucks will be shedding their antlers. Within each of those racks is a wealth of information that can improve your hunting success.
For years, hunting for shed antlers has been a common pastime for mule deer and whitetail hunters. But when it comes to hunting for the antler sheds of black-tailed deer and Roosevelt elk, the playing field changes. Just as with hunting the animals themselves, looking for their antlers is a true challenge.
Yes, shed antlers are a resource for the hunter, but they must be understood properly and utilized in order to be effective. For instance, if you hold an early-season deer tag, knowing where you find sheds each winter won’t do you much good unless you’re hunting lower-elevation homebody bucks.
But if the area that you hunt late in the season holds migratory deer, then you need to spend time searching for sheds amid their wintering grounds. It’s crucial to correlate the time of season when you intend to hunt with the places where bucks are during the time they shed their antlers.
Some hunters think it’s an accomplishment to find a few sheds a year. Others who have changed the dynamics of hunting sheds are finding up to two dozen shed antlers a day.
Some are doing it through hard work, on foot. Others are discovering how valuable dogs can be.
The use of dogs to help find shed antlers is rapidly gaining in popularity.
Recently I visited with Steve Waller, owner of Cabin Creek Kennels in western Oregon. He’s been training dogs since about 1970, and his level of knowledge and dedication to the sport is impressive. His work with dogs in hunting sheds has revolutionized how people are searching for antlers.
Many breeds of hunting dogs can be trained to retrieve antlers, said Waller, who first started working with Labradors. Labs work great when temperatures are cooler, in winter and early spring. But on warmer days, the rigor of running hillsides for hours tires them out.
It’s important to get a pup from a breed that has a lot of desire for hunting and retrieving. And from what Waller’s found, the poodle-pointer is a natural.
“When it comes to antler sheds, the Ferraris of hunting dogs are poodlepointers — a standard poodle-German pointer mix,” said Waller.
“These dogs are sleek, very athletic, and can really cover ground. Their level of stamina is exceptional, and they are willing to work hard — exactly what’s necessary in the rugged terrain of many deer habitats. They’re made for serious deer and elk hunters.
“When upland dogs are working in the field,” Waller said, “they generally get their heads up in the air, thus are able to scent things a long ways away.”
Dogs hunting with their heads up will detect more scent, especially in brushy canyons where blacktails and Roosevelt elk live. Also, according to the trainer, they’ll wind more mule deer sheds in sage country, as well as Rocky Mountain elk antlers in big country.
Photo by Scott Haugen.
When it comes to training your dogs to hunt for antler sheds, start early.
“Give them an antler for a short time period, making sure they don’t chew it to pieces,” said Waller. “It’s not a play toy. Make the antlers something special for the dogs to associate with.”
As for the actual training, the pups should ideally be six months of age or older. They should be house-trained, as well as introduced to the environment they’ll be hunting in. Until they’re six months old, let them be themselves.
Teach them the basic commands: sit, stay, heel. Don’t be too hard on them. It’s OK if puppies makes mistakes — this is their time to learn, and your time to bond with them.
After about six months to a year, once their adult teeth come in — and depending on how they mature — it’s time to teach them to force fetch. Force fetching is using an act of stimulation to cue a dog to pick up an object on command and reliably return it to the person in charge.
It’s not necessary to force fetch with antlers if your dog will be a bird dog, as well. But if your No. 1 purpose of having dogs is to find antler sheds, then you will want to teach them to force fetch.
According to Waller, if your dog gets in a canyon and finds an antler, and something else like a grouse grabs its attention, it might drop the antler, and you’d never know the shed was there.
“For devoted antler-shed hunters, force fetching on antlers can remedy this, and it’s very important,” he said.
After teaching the pup to force fetch, the next step is to start training your dog to handle, or cast-off. This is the basic hand signal that teaches your dog to move on command.
Now the fun begins in the training process.
When teaching your pup to handle or cast-off, Waller uses what he calls the Baseball Drill. The “pitcher’s mound” is where you start off your pup with the commands: “Over” for 1st and 3rd base, “Back” for 2nd base.
As your pup starts to handle, you can begin running him to piles, which is a pile of bumpers placed in the field. For antler-shed hunting purposes, replace the standard bumpers with a pile of antlers. This will help the dog learn what to look and smell for when it’s time to hit the woods.
Start at 30 yards. Have him heel, and send him to the pile and back with a r
etrieve to hand.
Don’t train the pup more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time. He will lose focus easily. Also, make sure he doesn’t chew on the antlers.
Always try to stop on a positive note, when your pup is doing well.
Once you do hit the woods with your dog, the key to maximizing the number of antler sheds you find is to get into the field when the scents of blood and bone are still strong. The longer a shed antler lies in the woods, the more odor it loses — so the fresher a shed antler, the more likely your dog will pick up its smell.
Then the sooner you can be in the field after an antler is dropped, the better the dog’s chance of finding it, right? But then again, you may want to wait until March to do your searching.
If the deer in your area are sensitive to human pressure or dogs, you don’t want to go in before they’ve dropped their antlers and risk spooking them away from there. If you know of a little honeyhole that other hunters aren’t likely to find, then it may be best to wait to go in until early or mid-March — once you know that all the bucks have dropped their antlers.
If you’re targeting migratory bucks on late-season hunts, the last thing you’ll want to do this time of year is drive them out of their small core area, before they drop their racks.
In this case, waiting until March is a good idea.
However, if the area you hunt is heavily pressured, then it may be in your best interests to begin your search early, as soon as the deer start dropping their antlers.
Comb the area wisely. Don’t let your dog stray. Slip in quietly, quickly scour the area and get out of there.
Return every couple of weeks to search for fresh drops. This will allow you to learn what bucks are there, when they shed — and more importantly, find the racks before someone else does.
Weather conditions play a major part in a dog’s ability to locate sheds. The best conditions, Waller said, are when it’s overcast, but dry. Better yet, if there’s a very light wind down along the ground, then the chances of a dog’s picking up a scent is better. If scent stays low to the ground and dogs are working into the wind, they’ll locate a lot more antlers. Labs work great under these conditions because this weather isn’t too stressful on their bodies.
If it’s too wet, as during or after a heavy rain, the scent could be masked. If the air’s too dry, the scent can dissipate into the air, making it tough for even a dog to locate.
With the help of dogs, some guys bring home 50 percent to 70 percent more antlers than when they hunted them alone, on foot. What’s even better, they’re going into these same areas during hunting season and scoring on record-book bucks.
If you’re a dedicated antler hunter looking to use the best dog and find the most antlers, you can greatly increase your odds of success come hunting season. Just knowing there are trophy animals in the area will boost your confidence. And if you hang your stands in the right place, or still-hunt the same area where you found big sheds, the chance of tagging a record-book buck increases dramatically.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott Haugen is co-host of the Outdoor Channel’s Outdoor America and Wild Encounters TV. For signed copies of his latest book, Trophy Blacktails: The Science of The Hunt, visit www.scotthaugen.com.