Early Shed Hunting Tactics

Early Shed Hunting Tactics

February signifies the start of shed hunting season for many whitetail hunters. Here are some tips on how to go about it the smart way, and how to set yourself up for success next season. (Photo by Dan Cole)

They say it’s the early bird that gets the worm. As with many endeavors, that can certainly be the case.

However, it may or may not have relevance to shed antler hunting. While it’s true that many shed hunters are eager to get an early start and a quick jump on their seasonal count, oftentimes that early start leads to a less than stellar finish. Jumping the gun too early can negatively affect the rest of your season. I’ll explain what can happen, and I’ll share a few tips that will not only improve your early season shed hunting, but hopefully add more sheds to your yearly total as well.


By the time you read this, most deer hunting seasons will either be closed or about to close. Most whitetails have moved into security and thermal cover near high-energy food sources. Any place where you can find the heavy cover that is near a prime food source is more than likely to hold some deer this time of year. Knowing that deer are using a particular area, and what time of the year they used it, is half the battle in finding early season shed antlers.

The first item of order is to find the deer. Whether that means finding a particularly known buck or finding the biggest concentration of wintering deer, the strategy remains the same. We should be spending time in mid-December and January through February finding and monitoring wintering deer, taking notes as to what bucks are seen on what food sources, and where they are seen. Dates and locations become important as food sources change, or as deer get moved off a particular food source as winter progresses.

Deer will seldom spend an entire winter in the same food source. In fact, you should expect them to relocate sooner or later — or, at the very least, to travel great distances just to browse a variety of foods during a night’s travel. This means the shed antlers you are hoping to find could literally be anywhere. You will help yourself immeasurably if you make the effort to stay on top of any travel patterns and/or changes. This time of the year is the most important to your future shed hunting success. I’ve yet to meet any highly successful shed hunters who don’t go to great efforts early in the year to find the deer they are targeting.

I cannot stress enough the importance of early season road glassing; this is one of the most important techniques used by successful shed hunters. Your shed hunting plan has to include time for driving around on country roads during mid- to late-December and through February. Using binoculars and/or a spotting scope from a distance is a low-impact way to monitor feeding areas and traveling deer.

This is when you want to mark your notes as to locations, sightings, food types, bedding area locations and travel routes. The bonus of all this road scouting is that you could very possibly find a few early shed antlers while looking through your binoculars or spotting scope. A shed on the ground can really stick out this time of year, and by slow glassing the food sources, you have a good chance of locating some early drops.


You need to exercise great patience this time of the year. Temptation can easily have us running into a woodlot knowing a great buck has dropped its antlers. However, the ramifications hold the potential to ruin the rest of your spring shed hunting. Let me explain.

First and foremost, we certainly don’t want to add any pressure to the deer. Bucks won’t put up with any disturbance right now. Any intrusion into a bedding area has the risk of running the deer onto a different property, if not completely out of the area. A human going through a bedding area during this time of the year is the same as a coyote going through the same area, and the result will be the same. We don’t want to stress the deer, and we don’t want to chase them from the area. So how do we shed hunt? You shed hunt right now by working the known food sources and walking the connecting trails between the feeding areas and the bedding areas. Avoiding bedding areas will certainly test your patience, but believe me, your patience will eventually lead to great rewards.

I like to save the bedding areas until after two or three seasonal changes have occurred. One, I want all the bucks that are using a particular location to have shed their antlers before I begin. Second, the deer have left the area and moved to a different location. Three, the grip of winter has broken. If I have two of these in place for a particular location, then it’s usually safe to enter a bedding area.

Bedding areas can be very challenging depending on the density of the cover. CRP and grassy hillsides bring their own challenges, as do big woods and swamp locations. Following trails through these cover types is always a good bet, as long as you can keep track of where you have been. When the sign is good and the trails are heavy, it’s easy to miss a lot of good cover and trails. A technique I’ve used successfully many times while working bedding cover is to work it in a grid pattern. Eight to 10 small markers are all I need to square off a 50-foot-by-50-foot area to work. I won’t advance my marks until I have thoroughly searched my grid from corner to corner.

In the right country, a shed hunter can walk for miles just following trails as they connect multiple bedding and feeding areas. You can cruise right along on some trails, and speed is a great thing when visibility is good and ground clutter is minimal. Once your trail leads you to a bedding area, it’s time to slow down and look things over very well before moving to another trail.


If you are fortunate enough to target a buck you are able to pursue during the upcoming hunting seasons, then your shed hunting takes on a whole new meaning. There is nothing more enjoyable in deer hunting than to find a big set of sheds, then pursue and take that same buck in an upcoming season.

Chances are the location where you find shed antlers will be very close to, if not right inside, a buck’s core area — that 80-acre honey hole where he spends the majority of his time. While shed hunting, you should be paying attention to any and all rutting sign from the previous fall. Every scrape should be inspected, every rub noted, every trail marked and walked. All this information is there for the attentive eye. The note you take now could very well help you take a buck of a lifetime.

Remember, this is a buck you want to find the sheds from, so the last thing you want to do is run him out of the country, especially not before he has shed his antlers. To find those sheds, you will need to monitor the location starting in December and continue your monitoring until antler drop. Exercise patience and wait until two or three seasonal changes are in place. You should already have the feeding areas and connecting trails walked. Now you want to slow down and spend the appropriate amount of time within the bedding areas and walking their nearby trails.

Shed hunting has many rewards, and most of us have our personal reasons for partaking in the sport. If all of us remember the basic principle of shed hunting — that is, to keep the safety of wildlife our first priority — we can literally create better antler hunting as a result.

In shed hunting, the early bird may get the worm. However, if you use these tips, your shed hunting is bound to improve. Once it does, you can eliminate that early bird once and for all.

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