March 09, 2021
There are few better cures for cabin fever than going for a late-winter walk in the woods, and there's no better way to enjoy a walk in the woods than searching for shed deer antlers.
In the East, thousands of acres of public land go untouched by shed hunters who consider the big woods to be intimidating. If you think finding a needle in a haystack can be difficult, a shed antler in big timber can be equally challenging. To help us better understand and overcome those challenges, we spoke with Cory Gulvas of Pennsylvania, a 16-year big-woods shed antler veteran who, along with his brother Cody, averages more than 200 shed antler finds a year.
Few eastern hunters have the big woods figured out like Galvas. Not only is he a forester, he's a dedicated traditional archer and hunts almost exclusively on public land. In fact, this past fall he shot a 190-class typical whitetail with his recurve on public land in his home state. With his dedication, experience and love for a good challenge, we thought it only made sense to get some insight on big-woods shed antler hunting from the man himself.
Game & Fish: What makes shed hunting in the big woods so unique?
Cory Gulvas: It starts with the amount of land you have to cover. There's just a tremendous amount compared to, say, agricultural areas. Also, I've found the best places to search for sheds are food sources, but every year it's a little bit different because the food sources can change. One year the oaks may produce acorns, while the next don't. With food sources changing annually, it puts a road bump at the start of your journey.
G&F: How do you find these food sources and how do you approach them?
CG: If there's a good acorn crop, I wait until February or March to start my search in large oak stands. I've found that bucks hold their antlers longer in areas with lots of acorns. Big-woods bucks can live to be more than 10 years old, and they do not tolerate human odor. I’ve seen them freak and leave an area completely, so I make sure I don’t risk running them off with a set of headgear by going in too early.
In areas without oaks, I start much earlier—typically the day after gun season closes, which in Pennsylvania is the middle of December. In these areas I'll look for maple, cherry and other northern hardwoods. Without the acorns, bucks will shed their antlers earlier, so I make sure I get an early start on them.
G&F: What tools do you use to identify areas with prime food sources?
CG: The No. 1 thing is aerial photos. I love Google Earth because you can look at historical data and see how the dynamics of the forest have changed. I'll look for gaps in the canopies of mature standing timber, whether it be a clear cut or even a fallen tree that created a gap.
The gaps allow sunlight to hit the forest floor and trigger the growth of rooibos, red maple seedlings or another type of browse. Deer in the big woods look to these food sources all winter long. By marking these locations on the map, I label strong focal points for my search.
G&F: We've all heard that south-facing slopes are the best places to look. Have you found truth in this when it comes to the big woods?
CG: I actually don't find that to be true, at least in my own experience. South-facing slopes have drier soils and often don't grow the preferred plants like the north-facing slopes do. I've actually found most of my sheds on east-facing slopes. I don't have any science to back this up, but my hypothesis is that a buck tends to feed and come back to an east slope to bed, putting the dominant west wind at its back while allowing him to look below the eastern aspect. I don't know if that is the reason or not, but surely most of my sheds have been found on east-facing slopes.
G&F: Any other big-woods shed hunting tips to share?
CG: The first thing that comes to mind is not to think you have to go far off the road to find sheds. Some of my biggest have been found just a few feet off the road, so don’t overlook these areas.
That said, get yourself a good pair of boots, a good binocular and put in the miles. As I mentioned, I start shed hunting the day after rifle season ends and don’t stop until usually May, typically walking 10 to 20 miles each time out. I'm in the woods looking for sheds every weekend during this five-and-a-half-month period.
Another productive food source is hay-scented ferns. In my area, they really dig these out, especially when there's snow. I'm not sure what they're eating, but I believe they like the roots. Whatever it is, I've found plenty of sheds around ferns.
Lastly, I'll say this: If you have a dog, train it to shed hunt. Shed antler hunting is a lot of fun anyway, but by adding my chocolate Lab, it's made it twice as much fun. He probably finds one shed for every three that I find.