March 09, 2016
Few things in the outdoors world get hunters more excited than the sight of a big set of antlers.
Even if those antlers happen to be lying on the ground after the season is long since over and the local big bucks have shed their calcified headbones for the remainder of the winter.
In fact, for some hunters – hunters like Gregg Ritz, the host of Hunt Masters on Outdoor Channel – shed season is almost as exciting as the regular season is.
Why is that? Because finding a single shed – or a set of sheds – brings a treasured prize to the hunter's wintertime hearth, not to mention providing key evidence about what bucks have apparently made it through the season and what their overall health might happen to be.
And each year, despite a vast inventory of trail-camera photos on his computer and plenty of time logged in deer stands during the previous fall's hunting season, Ritz admits that he still gets surprised almost every shed antler hunting season.
"No question," said the popular show host. "I'd say that 60 to 70 percent of the antlers that I find, I expected to find them.
"But there's always that 30 percent or so of the antlers that I find each year that surprise me," he added.
"Those are the antlers from bucks I didn't know existed despite all of the trail camera photos I have and all of the times I've spent out in the field."
The shed antlers of one such buck a number of years ago got Ritz started on his annual quest. That journey began when he stumbled upon a shed antler laying on public ground he hunted near his boyhood home in Maryland.
"I came across my first shed at age 14," he said. "I was always out fishing, hunting, walking the dog, you name it.
"While I was out one day, I stumbled across my first shed and it was a rather large one. If I had been able to find the matching side, it was a 150-inch deer."
With the excitement of that dropped antler fueling his new hobby, it didn't take long for Ritz to become a shed hunting fanatic.
"Back then in the early 1980s, I had never really heard of shed hunting before," he said. "But after I found that first shed, the light kind of dawned in my head and I became obsessed with finding shed antlers."
As pointed out above, Ritz' first shed hunting was done on public ground.
Assuming that shed hunting is legal on the particular patch of public ground that a hunter happens to hunt on, Ritz says that good antlers can still be found in such spots.
"There are great opportunities to shed hunt on public ground, although some people tend to shy away from it since they think things will be picked over and such," he said.
"On public ground, it's a game of being regular in your efforts. Not all deer drop antlers at the same time, so you need to be out there on a weekly or every other week basis."
Whether a deer is on public or private ground, Ritz points out that deer typically shed in or near areas where they feel most secure.
And usually that will be near bedding – or in the extreme north, yarding areas – and places where deer are actively feeding.
"So look near cover that provides them with safety and where they don't have to travel very far to find food," said Ritz.
Because of that tendency, Ritz will keep using his trail cameras during the off-season winter months to tell him where deer are congregating on his hunting ground and when their antlers are dropping off with regularity.
While that process can happen as early as late December in some years for some bucks, usually, antlers start dropping from January through early March in much of the country.
And the further north a hunter happens to live, the earlier that process tends to be.
Where will bucks drop their antlers?
"What I've learned over the years is that after the season is over, the deer on my property are usually going to be staying within 100 yards of so of where they have been feeding, especially when it's cold," said Ritz.
If trail cameras are one tool that Ritz uses in his annual shed hunting quest, another is a good pair of high quality optics.
In fact, some of Ritz' best sheds have come while using binoculars to locate antlers on the bare wintertime ground or when they happen to be protruding up through any snow cover.
"By using binoculars, I can climb up into a stand or a tower and pick apart a piece of property while looking for those white antlers," he said.
"Using binoculars gives me a greater area of coverage because I can visually scan 10 times the amount of property that I can by walking an area out and covering it by foot."
Speaking of covering an area by foot, Ritz is a keen believer in not invading an area – even in the off-season – until it is prudent to do so.
Why is that?
"My fear is that if you push deer out of those safe havens, you can push them onto a neighbor's land and a buck may shed on his property and not yours," said Ritz.
"And by not going into the woods (too early), you're not pressuring the deer and you generally don't have to go as far to find shed antlers once they start dropping," he added.
"And that's because those deer are going to be living in close proximity to food sources during the winter months."
When the Outdoor Channel television hunting personality makes up his mind to start actually searching on the ground, he'll do so by carefully looking around the edges of food plots and standing agricultural fields that he leaves up to help deer make it through the wintertime.
"The time that I start ramping things up on private land is relative to when I start seeing most of the deer drop their antlers," said Ritz. "I don't pressure their core spots like a bedding area until I know that at least 90-percent of those deer have dropped.
"And I don't start seriously shed hunting until the snow is basically gone from the ground either."
With that time already at hand in Texas and across most of the southern U.S. – and with that time approaching over the next several weeks in the northern half of the country – Ritz will soon be hard at work looking for sheds.
Especially as the Easter season begins to approach in March.
Because to him, shed hunting in the late winter and early spring months is a tremendous amount of fun, almost as much fun as he has when sitting in a treestand in early November.
Again, that's almost. Although he does admit that walking through the spring woods and finding a big antlered prize comes in a close second.
"Hunting shed antlers is a lot like an adult Easter egg hunt," said Ritz.
Even if it's not the Easter Bunny leaving the calcified prizes behind.