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Shed Hunting 201

Here's our graduate-level advice for finding more and bigger elk and deer antlers.

Shed Hunting 201

While roaming far and wide can produce sheds, a smarter strategy is to glass them from an elevated vantage, mark them on 
a map, then go and retrieve them. (Shutterstock image)

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My best day of shed hunting was spent in a single spot, a high point above south-facing ridges that flattened onto sparsely timbered tops. I had a BLM topographic map, sharp pencil, spotting scope, tripod-mounted 15x56 binocular and a cushy seat that softened the bite of the frozen ground.

When the sunlight hit the upper slopes, I’d sweep with my binocular, looking for little telltale aberrations in the light. If one looked particularly intriguing, I’d swap out the bino for the spotter and confirm it was a mule deer antler. Then, I’d match up the terrain with the topo map and mark the spot. As the sun climbed higher, bathing the lower slopes in more light, I followed the shade line down, spotting and marking as I went.

When I was ready to move, I’d leave my little camp, taking just my map and backpack, and go collect the antlers that I had spotted from above. I found a few other sheds along the way. By the time I returned to my perch, it was time to look over another brace of slopes. On my way out, I combed those ridgetops, picking up a matched set of raghorn elk sheds.

It was one of the first times I had intentionally used tools and smarts to hunt for sheds. My normal M.O. is to simply walk, covering ground and working into holes that less ambitious hunters might not reach. That’s an effective campaign, but there’s not much strategy to simply putting your head down and hiking. I’d call that 101-level shed hunting.

The fact is, shed hunters who pound out the miles will almost always find more antlers than those with more limited mobility, but wide-ranging hunters who employ technology, optics and an understanding of terrain and natural history will take hauls of horn.

Given the constraints on shed hunting—the wholesale closure of millions of acres of public land until green-up, the droves of apparently unemployed hard-core shed hunters that descend on open areas and the movement of wintering animals to inaccessible private land—any edge is worth employing. These are what I’d call 201-level tactics—strategies that take a little planning, the right tools and the correct conditions. But they’ll save a lot of boot leather and put more sheds in your pack.

TIME SENSITIVITY

Even the most capable shed hunter won’t be successful if the antlers have already been scooped up. You want to be among the first hunters of the spring looking in prime spots, but you don’t want to be so early that you’re harassing winter-weakened wildlife. We’ve all heard those horror stories of the over-eager shed hunter who chases a big buck or bull until he drops his headgear. Those are the very reasons many states—Wyoming and Utah chief among them—now have highly regulated shed-hunting seasons.

Glassing with spotting scope for shed antlers
Start your search on warmer and less windy south- and southeast-facing slopes, where animals often congregate during winter. (Scott Haugen photo)

Perfect timing will be different for each species, latitude and elevation, but generally, April 1 is a good time to make a foray into mid-elevation slopes before green-up obscures them. Ungulates are generally moving off winter range then, and most will have dropped their antlers. I like to hike right to the snowmelt line, then position myself where I can glass a wide swath of country.




South-facing slopes are prime shed-dropping zones. It’s where elk and deer congregate on cold winter days and nights, and slopes that have a slight eastward attitude often escape winter’s northwest winds, meaning ungulates spend a disproportionate amount of time on them. I look for travel corridors to these protected areas, and often find my easiest sheds just off those game trails.

OPTICS AND APPS

But because this is a smarter-not-harder story, reading topography is just the first course. The second is setting up in a spot where optics and technology can save hours and miles of hiking. I’m looking for a perch, preferably with a tree as a back rest, where I can scan as much mid-distance terrain as possible. Tripod-mounted optics are a must, and I select binoculars that fit my face and have large and generous eyeboxes. I want to gaze into these optics, not scrunch my eyes into them and have to squint and work to glass. With my spotter, I’m less concerned with the comfort and more with the magnification and fine focus. I use the spotting scope to zero-in on prospective finds to confirm their identity and assess whether it’s worth my time to hike to them.

I’ve since replaced my paper BLM map with mobile mapping apps like onX or GOHUNT as my location-services partner. Most folks use these apps’ land ownership and topography features, and they are obviously helpful for navigating into shed-rich areas. But I use the custom mapping to waypoint those glassed-up sheds, mark their location so I can walk to them, then build a database. By keeping several years’ worth of spots on my phone, I start to see a pattern of when and where ungulates shed their antlers.

Recommended


Once you have your panning setup ready, get to glassing. We’ve already discussed how to follow the sunline, but you’re looking for anything out of the ordinary. I’ve found big elk sheds by the light reflected off their main beams, and I’ve found big muley sheds by parsing the tines from yucca. After spending just half an hour behind your glass, you’ll start to pick up these often subtle discrepancies on the ground, and when the light becomes too bright or glaring in one direction, simply spin around and glass the other direction.

If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you can leave those little forkhorn sheds and spend your time scanning for larger specimens.

PRONGHORN POINTERS

Where you find fence crossings, you’ll often find antelope sheaths.

Pronghorn antelope sheath
Pronghorns typically start dropping sheaths in mid-November. (Shutterstock image)

To my mind, the coolest sheds in the West aren’t antlers. They’re the cast-off sheaths of pronghorn antelope. These hardened husks of keratin (it’s time to explode the myth that pronghorn sheaths are made of hair—they’re not, they’re more like fingernails) are hard to see. They break down fairly quickly in the elements, and because pronghorns don’t congregate on obvious winter ranges, they can be widely distributed in open prairie landscapes.

But there are a few keys to finding them. Because pronghorns don’t vault fences, but instead duck under them, if you can find a well-used fence crossing there’s a good chance you’ll find a sheath nearby. Second, pronghorns cast off these sheaths early, starting in mid-November, so look for “freshies” as you roam the prairies for coyotes or late-season deer.

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