January 30, 2018
Your scouting strategy to help you bag a nice buck next fall can be bolstered with these shed hunting tips.
Gently at first, I tickled the antlers together. Over the course of the next 30 minutes, I increased the intensity until I was banging and twisting them, making grinding sounds. Scraping them loudly against one another again one last time as though two bucks were sparring and had parted in a stalemate, I hung them on my stand's shooting rail.
The two four-point antlers were some of the shed antlers I had collected over the years. They were not matched. One of them was larger than the other and had been bleached white by the sun and rain except for the darker outside curve of the main beam where it had been resting in the leaves of the forest floor for what was likely one year.
The other had the typical polished brown of a freshly dropped antler. I had found it at the edge of a food plot during a late-winter shed-hunting session.
The reason the antlers had become my favorite set of rattling "horns" was that the larger antler spooned the smaller one perfectly. I cut off the brow tines and drilled a hole in the pedicle ends to tie them together with nylon line. The line was long enough to wrap around the antler bases to keep them quiet in a backpack or to drape over my shoulder, with one on my chest and the other on my back.
An 8-point buck walked into view, spoiling for a fight. He turned his head and swiveled his ears, trying to find the source of the commotion. I downed him with a single shot. An antler-rattling session does not always end so successfully. The same is true of hunting sheds. Sometimes you find them. Other times, you don't.
The best time of year to find sheds is from late January through March, with February the peak month. If you look for them earlier, some bucks will still be wearing them. If you try to find them later, squirrels and other animals will have chewed them or carried them into deep cover where they are more difficult for a shed hunter to find.
I have always found it interesting that my wife, Carol, is an expert at finding four-leaf clovers, but I seldom see one. On the other hand, she is not as adept at spotting sheds. I think it stems from the way she enjoyed working puzzles when she was a child. I was always scanning my surroundings, looking at the broader picture to find visual cues that indicated the presence of wildlife. I can take in a lot of information at a glance, while her focus is much sharper, as though looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Sheds are bigger than four-leaf clovers, which makes them easier to see when a hunter is walking at a normal walking pace that is typical for any scouting trip for deer sign. Once you train your eyes to spot sheds, you can scan a large area quickly, depending upon the cover density. In that sense it is similar to looking for other deer sign such as tracks, scrapes and rubs.
Every hunter has believed at some point in the season that the buck he wanted to take has gone missing. Perhaps another hunter took the buck. Maybe he was the victim of a vehicle collision.
Unless you have covered your entire hunting property and surrounding properties with game cameras, you will never acquire images of every deer within that territory. It is always a surprise, but time after time I find antlers shed by bucks I thought had vanished after they stopped appearing on my cameras' SD cards. I have also found many sheds dropped by bucks that were obviously camera-shy because I had not seen them on a camera image over the entire season.
Breeding activity, habitat quality and hunting pressure are some of the factors affecting how and when bucks utilize certain areas within their range. A new clear-cut may attract them, or a neighbor may plant a new food plot. Agricultural practices and natural events such as fire or flood may also impact their presence on a particular property.
However, finding a shed antler represents that moment in time when a buck was actually standing at a specific place at a specific time. That information can be a scouting starting point for the hunter who found sheds and who wants to be in the right place at the right time next season. You know the buck survived the season and where his core area is likely located. If he dropped an antler there, he is comfortable with being at that spot during a vulnerable time in his life.
Major food sources such as food plots and agricultural fields are the best places to begin looking for sheds. The breeding season is over, natural foods are scarce and cold temperatures compel deer to find the best available chow.
Open fields often provide long distance shed-hunting opportunities. If the ground cover is low enough, a binocular can help in the search. Climbing into an elevated stand is a good tactic for scanning a field.
If the plant growth is tall enough to cover them, checking for sheds is like looking for stone arrowheads in plowed fields. The best tactic is walking up and down the length of the field, making sure the alternating passes are close enough together to see any sheds.
Another good place to find sheds is along deer trails. I have found many sheds within a few feet of a prime feeding field, just inside the woods where a deer's head brushes against limbs.
Other excellent place to find sheds are at the same antler rubs and ground scrapes you found during hunting season. An antler loosening at the pedicle irritates the buck, like a human losing a baby tooth. He may head for the same area where he scraped the irritating velvet from his antlers the previous fall.
If you cannot find the set of antlers you are looking for in the easiest scouting places, it is time to dig deeper. Walking around in the thick cover that serves as deer bedding areas during the hunting season is not something hunters do if they want to avoid alarming deer. Now is the time to check out these deer-holding areas. I have found deer beds in dense cover with antler rubs on trees right beside and freshly shed antlers lying on the ground at their roots.
The antlers you may find lying on the ground are merely another excuse to walk the entirety of your hunting property. Where you find them will always give you one more clue as to where a buck is spending his time, as well as the quality of his headgear. Many are the stories of hunters finding the shed antlers of the same buck for several years, even if they never got the chance to take the buck that grew them during hunting season.
Even finding a small antler, such as a spike or fork-horn can give you an idea of what is in store for future seasons. With their lengths, thicknesses and weights providing a standard for comparing similar age-class antlers over the years, they can tell you whether your management strategy for the property is paying off.
The best thing about finding a trophy-quality antler is that you actually get to hold the antler of a buck you could not take despite everything in your bag of tricks during the season. Now, you can feel its weight, the smoothness of its tines and the knobby projections around the base.
You can take measurements to estimate the score of the matched set when it was growing from the buck's brow. You can also turn it into the handle of a knife, a decoration or set it on your desk or mantle as you dream of next fall's hunting season.
Any shed hunter knows that looking at a game camera image of a buck with antlers does not measure up to the same excitement as finding those antlers in the woods and holding them in your hand.