EAGLE, Wis. (MCT) - The air had a softness and, though still mostly covered in snow, the hills of the Kettle Moraine State Forest - Southern Unit appeared to be smiling this week.
Late winter can be a generous season. More sunlight, warmer temperatures and the occasional bonus of found treasure.
I had just emerged from a thicket of white cedar, loosely following a game trail, and stood up to look toward the afternoon sun. There, a few feet off the trail and near the base of a birch, was an unusual shape amidst the slanting shadows of trees and melting craters of animal tracks: a white-tailed deer antler.
Partly submerged in the soft snow, the antler jutted up, casting a distinctive curved and pointy profile on the landscape.
My reaction was part surprise, part relief. I was well into the second day of a shed antler hunting expedition, long enough to begin rationalizing the fruitless effort with thoughts of, "Well, it's good exercise" and "It's good scouting for next year's deer hunt."
The antler put all those thoughts to rest. I picked it up and admired the four thin points, the beige, polished main beam and the bumpy, mottled base. Reinvigorated, I put the antler in my backpack and continued the search.
For a growing legion across North America, shed hunting is the most popular outdoor activity at this time of year.
"It's a great way to spend time outdoors and learn about deer behavior," said Joe Shead of Superior, an experienced shed hunter who authored the 2006 book "Shed Hunting - A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers."
"Finding the antler is a rush, and once you do it you'll want to keep going."
Shead said my effort to find a single antler - about 12 hours - was fairly typical. It took him 62 hours to find his first this year, but then found three in one evening. He has found "a few hundred" in his eight years of serious shed hunting.
All members of the deer family - including elk and moose - drop their antlers each year and grow a new set. In Wisconsin, most white-tailed shed their antlers from January to late March.
Shead said he found two bloody antlers - indicating they fell off in the last day or two - this week in the Superior area.
"This is prime time - if they haven't dropped they will very soon," said Shead, whose last name is - yes - pronounced 'shed.' "And as the snow melts, you'll have better and better visibility."
Sheds have many uses. Some are used by hunters to rattle (simulate fighting) deer within range. Some are used to fashion lamps, tables, chandeliers, art and other home furnishings. And some are mounted for display on the wall.
But perhaps most are simply kept as interesting memories
I could never sell one," said Shead, admitting to have a living room and closet stuffed with antlers.
One of the most well-known examples of sheds is the giant arch in Jackson, Wyo., large enough to drive a vehicle through. The shape is formed by elk antlers found in the National Elk Refuge.
If left in the woods, antlers are recycled in the food web. Mice and other rodents utilize antlers as a calcium-rich food source.
Perhaps the biggest draw to shed hunting has come from deer hunters, who learn more about their quarry by searching for the antlers.
"It's a great way to complement your deer hunting and scouting," said Shead. "You find out where they travel, where they eat, where they bed. It can increase your knowledge of deer many times over."
Interest in the activity led to the formation of the North American Shed Hunters Club. The Lyndon Station, Wis.-based club documents and publishes records of shed antlers from big-game species across the continent.
The club uses the Boone & Crockett scoring system to judge antlers. Its records include a list of registered sheds as well as information on state laws on gathering, collecting, trading, transporting, crafting and possession of shed antlers.
Methods of finding sheds vary. Most walk and search. Some people use dogs.
One shed hunter - known as "Antler Man" - claims to have sold more than 600 elk and 1,500 deer sheds, raising enough money to help put three daughters through college.
Dave Bergeman of Wauwatosa has been shed hunting for 15 years and offers shed hunting seminars at his employer, Sportsman's Warehouse in New Berlin. He favors the use of binoculars to scan wide-open spaces.
"The more ground you can cover the better," said Bergeman, noting that public parks and golf courses are often some of the best spots to find sheds. "After a while you get the hang of what to look for."
Bergeman says the shed-hunting world, though increasing in size, can be interestingly small.
"I actually bumped into a shed hunter in a county park and showed him a shed I just found," said Bergeman. "He said he knew the deer, he asked me for my e-mail, and he sent me a picture of the deer with antlers."
My efforts in the Kettle Moraine ended after three days with just the one find. The season continues, however. I have found them turkey hunting in April and May.
And serious shed hunters never really stop looking.
"You can do it all year, really, but now is the best time," said Shead. "It's a problem, actually, because it creates a conflict with things like fishing and turkey hunting."
As the snow recedes and the days march on toward spring, Mother Nature will reveal more gifts in the woods. The only question is: Who will find them?
© 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.