Let’s start at the beginning; adult male deer naturally shed their antlers each year after the rut which is during the late winter months of February to March. Decreasing testosterone levels trigger this phenomenon which is followed by growing back a new set of larger antlers in the beginning of spring.
What is shed hunting? Shed hunting means the dedicated searches conducted to find deer antlers which were shed and usually happens during February and March in most places.
Antlers are collected for a number of reasons which are discussed below, but one that stands out for hunters is that it helps them inventory bucks that made it through hunting season.
Why Go Shed Hunting
Not only do hunters look for shed antlers as preparation for the coming fall but more so because it does not require a license. It, therefore, provides an ideal opportunity for hunters to track where deer are without obtaining a license and sitting in a tree to do so during the fall.
It is furthermore not only a hobby, but connects you the animals you hunt, as it tells you so much more about them. They have chosen that specific spot to be in and this provides you with valuable information for the upcoming hunting season.
Additionally, it is part of the mysterious world of wildlife and is a brilliant opportunity to get someone interested in deer hunting.
Apart from that, it can easily be turned into a great outdoor activity in which the whole family can participate, including the kids.
Shed Hunting Season
Although it is widely accepted that shed hunting occurs between February to March each year, some states in the West have restrictions which allow people to look for antlers only much later in the year.
The main argument is that it takes the pressure off the animals who are struggling to recover from harsh winter conditions.
It is, therefore, crucial to check your State regulations before heading off into the woods.
When do deer shed their antlers? Although antler sheds can be found all year round, deer mostly shed their antlers between mid-January to mid-March and therefore the formal shed hunting season traditionally kicks off in February and wraps up toward the end of March.
Now, there are a few main aspects you should consider regarding the time when deer shed their antlers and the time you go shed hunting.
- Avoid forcing deer to move to other areas to shed their antlers by hunting too aggressively and too early in the season.
- However, if you hunt too late, squirrels and other animals might have already chewed them up and your shed hunting trip turns out to be somewhat unsuccessful.
- If you only shed hunt on public land you risk other hunters beating you to it. To avoid this, you should check out feeding areas much earlier in the deer shed season.
Where to Search for Antlers
Deer typically shed their antlers where they spend most of their time, so once you understand deer movement you will know where to search for antlers. One of the basic principles is that deer and specifically, bucks, start moving into their winter habitats almost immediately after the deer season.
Their primary goal now, is to find a place that offers a safe and secure bedding area which, at the same time provides sufficient food sources for the harsh winter months.
During this time of year, it is crucial for deer to recover energy which was lost during the rut season and unfortunately for deer, this time of year the food sources are limited and scarce. There are no longer signs of rich agricultural fields or even acorn flats.
Of course, all of this is good news for the shed hunter, since deer will now be concentrated in a few areas where food sources are available.
Your search will, for example, be focused on:
- Leftover corn and soybean fields. These offer high-carb, energy-boosting food sources for them. It includes parts of corn fields or even whole fields which farmers have left standing this time of year.
- Oak lined ridge-tops, which still provide scattered acorns which is rich in much-needed calories.
- Edges, which are rich in young shoots and stems where deer will now spend their time browsing through fallow fields with low, brushy growth.
Bedding areas are always secondary to food sources because it is typically harder to see sheds there.
Therefore, your main objective for identifying bedding areas is because deer typically spend most of their day bedding near feeding areas as discussed above. And thus, your best chances of finding their bedding areas, are to trace their trails back from food sources.
Another option, of course, is to use aerial maps whenever available. It provides you with valuable information on:
- Thermal pockets
- Southern exposures
- Thicket beds
To learn more about deer bedding habits, check out this article, Do Deer Bed in the Same Spot?.
Deer typically seek shelter in bottomlands, softwood cover, south-facing slopes and heavy brush.
- Places where antlers might get knocked loose such as game trails that cross fence lines, streams or other obstacles.
- Places where deer jump such as where they cross fences, ditches or other obstacles.
Shed Hunting Strategies
Although there is no prescribed method to guarantee a successful shed hunting trip, there sure are some guidelines which you can follow to make finding antlers easier.
Scouting is just as important when shed hunting as it is during deer hunting season. Shed antlers will be where deer are, so scout for deer sightings or tracks in the snow.
- Areas with low hunting pressure
The fact is, shed hunting is less successful in heavily hunted areas because few bucks survive to drop antlers. So, if your only goal is to find a shed, areas where hunting is not allowed are excellent choices.
- Time your search
Do not begin your search too early, as the number of shed antlers will be limited. Apart from that, you will be competing with other shed hunters as well as squirrels, mice and porcupines who are mainly after the antlers as a source of calcium.
For these reasons the best is to get out early February when shed hunting on public ground. Alternatively, when shed hunting on private ground you could easily wait until March when most buck have shed.
- Walk slowly
Looking for an object on the ground which most often looks a lot like a cornstalk or a stick makes it necessary to walk slowly, giving your eyes time to process your environment.
- Be prepared to walk long distances
Shed hunting is not as simple and as easy as walking for an hour or two to find a large number of sheds. To be a successful shed hunter you need patience and endurance – meaning you might have to put in serious time and walk great distances.
- Keep Your Eyes on the Ground
Especially if you are a first-time shed hunter, you should focus and concentrate not to look too high. Refrain form focusing on rubs, licking branches or actual deer. Instead, learn to focus your search on the ground.
- Utilize your optics
This simply means you should use your binoculars and polarized sunglasses. Shed hunting is more similar to actual deer hunting than you might expect and so certain pieces of gear will greatly improve your success.
Therefore, high quality optics are the most important items on your checklist. It could save you time and energy if you let your binoculars do the walking instead of you. For example, if you spot a potential antler in the distance, you can identify if it is indeed antlers or merely a stick or bone without having to walk all the way there to confirm.
- Use a dog
The biggest value of using a dog is that they can literally cover ten times the number of miles you walk.
In addition to this they have the ability to detect and process scents between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than a human nose. Properly trained shed dogs will use both their eyes and noses to locate sheds.
So are there specific breeds that are more suitable shed dogs than others? The answer is yes, Labrador retrievers, Drahthaars, German shorthair pointers and other similar breeds are more favorable options for shed dogs.
- Keep an eye out for the white glimmer:
While you are scouting and focusing on the ground, you will not necessarily be looking for the whole shape of an antler but more often for the curvature and points.
Do deer antlers grow back in the same pattern every year? The easy answer is yes, the newly grown pattern is unmistakably similar to the recently shed one, which indicates a strong genetic component. This is true, of course, until old age when malnutrition affects the growth and growth patterns of antlers.
Do female deer lose their antlers? To begin with, not all females have antlers for the simple reason that growing them requires a lot of energy.
But, of course, the female deer who do have antlers, do not shed them until spring for the mere reason that access to food is critical during their winter pregnancy.
What is deer antlers used for?
- Dog Treats
Pets love these chewy treats and the best thing is you can offer them the whole thing or alternatively saw them up in smaller chunks, for example, 4 – 5 inch pieces.
- Crafts (Painting, Ornaments, Etc.)
- Mantle Décor
- Coat Hanger/Holder
- Table Legs
- Curtain Holder
- Lamp Stand Base
- Sell them or Give them as gifts
- Your private Collection
What can we learn from shed antlers?
- That those are the bucks who survived the hunting season.
- The base of the antlers tells us about the health of the buck. Rounded and convex bases are indications of a healthy buck, whereas injured or nutritionally stressed bucks often have irregular, oblong and/or concave bases.
- There is also a connection between a buck’s health and the weight of the antlers. Antlers of healthy bucks are generally well mineralized and dense, and therefore relatively heavy. In contrast to this, antlers of nutritionally stressed bucks are more porous and thus much lighter for their size.
- A brain abscess is a bacterial infection in a deer’s head which have been receiving much more attention over the past few years. Signs of infection or pus around the base of an antler could be a direct indication of such a brain abscess.
And just when you get excited about all the information contained in antlers, your bubble is burst with the realization that the one thing we cannot learn from antlers, is the age of the buck.
Happy shed hunting from all of us!