Seeking the Crown: The Hunt for Shed Antlers

Training your dog to find sheds is becoming more popular every year. If you do, make sure to start them out early getting used to sheds.  (Photo: Todd Amenrud)

Training your dog to find sheds is becoming more popular every year. If you do, make sure to start them out early getting used to sheds.
(Photo: Todd Amenrud)

I have been training my yellow lab, Annabell, to find and retrieve shed antlers for almost a year. I had a great laugh a couple days ago when I let her go outside for a “potty time” and she came back to the house with an antler in her mouth. I was SO PROUD! Her first real antler on her own. I praised her, “good girl, bring it here!” I was so pleased…until she got closer and I saw it was the antler off of my 3-D target! At least she has learned to recognize antlers by sight; I hope she does as well with the real thing.

By Todd Amenrud

There are various reasons why we search for these cast off crowns. I started about 20 years ago, and every year it seems I become a more avid shed hunter. I’m not the only one, shed hunting has become so popular that guided week-long shed hunting vacations that include food and lodging can cost $2,500 or more. Don’t let that scare you because sheds can be found in your own hunting area – for free.

There are numerous reasons why searching for shed antlers has become so popular – it’s the perfect way to expand your interest in whitetails, it’s good exercise and it’s a perfect time to take a jab at “cabin fever.” It’s a great family participation sport and can be a great way to learn something that may help you get closer to a mature buck the following hunting season. Not to mention that big sheds can bring in big buck$…pun intended.

Shed hunting is also valuable for helping formulate management decisions like which bucks should go on your hit list. It also helps in estimating the buck population and age of the animals that made it through the hunting season.

It’s a challenge to understand the life and movements of a specific buck and when I find a shed I feel like I’m one step closer. I get more excited, however, to know that his rack will be more impressive next year, with greater mass, longer beams and maybe extra tines.

One hot spot to search for sheds is a fence crossing. An antler is often jarred loose when the buck lands after jumping the fence. (Photo: Austin Delano)

One hot spot to search for sheds is a fence crossing. An antler is often jarred loose when the buck lands after jumping the fence. (Photo: Austin Delano)

My main reason for going on these searches is to learn more about my hunting area and the patterns of the animals. Finding shed antlers can make you a better hunter by showing you which areas mature animals utilize. Late winter through spring is a valuable time for seeking out the travel patterns of mature bucks. With the foliage off of the trees, sign you never saw last fall can seem blatantly obvious.

When should you begin the search? On a lease I used to have in the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota I’ve seen bucks drop their antlers as early as late December, but that’s early. Most deer hold their racks through January and begin to drop during February and March. Around my home it’s usually the second week in March when most bucks “go bald.” If you wait too long, newly growing weeds and grasses will make the search more difficult and mice and chipmunks will have a chance to gnaw on them for the calcium and phosphorous.

SEE ALSO: Great Resources to Learn How to Find More Shed Antlers

While deer may shed both of their antlers within seconds of one another in the same spot, don’t expect that to happen often. Once, while walking a tract I used to hunt in Manitoba, I found a matching pair of 5×5 sheds stuck upside-down, side by side in the snow. It was like the buck placed them there for safe keeping. Sometimes you’ll discover just one and sometimes you’ll find both, and sometimes you’ll find them close by one another and other times the matching half might be a half mile or more from the first.

You might get lucky by just taking an aimless stroll, but you’re better off to have a plan. Begin searching areas where you’ve seen deer during the winter before. Prime locations will be winter food sources, swamps with conifer trees for thermal cover and heavy cover adjacent to leftover agricultural crops. Thick stands of conifers, south-facing hillsides, freshly logged areas, ravines and stream bottoms that offer some protection from cold winter winds are all good bets for shed hunting. Make sure to check fence crossings where an animal might jump across and jar the antler loose as it lands on the other side.

All of these sheds were found in a small 1/3 acre plot of what was Winter Bulbs & Sugar Beets. The deer were thick in the plot during March, cleaning out the turnips left over from the fall before. (Photo: Todd Amenrud)

All of these sheds were found in a small 1/3 acre plot of what was Winter Bulbs & Sugar Beets. The deer were thick in the plot during March, cleaning out the turnips left over from the fall before. (Photo: Todd Amenrud)

Always bring binoculars – they can save a lot of leg-work. If you see something that looks like an antler far away, you can often cut down excess walking by examining it through your optics. Most youngsters love to hunt for sheds if given the opportunity, so bring your kids or a neighborhood youngster – the more “eyes” the better for this task.

While searching for these “discarded bones,” make sure to always be on the lookout for rub lines, scrapes, trails and other sign as you walk through their territory. These key pieces of information can make you a more knowledgeable hunter and help you bag the buck that carried the antler the following fall.

Learn more about the Mossy Oak GameKeepers Club at www.gamekeepersclub.com.

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