One of the first things a shed hunter realizes about this growing sport is you’re charged with covering an infinite amount of space with a finite amount of free time. Because no one has time to look by every tree or walk down every corn row, the trick becomes maximizing the time you have by eliminating unproductive ground and focusing on the best spots.
By Joe Shead
To put that in perspective, I liken shed hunting to fishing. A pro bass angler doesn’t just show up at a lake and start casting willy-nilly. Technology has made topographic maps readily accessible, which makes scouting much easier for anglers, deer hunters and shed hunters. By the time a pro bass angler arrives at a lake, he has a pretty good idea of where he wants to go. He’s probably already looked at a lake map and has identified promising humps, drop-offs, rock bars, weed edges and other structure that holds fish instead of just casting blindly into the middle of the lake. Shed hunters should treat their sport the same way.
During shedding season, deer do two basic things: eat and rest. Shed hunters should concentrate mostly in feeding areas and bedding areas. Trails linking these areas might also hold sheds, but I concentrate on the actual bedding and feeding areas first.
Agricultural Feeding Areas
First, what makes a good feeding area? That depends on where you live. In agricultural areas, deer might eat corn, soybeans, alfalfa, turnips, clover, winter wheat or other crops. The trick is to eliminate lesser feeding areas and focus on the best food sources. Although bucks often separate from does and fawns for most of the year, all deer will congregate at a good food source.
Finding a good food source in farmland can be a lot easier than finding one in forested areas without crops simply because of visibility. Just like deer hunting, you must do some scouting.
A good way to do that is to drive around at dusk and spot deer. Odds are they will be grouped up at one field while other fields remain deer-less. If you can’t drive around, look for tracks in snow or mud. Keep in mind these tracks must be fresh. Deer might use different areas during shedding season than they did during fall.
Try to find one hot field. Deer might congregate at a specific field because it was left unharvested, there was more waste grain left over or they prefer one food source over others. Think green, too. Often, green food sources such as alfalfa or winter wheat will attract more deer than cornfields or soybean fields.
Do your scouting to find the hot food source. If you find the right spot, you might find sheds from multiple bucks in one field.
Woodland Feeding Areas
If you live in a forested area without crops, you might have to work harder to find productive feeding areas. But if you’re observant, you’ll find bitten-off limbs, pawed ground or other indicators of what deer feed on in forests. Some- times, as with a white cedar swamp, where deer might feed on any reachable cedar branch, the feeding area will be broad and less defined. In other cases, such as a lone mast tree, deer might use one tree as a food source, which greatly narrows your search.
Good winter woodland food sources vary widely by geographic area but might include white cedar, balsam fir, mountain laurel, creeping cedar, oak acorns, apple trees, aspen bark, red osier dogwood or others. I have witnessed apple trees where the snow underneath resembled dimples on a golf ball from deer tracks (and I’ve found sheds there). I’ve also seen white cedar swamps that were full of trails and were heavily used by deer, but they required much more searching than the well-defined lone apple tree. The trick is identifying good woodland food sources in your area and seeing how deer relate to them.
Deer spend most of their time bedding to conserve energy in winter, especially in cold regions. Therefore, bedding areas should be high on your list of places to search for sheds.
A deer chooses a bedding area based on a few criteria. First, a bedding area should provide shelter from the elements. Conifer thickets often fill the bill because conifer branches block the wind and catch the snow before it hits the ground, making for easier travel. Bedding areas also should provide cover from predators. That’s one reason deer spend time in brushy thickets. It is almost impossible for a predator to sneak up on a deer unannounced when it must navigate thick tangles of briars and branches.
Another vital consideration is sun exposure. Many deer hunters and shed hunters often assume that wise, old bucks seek the most impenetrable cover imaginable. Although that’s sometimes the case, they often look for the opposite. In winter, deer frequently bed to take advantage of sunny exposures to soak up thermal radiation like a cat sunning itself in a windowsill. Look for south-facing hillsides, the southern edge of forests or any place with a southern exposure where deer can bed in comparative sunny warmth.
My two favorite textbook bedding areas are these southern exposures and lone evergreens. Southern exposures, whether the southern face of a hill or southern edge of a forest where it meets a clearing, provide thermal radiation for deer. Because these areas soak up sunlight, they often are a few degrees warmer than the northern edge of the same cover and often have reduced snow depth because of snow melt. Lone evergreens seem to attract deer.
If you owned a pond that had no weeds, rocks or any other structure, it would seem logical that fish might roam about that pond anywhere. But if you threw a dead Christmas tree into the pond, odds are those fish would relate to that piece of cover. It’s the same with deer. Deer go out of their way to bed under lone evergreens, whether it’s one pine in an overgrown field or just a few scattered evergreens in a hardwood forest. And more than 90 percent of the time, when I find a shed under a lone evergreen, it’s under the southern side of the tree. It’s absolutely uncanny.
After you’ve found a good bedding area and a good food source in your area, focus on those spots. Don’t get overwhelmed by the big picture. Stick to those areas, and try to eliminate less-productive places.
For example, don’t walk a cornfield row by row when most of the feeding activity is in an adjacent alfalfa field. Let the deer tell you where they’ve been and where they haven’t. Watch for browsing, concentrations of beds and droppings. Search where you find abundant sign, and motor on through where you don’t. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised by the places deer use and don’t use.
In time you’ll get a feel for not only how deer use your specific property, but how deer relate to their habitat overall. Most of all, eliminate, eliminate, eliminate. Remember, you only have a finite amount of time so hit the best spots first. The presence of snow or even good mud tells you where deer have been but also — and more importantly — where they haven’t been. Keep that in mind as you narrow your area to the most likely shed hunting spots.
By skipping over less desirable food sources, marginal bedding areas and other places that might hold some attraction for deer, you will certainly miss some sheds. But you’re going to miss some no matter where you look, so maximize your time in the best places, and go back to secondary areas only if time permits.
Shed hunting is a fun pastime that lets you extend your deer season for several months. It’s a great way to learn about the bucks that survive on your hunting land, and picking up a fresh bone is always exciting.
Finding a shed, like shooting a trophy buck, is not easy. Do your homework to find out where deer bed and feed and where they don’t. If you can identify the most productive food sources and bedding sites and eliminate those less- desirable areas, you will be well on your way to finding more sheds this season.
Joe Shead is a former D&DH staff member from northern Wisconsin.
From Deer & Deer Hunting Magazine, the 2016 Whitetails Wall Calendar features the work of deer researchers Wayne Laroche and Charlie Alsheimer, who reveal the 2016 whitetail rut prediction, based on years of lunar cycle research. Utilize this deer moon phase calendar to find out which days the deer will be seeking and chasing so you can time the rut for the best time to hunt.
“The DDH wall calendar is one of our most popular annual ShopDeerHunting items,” said Dan Schmidt, DDH Content Director and Editor-in-Chief. “The 2016 calendar, just like the ones before it, features some amazing whitetail deer photography that captures deer in all the seasons. It also provides deer activity charts so you can plan your hunt.”
With the 2016 DDH Whitetails Wall Calendar you’ll learn:
- When the seeking, chasing and tending phases of the rut will occur for North & South
- The predicted dates of Major & Minor deer activity in 2016
- Daily 2016 Moon-phase data