Shed Hunting: Expert Tips on Where to Look

Editor’s note: The June issue of D&DH had an incorrect cover blurb to describe the shed-hunting story that we ran on Page 14. We regret the error. Here is the article on shed-hunting tactics that we promised.  –DES

Always be on the lookout for new shedding grounds. I once searched a parcel of land owned by the city public works department that was overrun with deer, and some people even search in cemeteries!
Think about where you commonly see deer as you’re driving. Talk to people about where they see deer, even if they’re not the deer-hunting type, and don’t be afraid to ask for permission to search for antlers. The worst someone can say is no, and who knows, you may find an antler gold mine and make a new friend in the process.

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A situation involving one of my co-workers illustrates this point nicely. She frequently sees bucks in the back yard of her 2-acre wooded lot. Deer hang out in her yard because the neighboring area is a heavily hunted parcel of public land. Also, deer make frequent use of her garden and bird feeders. She is not a deer hunter, but she knows the habits of the bucks on her lot because she enjoys watching wildlife, and as a result, her small property has yielded multiple sheds.

Once you’ve got a place to explore for sheds, key in on specific areas where deer are likely to spend most of their time or will somehow have a better chance of shedding. Again, because deer spend a lot of time eating and resting in winter, check feeding and bedding areas, especially the southern exposure of a hillside or the south side of any forest edge or lone tree.

Also consider places where a buck is likely to lose an antler from a jar to the body or because of contact with brush or low-hanging limbs. Check fence crossings, trails on steep embankments, creek crossings, fallen logs on trails and anyplace else where a buck might jump over an obstacle and knock off an antler. Also pay attention to trails going through thick brush or with low-hanging branches. To borrow a fishing term, these are the “spots on the spot” once you’ve got a parcel of land to search for sheds.

Searching Crop Fields

There’s no doubt that agricultural fields are prime places to seek sheds. Crops high in carbohydrates, such as corn and soybeans, are excellent high-energy foods – far better than most natural browse – and thus are important winter food sources.

In winter, deer are forced to strike a balance between food and shelter to survive. Where deer subsist entirely on natural browse, they seek thick protective cover to reduce the amount of energy needed to stay warm. However, in agricultural areas, deer may forego the best shelter in order to be closer to high-energy food sources. In fact, deer will even bed in open fields in below-zero weather if the food source is a good one. Adult bucks in particular will bed farther from thermal cover. Because they are larger than does, adult bucks lose heat more slowly, due to their lower ratio of body weight to surface area.

Deer will feed on any number of crops in winter, but corn, alfalfa, winter wheat and rye grass, just to name a few, are all highly preferred foods.

Even if several fields of the same crop exist in an area, there are a few things that help make one field stand out from the rest. First off, if a field is left unharvested, whether intentionally for wildlife or accidentally, there will obviously be more food for deer in that particular field. I once watched a soybean field that flooded in late fall. There was standing water in the lowest area of the field, and the farmer couldn’t get the beans off. That winter, the low spot in the field was a deer magnet.

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Other factors can make fields, or even portions of fields, more attractive. For instance, in late winter I was searching among some pine trees bordering a narrow picked cornfield. There was still more than a foot of snow on the field, but there was only an inch or two under the pines. I planned to search the field after the snow melted, so I tried to analyze the best places to search.

On the north side, I could see corn stubble poking up through the snow, but the south side of the field was a solid blanket of white. The reason for this was twofold. First, although there were tall pines on both edges of the field, on the south side, the trees block the field from the sun. However, on the north side, there’s nothing to shade the field. This acts on the same principle as a south-facing hillside: the field is exposed to the sun’s rays on the north side, and the snow melts here first. Second, the predominant wind direction is from the north, therefore, the wind would carry snow to the south side of the field. The north side is sheltered from the snow-carrying wind by the pines. I walked across the field in my hiking boots while my snowshoes sat back in my truck, and believe me, there was a definite difference in snow depth from north to south.

Setting out to search a large crop field can be daunting. There is a lot of ground to cover, and antlers could be anywhere. Before you head out, there are a few tricks you can employ to help you find antlers faster. First, if possible, keep an eye on the field. Watch where deer enter the field, and what areas of the field they feed in most often. Even if this is not possible, you’ll probably be able to see tracks, either in snow or mud. Find the largest concentration of tracks and hit that spot first.

Before you even muddy your hiking boots, glass the field with binoculars. This is especially productive if the antlers in the field are large, the stubble is low or the field is just starting to green up. Getting a higher vantage point, whether you’re standing on a hill or your pickup, helps. Also, it might be helpful to drive a pickup or an ATV through the field. It sure cuts down on the time spent searching, but it’s not always feasible, due to muddy fields or tall crops. Sometimes you just have to resort to good old-fashioned boot leather. If so, enlist the help of a friend or two, or a shed dog (to be discussed later).

After you’ve tried all the shed hunting tricks you can think of, it all comes down to simple walking. Take just a few rows at a time, and walk a small section at a time, marking where you’ve been. It’s easier and faster to look in one direction than to sweep back and forth. Be thorough, go slowly and wait until you’re sure most deer have shed before undertaking such a large endeavor

Picking Apart a Woodlot

Shed hunting, in some ways, is a lot like fishing. Whether you’re shedding or angling, sometimes you get skunked. Despite that hard truth, a more important connection between fishing and shedding is in the way you go about these activities. When you’re fishing, you don’t simply begin casting to just any old spot on the lake. You might look at a lake map, or cast to a visible rock, log, or weedbed. Shed hunting is the same way. Rather than walking back and forth through the woods, be like a fisherman and look for structure; in this case, thick brush, lone pines and other places that stick out from their surroundings. Pick the woods apart and try to determine where bucks would spend most of their time. It often takes a lot of time to find an antler.

Therefore, you should maximize your time by searching in the high-percentage areas, and going to other areas only if you have extra time or have reason to believe there are antlers there. Using this method, you will, of course, miss antlers, but you’re going to miss some with any method. It’s all about maximizing your opportunities.

To help you along, here’s a rough map (see Page 80) of a place where I’ve had good success finding antlers (and no, I’m not saying where it is!) As I describe this area, I’ll also show you my thought process of how and why I search the area the way I do.

This parcel is a real area that includes many deer-attracting features. Obviously not all areas are going to have the same mix of terrain features this one has, but use it as a guide to help you in your quest for better shedding grounds and as a way of learning how to dissect the landscape for likely shedding areas.

This 40-acre plot consists mostly of an open hardwood swamp on the southern two-thirds of the area. A small creek runs east and west about one-third of the way from the northern boundary. North of the creek is a small, grassy field, then a thick, narrow strip of tag alders on the northwest edge and a row of mature planted white pines on the northeast edge.
Just as important as the physical description of this area, however, is the description of the surrounding land. Although shed hunters are limited by access to private lands, deer certainly aren’t, and we’re trying to get a feel for how deer move through the area. You should always consider the big picture as you pick apart a shedding area. In this particular case, the surrounding lands play a key role. To the east and west of this 40-acre shedding grounds lies essentially more of the same type of hardwood swamp. The real key that makes this place attractive to bucks, however, lies in the large private cornfields to the north and south of the property. Deer can feed in the fields at night, and hide out in the woods by day.

The first thing I like to do is eliminate all the variables I can. On this parcel I ignore most of the southern two-thirds of the area, with the exception of the southern edge. Will I miss sheds? Maybe, but I’m eliminating a large portion of the parcel in an area where deer spend little time because they are just passing through –  not bedding or feeding. By doing this you save a lot of time so you can more thoroughly cover the remaining areas.

Here is how I search this parcel:

1.  I like to hit the southern edge of the woods, right along the cornfield. Here, deer have quick access to a prime food source, and they can soak up direct sunlight. In particular, I search under the few scattered tall pines here, which stand out from the surrounding hardwoods.

2. The row of pines on the north edge of the property is also a good spot for the same reason. Again, deer are close to the corn and the open field on the south edge of the row of pines allows deer to bed in the sunlight.

3. The tag alder/willow thicket on this property is a buck magnet. It measures only about 100 yards long by 20 yards wide, but it contains dozens of rubs. It’s obvious that bucks love this area. Like the pine row, deer can bed along the southern edge for sun exposure, but this thicket provides a lot more cover, which is not only good for deer, but for shed hunters as well because there’s a better chance of a buck snagging an antler and dropping it here. Also, from the southern edge of the thicket, I can scan the small open field for antlers that fall as deer walk toward the alders or feed on grass.

4. I absolutely love lone pines. Not only do they look beautiful, but they are attractive to bucks. I think this odd item on the landscape attracts deer the same way fish are attracted to a rock or log on an otherwise featureless
bottom. I go out of my way to always check them out.

5. There are several deer trails running both parallel and perpendicular to the creek. I check every creek crossing for antlers because the jumping sometimes jars antlers loose. I also walk up and down the parallel trails because they are used quite heavily.

6.  Lastly, I walk trails linking the south edge of the property with all the activity on the north edge.

This 40-acre slice of shed heaven has rewarded me with a good number of sheds. Find a prime-looking parcel, pick it apart and you’re well on your way to success. Oh, and if the task of finding a prime-looking parcel sounds somewhat oversimplified,
I should mention this particular parcel is open to public hunting! All it takes is a little map work and legwork to find an area like this.

Searching in Snow Country

When you’ve got a place to shed hunt, your first task is to locate bucks. Snow cover is very helpful if you’ve got it, but you can certainly find bucks without it. Snow tells you a lot quickly, so if possible, try to hit the woods before the snow melts, but after it has receded enough to reveal antlers. Snow not only shows you where deer are concentrated; it also shows you where they’re not. This will help you narrow your search. Keep in mind that just because an area is littered with tracks doesn’t mean there will be antlers there. You might be right in the middle of a doe group’s core area. Bucks frequently (but not always) separate themselves from does in winter, sometimes reforming old bachelor groups. How do you know if you’re in buck territory? Watch for buck sign. Look for fresh rubs on trees. You may also see a buck’s antler imprints in the snow when he feeds. Notice urine. A doe burns a hole in snow as she urinates.

A buck is more likely to spray urine, and he’ll often dribble as he walks. Many people say they can tell a buck’s track because he leaves drag marks in the snow. A word of caution, however. All deer will leave drag marks in deep snow. This trick is more reliable when there’s only an inch or two of the white stuff on the ground, and even then it’s not infallible.

Experienced deer trackers may also be able to tell a buck’s track by it’s wider spacing, both laterally and between tracks. However, this is applicable only to mature bucks. There are certainly trackers out there who can fairly reliably tell a buck’s track from a doe’s, but I’m not one of them. Urine patterns, rubs and antler imprints in the snow are much more reliable gender indicators.

Big-Woods Shed Hunting

Searching large tracts of woods for antlers can be daunting. “How am I
going to find something as small as an antler in such a large area?” you may ask

I must admit, I’ve asked myself this question many times. One time I encountered a large swamp, and the sheer thought of trying to search it for antlers seemed hopeless. Indeed, the first time I searched it I found nothing.

However, the forest’s sheer size told me there had to be deer there. On the return trip, I promised myself to search it smartly, by checking the best areas, rather than ambling blindly through the woods, hoping to haphazardly stumble on an antler. I began searching the edges, where deer were likely to stage before leaving the woods to feed in neighboring agricultural fields under the cover of darkness. I then followed a tiny stream – a deer magnet – deep into the gullet of the dark, eerie swamp.

Both these places – the edges and the stream banks – produced sheds on that second trip. I then began to pick the area apart more, taking well-established trails from the staging areas, following them across the stream and into a clearing in the forest where deer could lie on the high ground and soak up the winter sun. Like magic I had unlocked several secrets of that forest, and ended up finding quite a few antlers. In fact, that forest – a place I expected to find no antlers at first – produced fully half of the antlers I found that entire season.

A large, unbroken forest is likely home to a lot of deer, due to its size – not necessarily its deer density – and there should be antlers to find in it. But you wouldn’t hunt deer by painstakingly trying to roust them from every featureless nook and cranny, so why try to shed hunt it that way? Pick terrain features that attract deer. Pay attention to food sources. Look for natural funnels such as saddles connecting two ridges that concentrate deer movements. This is how you pick apart a large forest.

Keep the essentials in mind. Deer need food. Are there any clear-cuts in the area that would provide browse within easy reach for deer? Also, look for mast-bearing trees or preferred browse species. If you find concentrations of these food items, you’ll also find concentrations of deer. Depending on your local weather, water can be important too. In warmer regions, creeks, lakes or even puddles can draw deer. Even in colder regions, some streams remain ice-free throughout the winter and can attract deer. Regardless of the presence of open water, plant communities found along streams and beaver ponds often provide browse and thick cover for deer.

Watch terrain features that direct deer movement. Natural funnels, bands of thick cover in sparsely forested areas and other terrain features alter deer movement. Exposed sunny spots or evergreens in a hardwood swamp attract bedding deer. Keep in mind that just because there are no agricultural fields, houses or roads breaking up a large tract of forest, deer relate to them just like they relate to any other area, so watch for classic shed-hunting spots, such as south-facing slopes. Look for concentrations of deer tracks, rubs and other sign, and avoid areas devoid of tracks and deer sign. Too often, people spend too much time in featureless terrain, assuming that just because they are in the woods, there will be sheds there. The smart shed hunter picks apart the cover, searching the best-looking places effectively and efficiently, and searches the remainder of the area only if time allows or when searching for a match.

— Joe Shead is an a shed-hunting expert from northern Wisconsin and is a former editorial staff member of Deer & Deer Hunting.

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