There’s no magic gizmo that will help you shoot big bucks. The same can be said for finding shed antlers. There are a lot of parallels between deer hunting and shed hunting. The more you scout and pay attention to deer sign, the better off you’ll be.
Scouting is just as important to shed hunting as it is to deer hunting. Deer may not spend the winter where you found them during archery or gun season. Keep your trail cameras running to determine if bucks are still using the same areas and to keep tabs on which bucks have shed. If you get photos of a buck that has recently dropped one or both antlers (look for still-bloody bases if the buck has no antlers), chances are good the sheds aren’t far from that camera. Getting photos of the same buck on different cameras can also help you establish his travel patterns, giving you a big leg up on finding his antlers.
If cameras aren’t an option, cruise the backroads at dusk to see where deer are feeding. This was a wet fall in many areas of the country, and lots of crops went unharvested. One field may prove more attractive to deer than all others. An evening drive can reveal which ones. If you find a hot food source, you may find sheds from multiple bucks in a relatively small area. If you’ve found a field that looks too good to be true, don’t be afraid to knock on a farmer’s door. Although permission to deer hunt on private land doesn’t come easy these days, some farmers may allow you to shed hunt, especially if antlers have ever impaled their tractor tires. It doesn’t hurt to ask.
If you’re in big-timber country, ask your local forestry office where winter clearcuts are being conducted or pay attention to where you see logging trucks. Deer congregate in clearcuts to eat fresh slash.
Timing can be everything when shed hunting. The day after a blizzard obviously is a waste of time. Ideally, if you can be flexible, plan your shed hunt during a thaw as the snow recedes to only an inch or two on the ground. With a snowy background, antlers will pop out from their surroundings, but they won’t be buried under snow. Plus, the presence of a little snow makes tracks, trails and droppings easier to see.
No snow in your area? Then wait for an overcast day just after a rain. Without sun, antlers won’t be hidden by shadows, and you won’t be squinting. Plus, rain mats down the surrounding vegetation, and antlers will practically jump out at you!
Speaking of timing, if you’re shed hunting public land, try to get out on a Friday before the weekend warriors hit the woods. Hit the best spots first, then move to secondary areas. Come Saturday, you’ll be walking fresh ground while everyone else is finding your boot prints.
The reality of shed hunting is there is an infinite amount of ground to cover, but we only have a finite amount of time to walk. Plan your shed hunts where it’s easy to find sheds. Let’s say you’re in western cattle country. There are miles and miles of pastureland that can hold antlers. But the only suitable bedding cover is a relatively narrow section of timber growing along the river bottom. Bingo! Hit the timber. Deer can be anywhere, but that’s the only place that really concentrates them, so chances are, you’ll find more sheds there. The reverse holds true as well. If you’re in big timber country with few defined food sources, hit the few food sources that are obvious. It could be a food plot, a lone apple tree, a clearcut or some other food source that gives deer a reason to congregate in a specific spot.
Edge cover where bedding and feeding areas meet is ideal. Look for stands of conifers or brush along crop fields. The absolute best-case scenario would be a good bedding area on the north side of a good crop field. Deer bed along the southern edge of a forest where the sun shines down on them during cold winter weather so they can soak up heat. Although deer sometimes bed in thick cover, you might be surprised how often they bed in the relative open, both to bask in the sun’s warmth and to keep tabs on predators.
In fact, when I’m looking for sheds in bedding areas, I always keep that southern exposure in mind. Look for deer to bed along the south edge of timber where it meets the open. This could be along a field edge, a pasture or even a power line cut. Further, deer almost always bed on the south side of a tree, deadfall or other structure, and that’s where you’ll often find sheds.
If your ultimate goal is simply to find sheds and not necessarily on your hunting property, think urban areas. A lot of parks or greenspace areas in the city limits harbor deer that can’t be hunted. Thus, you may find more and bigger bucks in these areas. I’ve found a lot of sheds where bucks have to dodge cars instead of wolves and coyotes.
Lastly, if there’s two tips I could offer beginning shed hunters, it’s to walk slowly and keep your eyes on the ground. That latter tip seems silly, but you’d be amazed how often you’ll find yourself looking up at rubs or at deer when you’re supposed to be looking for sheds. And walking slowly gives your eyes more time to separate antlers from the surrounding sticks, stalks and leaves.
The more you shed hunt, the more you learn about deer behavior and movements and the better you get at finding sheds. Keep at it and enjoy the walk!
— Joe Shead is a hard-core outdoorsman and a dedicated shed hunter. Professionally, Joe is an outdoor writer and a former managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine. His years of shed hunting experience inspired him to write the first full-length book about the topic. “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers” is recognized as the ultimate guide to finding whitetail sheds and can be purchased on his website.