Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Increasing your odds of finding shed antlers

More and more people look for shed deer antlers every year. It’s probably one of the fastest-growing outdoor sports in the country right now. But a lot of new shed hunters haven’t the foggiest idea of how to find a deer antler. And who could blame them? 

Shed hunting isn’t exactly like an Easter egg hunt in which brightly colored eggs are scattered everywhere in plain view or only slightly hidden. On the contrary, antlers look an awful lot like the dead grass, cornstalks, or sticks upon which they often lie. And unlike an Easter egg hunt, there are no guarantees that there are actually any sheds to be found in any given area.

So how do you find a shed deer antler? Well, shed hunting is a lot like fishing. When you’re fishing, you don’t just show up at the lake and blindly start casting. Instead, you look for structure like weedbeds, rocks, logs, humps, or dropoffs to which fish relate. It’s the same with shed hunting. You have to pick apart the area you want to search and try to figure out where bucks may have been when they lost their antlers. Here are some tips to help you find more sheds this year.

Find places where bucks survive. A buck can’t shed his antlers if he gets shot during the hunting season. Try to find lightly hunted areas or places that are off-limits to hunting if your goal is to simply find a shed. I understand deer hunters want to find sheds on their hunting property, and that’s fine, but on your hunting land mortality rates may be greater. Places like urban parks, golf courses, wildlife sanctuaries, and privately owned lands that aren’t hunted are all good bets. Of course, you’ll need to get permission to shed-hunt on private land.

Scout. Just as with deer hunting, scouting for shed hunting will make your trips more successful. Scout to find areas where bucks survive as in the first tip. You might also drive backroads in farm country to see which fields deer – particularly bucks – are using. Then try to get permission from the landowner. It’s usually much easier to get permission to shed-hunt than to deer-hunt. If the farmer has run over a shed with his tractor tire, he might welcome you with open arms. With good scouting, you’ll already know where the bucks are before you start wearing out boot leather.

Eliminate ground. Scouting reveals areas that hold deer, but you should also note areas that don’t hold deer so you can maximize your time in the best areas. Note where you don’t see deer tracks in the snow or mud and save yourself valuable time.

Keep your eyes on the ground. It seems silly, but you really do need to be looking at the ground, and not rubs, deer, or birds to find sheds. It’s such a simple concept, but so many beginners look too high. Also, let the cover dictate how far ahead you look. In the open, you might look several yards ahead or even glass with binoculars. In the woods, don’t look more than 10 feet in front of you. Let your feet – not your eyes – carry you forward.

Stay focused. You need to be thinking about finding a shed at all times. Don’t let your mind wander. Sheds are hard to spot and you can walk past one in the blink of an eye. Ever read 10 pages of a book and realize you can’t remember anything you just read because you weren’t concentrating? It’s the same with shed hunting. Focus on finding an antler at all times, and if you get too strained, sit down for five minutes, eat something, and get back to it.

Find food sources. Although a deer’s metabolism slows in winter, finding food is critical to maintain body temperature and to try to replace body weight lost during the rut. Farm crops like corn and alfalfa are standbys. So much the better if a cornfield was left standing or alfalfa was left long. Your scouting can help reveal which fields deer prefer. In forested areas, deer seek oak acorns, aspen leaves, buds and bark, white cedar boughs, and a host of other goodies. Apple trees are magnets. Deer also love brushy species like red osier dogwood. Find food and you’ll find deer, and hopefully sheds.

Check thick bedding cover. Thick stands of evergreens make great bedding cover. The branches catch the snow, making travel easier because there is less snow on the ground. These branches also block the wind and the canopy holds in heat, making these thick forests slightly warmer than the surrounding areas. Where evergreens aren’t available, deer also bed in cattails, red osier dogwood, willows, and other thickets. These are all worth a look.

Look on southern exposures. The common mentality is that deer seek heavy cover to escape predators and to seek shelter from the elements. And while this is true to a large extent (didn’t I just say that in the last tip?) I think a lot of people would be amazed how often bucks bed outside of cover. Deer go out of their way to bed on southern exposures in the winter. In winter, the southern exposure gets the most sunlight. Deer are a lot like cats sitting in a windowsill. They lie in the sun and soak up the rays. Not only does bedding in the sun warm them, but travel is also easier on the southern exposure because snow melts faster. This makes it easier to find food as well. The south face of a hill is the perfect exposure. The south face of a forest edge, where it meets a clearing, serves the same purpose. Think on a small scale as well. Check the southern edge of a deadfall or a lone evergreen. It makes perfect sense for deer to bed in these areas, rather than just in thick cover. Deer lie on the south side of cover, and given a predominant north wind, they can smell predators behind them while they watch for danger in the open in front of them. 

Search under lone evergreens. This is my best tip. Deer – and foxes, wolves, coyotes, fish, you name it – relate to odd features in their environment. So if you have a lone evergreen tree in a hardwood forest or in an overgrown pasture, deer will seek it out and bed under it. Evergreens are classic because they provide nice overhead cover, but it doesn’t need to be an evergreen. A large elm growing all alone in an old pasture would have the same drawing power. Now, they don’t have to be all by themselves. There could be a handful of these oddball trees scattered around and they have the same effect. Think about it this way: How many times have you walked through a hardwood forest, looking for a place to hang a deer stand, and then you spotted a huge white pine all by itself? Odds are you walked right to it, and chances are even better that there was an old stand already in it. It stands out. 

Combine structure. Weedbeds hold fish, but if you can find a weedbed with a rock inside it, you’ve found the spot on the spot. It’s the same with shed hunting. If you can combine a couple of types of hot structure, so much the better. Absolute best-case scenario: A lone evergreen on the southern exposure of a hill. One more piece of advice to consider. Out of the literally dozens of sheds I have found under lone evergreens, two were not on the south side of that tree. It was so surprising to find those two sheds, both on the north sides, that I remember them vividly. In other words, 99 percent of the time, a shed will be on the south side of bedding structure, whether it’s a lone evergreen, a blowdown, or what have you. Orient yourself to always check the southern exposure when you walk.

Finding a shed antler is not an easy task. It takes hours of walking and sometimes a bit of luck to find one. But if you do your scouting and then learn how deer relate to food sources and bedding cover, you can really speed up the learning process.  

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