Altoona, Pa. — With firearms season behind us, many whitetail enthusiasts are taking to the woods in search of shed antlers.
For those who aim to remain active in the off-season, hunting sheds is a great way to get physical exercise. Shed hunting is also a great way to discover exactly which bucks survived hunting season.
However, some shed hunters seem to have the wrong idea about how this annual phenomenon works and might be hurting themselves in the long run.
Are you going out too early?
It almost never fails; someone comes across a lone shed in late December and makes a declaration that the time to be in the woods is now. Before you know it, everyone is headed out looking for antlers and coming back frustrated, and empty-handed.
In addition to running bucks off their property onto adjacent land, they are putting undue stress on the animals at a most critical time of year. Let’s look at the situation a little bit closer:
It is true that white-tailed bucks will occasionally drop antlers in Pennsylvania’s regular firearms season. On very rare occasions, whitetails have even been known to shed as early as late November for one reason or another.
In contrast, some bucks will hold their antlers into late March. This doesn’t mean that every other buck in the area is going to follow suit. The dropping of antlers is a very individual thing, and a myriad of factors can influence this occurrence within each buck.
The largest influencing factor for a deer shedding its antlers is the photoperiod, which is simply the amount of daylight on a given day or time of year.
As daylight lengthens after the winter solstice, a thin layer of skin that fuses the antler to the pedicle begins to disintegrate, causing the antler to fall off. Similarly, shortening days in late August cause antlers to harden and velvet to be shed.
In captive deer where the bucks have access to reliable food sources and where they maintain the same relative health conditions over time, studies show that a buck may shed his rack the same day every year.
This proves that at least a portion of the determining factors come down to a buck’s genetics. That said, if we are hunting wild, free-ranging white-tailed deer antlers, a myriad of variables can impact this timing year-to-year.
A buck that sheds his antlers early more than likely fits under one of these categories: he is stressed, he is sick, he is wounded. Or, in the best-case scenario, he simply did a massive amount of mating during the rut.
That said, if you know of a buck that has shed his antlers early, he has likely been through the gauntlet in one way or another. To summarize, his body has turned focus to simply surviving and healing. When this occurs, testosterone drops and with it go the antlers.
A buck that holds antlers into spring is another scenario that occurs each year. On various social media outlets, one will read posts about seeing a buck or two “still holding.”
Occasionally, a poster will claim that must be why they aren’t finding any antlers on the ground. Again, this observation is not indicative of a population-wide occurrence – but rather the physiology of a handful of individuals in a local territory.
After all, in contrast to shedding early, there are also several factors that may cause bucks to shed late.
Sparring in areas with higher populations of white-tailed bucks increases testosterone in those individuals. If they are sparring, even just over a winter food source, it could cause them to hold onto those antlers just a bit longer.
In this way, artificial food sources can create tensions in the hierarchy that lead to an extension of antler retention. Additionally, you have those early-born fawns who hit the magic 70-pound weight in late December and early January.
This occurrence will extend rutting behavior, cause more tension among bucks, and therefore cause the buck to shed later than typical.
Experienced shed hunters can attest that in Pennsylvania, most antlers are shed in January and February. The further south you go in the U.S., the broader the shedding period.
In the big woods of the far north, whitetails shed in a more condensed period due to the inclement weather. Yes, there are antlers shed in December, and yes, others won’t be shed until March – but these cases are always the minority.
Don’t let seeing an early shed or buck holding his rack late influence when you hit the woods.
The best time to search the forest for sheds in Pennsylvania is mid to late February.
By then, at least 75% of the white-tailed bucks have shed, and you run a lower risk of bumping any deer “still holding” onto adjacent properties.
Apply this knowledge, and you will be able to find more sheds this winter.