By Paul Avant
I have been a shed antler hunter for about 15 years now. Every time I go, it brings the chance of a unique find. I think I will shed hunt as long as I am able to walk and see. That is one of the great things about shed antler hunting – it doesn’t take much to do it. Most of all, it takes time. With all of the deer that currently exist in the U.S., I would venture to guess that nearly everyone who reads this article could find a place to shed hunt within 15 minutes of their home. I live in a suburb of Denver and some of the best shed antlers I have found were located not far from where I live.
Hunting for shed antlers does not take a lot of high-tech gear. Good binoculars and a basic GPS are the two items that may set you back a few dollars. Binoculars can save you a fair amount of time and make your shed hunt success rates higher. Especially in fairly open country, sit down every once in a while and glass just like you would if you were hunting. You will be surprised how many antlers you see while glassing. Of course, there is always the broken branch that looks like it could be an antler, but that is all part of the adventure. I know a guy that drives along rural western roads and claims to have found several antlers by glassing from his truck. A good pair of hiking boots make those long days a bit more enjoyable. Since most shed hunters typically hunt big game as well, odds are you already possess these items.
A comfortable fanny pack or back pack is key. Depending on where I am going, I have three variations that I use. A small fanny pack will work when doing short, local hunts. At the other extreme, I use a frame pack when doing all-day mountain shed hunts looking for elk antlers. I have found that no matter what the size of the antler is I find, carrying them by hand gets old and uncomfortable in no time. A good fanny pack or back pack makes carrying antlers much more tolerable. Include several bungee cords of different sizes too. You can tie the antlers on the outside of your pack using bungee cords if you run out of room or if the antler is too big for your pack. Make sure you bring plenty of water and a few things to snack on. When the antler hunting is good, a two-hour trip can easily extend to an all-day affair. I always use my GPS, for two reasons. First, identify your starting point. With shed hunting, you may often wander in a direction you did not originally intend and it is important to have a tool to get you back to your vehicle at the end of the day. Second, I mark where I find my antlers. That way, if come back another time, I can return to that point and search hard for the other side to make a match. I found the match to one of the biggest whitetail sheds I have ever found one year after I found the first. It was above ground in some dense willow thickets, less than 50 yards from where I found the first antler the previous year.
Maps for shed hunting are just as important as they are for any other type of hunting. You need to keep track of where you have been and where you are going. Get a good Bureau of Land Management (BLM) map of the area first. Then, if you want to target a smaller area, pick the U.S. Geological Survey topographic map for your area. Also, make sure you are accessing property that is open to shed hunting. Out west, that generally means BLM lands and U.S. Forest Service lands. Certain areas are off-limits to shed hunting until a specified time. For example, Wyoming has a season that is closed to shed hunting in the western portion of the state until May. In Colorado, a large area near Gunnison has similar restrictions. Apparently, some over-zealous shed hunters had been pushing the deer and elk around (in an effort to get the animals to drop their antlers) so the respective game and fish departments felt it necessary to implement these restrictions. Oh, it goes without saying, but don’t trespass on private property. Just as in big game hunting, ask first. And, just as in big game hunting, you won’t always be allowed access.
Keep a journal, or at least make a calendar
Okay, so I am the pot calling the kettle black on this one. I do, however, have a good mental calendar of approximately when the deer and elk shed their antlers around my area. I usually take a picture of the antler the way I find it, and my photos have dates on them so I keep track of them that way as well. It is always an adrenaline rush when you see that first one-antlered deer and know the other antler is laying out there somewhere. One thing I have noticed over the years is that the deer and elk with the largest racks tend to shed first. I am not sure what the biological reason for this is, but it plays out every year. Another observation is that the range of time for a given population of deer and elk to shed is fairly long – at least one month and in some cases even longer. For example, the mule deer in my area start to drop antlers in late February but I have also seen mulies with antlers in early April. Also, the elk at lower elevations seem to drop their antlers earlier than their counterparts in the mountains. The earliest I have found a fresh deer antler is December 23rd and I have seen elk with their antlers into the middle of May. So, there is a period of over four months when the deer and elk shed their antlers where I live.
What to do with all those antlers?
This is a dilemma all antler hunters hope to have. Of course, there are numerous options. You can always sell them if you need the cash. Put a notice on Craigslist and I guarantee they will be sold in a week or less. I have been making crafts out of many of my antlers for several years. You can always start a pile in the backyard and watch it grow over the years. Candle holders make great gifts and I have even sold many at a local furniture store. I have a friend that has been cutting up elk antlers recently and selling them as dog chews to a local veterinarian. I couldn’t bring myself to doing that, but the point being there are several options if you need ideas. I keep all my matched sets in a display along the wall, with each set tied together.
Wrapping it up
Shed hunting is a great option to keep in touch with deer and elk during the off-season. Anyone can do it. You can get up late and leave before sunset and still have a successful day. You’d be surprised how much fun a kid has when he finds a shed antler. I have taken my son and a few of his buddies out to some local spots. To make it interesting for them, I have been known to stash one or two antlers in my pack beforehand and plant them once we are out there. That way, they find at least one antler and that is generally enough to make their time out there worthwhile. My son hasn’t caught the fever yet but his cousin is always asking when we can go out again.
If you haven’t done it, give shed hunting a try. You may not find any right away, or even the first couple of times you go. But if you keep at it, you will eventually find one, then two, and then another. Plus, you never know – you may also find that trophy deer or elk with his antlers on a few months later during the real hunting season. Wouldn’t that be something!