Nature's version of a treasure hunt is another perfect path to the uplands
By Colby Kerber, Hunting Heritage Program Manager at Quail Forever and Pheasants Forever
I picked up a shed antler from my desk this morning and watched my young daughter’s eyes light up with excitement. The next words that came out of her mouth were some that I’ve heard several times over the past few months of winter. The question lurking in both our minds was simply “Is it time to start shed hunting yet?”
Spring is such an exciting time of year as we start to thaw out from our winter blues and optimism is bursting at the seams. For my family, a big part of keeping ourselves healthy both physically and mentally comes back to the outdoors as we try to get outside in all ways possible. No matter what that means to you – exercising the dog, riding a bike, fishing, or simply reading a book out on the deck for some fresh air and sunshine on your face – be sure and take time to recharge and embrace nature.
Searching for the shed antlers of deer, elk, and moose is another way to add to the enjoyment of exploring the wild. Shed hunting dates back to our earliest ancestors and for thousands of years humans have used antlers as authentic resources for tools, jewelry, and collectibles. Sheds are desirable for several reasons, but for me they represent a breather away from the busy world and an opportunity to form bonds while spending quality time together.
One of my fondest outdoor memories is associated with finding a deer antler. The sun was out, the air was crisp, and you could feel the onset of spring, so my family headed outdoors. After a few hours of walking my wife Audra and 2-year-old son Jax took a shortcut back to the vehicle as my 5-year-old Brynlee and I intently pushed on. Suddenly the quite prairie erupted with Jax’s quivering voice yelling “Dad, I found one!” As we swiftly headed his direction, I noticed he was stretching his little arms to the sky and then another voice shouted, “Look Dad, there’s another!”.
At that exhilarating moment I am not sure who was more excited… the kids for finding a matched set of antlers, my wife for seeing her children accomplish their intended goal, or me for recognizing that nature can connect all of us even if Audra does not hunt. Of all the shed antlers I have collected, that small 3-point set holds a special place in my heart, and still sits atop our mantle today.
Shed hunting provides a great opportunity to enjoy our nation’s public lands, discover new hunting strategies, test your gear, experience camaraderie with family, and introduce people of any skill level to our outdoor lifestyle. It is also a good way to stay active, burn calories and improve your fitness. Most importantly, shed hunting is simply pure fun.
Shed hunting is also a great way to involve the next generation. Youngsters naturally have a lot of curiosity, which is one of the most important elements to be a successful shed hunter. It’s also a terrific way to introduce youth to the outdoors in general, because there are fewer obstacles like ticks, venomous snakes and irritating vegetation active during the late winter. As a side bonus, kids are lower to the ground and often find sheds before adults do.
Often late winter can be harsh in nature, frequently transforming the woods and prairie into a raw state, that shows its vulnerability and exposes insufficient habitat components. However, this leads wildlife to be more active and noticeable in areas they typically are not seen in. This provides a good time to watch animals, learn their habits, and figure out which areas might hold the most wildlife come fall. Every time I locate a shed antler it invokes anticipation, enthusiasm, and hope for the coming season. This can also help you generate new ideas and hone skill sets that will assist your outdoor lifestyle down the road.
Finding dropped antlers is not always easy. There are ways however, to help increase your odds of locating them. Planning a proper excursion does require some preparation, because shed hunting can provide a host of challenges. Weather can be unpredictable at this time of year and saturated conditions can cause concerns for access, but do not let that intimidate you.
The shedding of antlers is primarily driven by declining testosterone levels tied to changes in daylight. Since the shift in photoperiod transpires at a certain pace, the timing of antlers dropping is somewhat predictable. But localized factors such as the severity of winter, available nutrition, or health of individual bucks can alter the timing of antler drop earlier or later.
On that first warm day in late winter, I get excited to do some shed hunting. But going too early can stress local wildlife and too much human presence could be detrimental to their survival. As hard as it may be to wait, it’s best to delay pressure until most of the winter has passed. Some thought and consideration ahead of time can greatly minimize your impact on local wildlife and increase your enjoyment in the field. For this reason, an increasing number of Western states have put shed hunting seasons in place. Make sure to check your regulations, as the laws can vary widely in different areas.
One of the biggest benefits to shed hunting, is that it is a relatively simple outdoor pursuit and does not take much equipment or require a license. Grab a partner to go along with you, throw on some comfortable outdoor clothing with a decent pair of binoculars and you’re basically set. A backpack can be useful for bringing food to eat and water to stay hydrated. I also recommend taking some lightweight rope to tie onto the sheds, so you can toss them over your shoulder and free up your hands.
Just like any outdoor excursion, it’s important to invest in your feet. Most all outdoor enthusiasts will tell you the most important piece of gear is always footwear. A quality pair of boots combined with proper socks, will keep your feet dry and supported. This will allow you to stay in the field longer and enjoy a better overall experience.
If you want to enhance your success and increase the excitement, involving a hunting dog will help. Shed hunting gets a dog out of the house and into the field with the chance to use their eyes and nose. Most of our hunting companions have a natural drive to retrieve, and winter is not the time to unravel your bird dog’s conditioning. Consequently, shed hunting is a great way to keep your dog physically and mentally sharp.
Simply put, dogs can do things people can’t. The big advantage is that they can smell recently shed antlers, which is especially key in tall cover. Even if the antlers have laid for days and lost scent, dogs can be trained to find them by sight. Aside from increasing your odds of finding sheds in dense areas, a good dog will also save you a lot of time as they cover way more ground than we do.
When I first began shed hunting, I carelessly searched every square inch of the land without much forethought… and without much success. My method was inefficient. Overtime I learned the key to picking up more sheds is focusing on concentrated areas for certain reasons. Shed antlers are not spread randomly across the landscape, so knowing where to look will make you more productive.
In the simplest terms, wildlife will spend a significant amount of wintertime on the edges of feeding, bedding, and escape cover. In northern states the snow and cold temperatures commonly drive animals onto sunny south facing hillsides and conifer trees groves. Other thick cover like native grass stands and shrub thickets, adjacent to late season nutrition are also magnets. For food sources, focus on those that are highly attractive to wildlife during the winter months.
Get outside anytime that you can, but if you have limited time the best conditions to shed hunt are cloudy days following a rain as the antlers show up more clearly. If you go during bright sunny days, keep the sun at your back and wear polarized sunglasses. Just like upland bird hunting, keep a nice steady slow pace. Let your eyes determine your speed, not your legs. It’s not how fast you walk, but how carefully you search the ground.
Remember that shed hunting is just another Path to the Uplands, and we all enter the outdoors with mixed goals. Shed hunting can be frustrating if your only focused on finding sheds, and it’s important to keep your hopes in check. Your intentions may have begun with a pile of antlers in mind, but an hour of walking while exploring the wild is still a major win. If you approach journeys like these with the right mindset, you won’t come back disappointed even with an empty pack.
It’s all about the whole experience… the laughs, the smells, the clarity, the exercise, the escape, and the camaraderie. Some days you might find double digits, other days zero. When we take the time to express the satisfactions of hunting outside of harvesting an animal or finding a shed, it’s more appealing to nonhunters and can make it more relatable. So, if you go shed hunting and return empty-handed, don’t hesitate to share your experience and photos that illustrate the stunning scenery. Random snapshots of the songbirds you discovered or a grinning smile with a sunrise in the backdrop, might be the thing that clicks with someone outside our hunting community.
Hopefully these thoughts will encourage you to seek out friends, family or even some new outdoor enthusiasts and go hit the hills in search of antlers soon. The time is right now, so don’t let it pass. Shed hunting is a wonderful way to connect us with the pulse of nature. Most importantly it’s a fun outdoor activity and a great way to get new people involved. Don’t forget to take our Mentor Pledge in partnership with ALPS OutdoorZ. For helping save our outdoor lifestyle you have a chance at winning some awesome incentives, including a guided hunt in Illinois.
All the planning in the world won't put a single shed antler in your pack. So, go when you can. You cannot find them sitting at home. I challenge you to take the time to teach someone, explore some of the millions of acres of our public lands, continue to educate yourself, and cherish the opportunity. This weekend my family and I plan to have sore legs, muddy boots, big smiles, and a much-needed relief from paved roads. Any shed antlers will just be a bonus.