"He's still alive!" I thought as I reached down and picked up 71 inches of
calcified happiness on my hunting land in central Minnesota. The shed antler I
held belonged to a buck I saw once during the previous hunting season. He's a
symmetrical 5x5 with an inside spread of about 20 inches -- putting him in the
160-plus inch category.
Finding his left shed told me that this bruiser had made it through both the
hunting season and winter unscathed. Given the mild winter that year in
Minnesota, I have no doubt he was in good health as spring arrives.
An Early Spring Ritual
I just love shed hunting. It's a late winter/early spring
ritual that offers excitement, exercise, and also makes me intimately familiar
with travel patterns of the deer I hunt.
If you haven't tried shed hunting yourself, I strongly encourage you to do
so. There are few things more thrilling than wrapping your hand around a big
antler -- even if the antler isn't attached to a deer you've harvested!
So to help you get started, I've compiled a list of tips that might help as
you go in search of that elusive whitetail headgear. And remember, if you find
a big shed, it could be lying in the heart of that buck's core area. I say
"could" because a deer's wintering grounds might be in a different
location (based primarily on food sources) than where you're likely to find the
same animal during hunting season.
At any rate, you'll know a particular buck is alive and will gain some
insight on setting up a possible ambush point for him during the next season.
Even if you don't find any sheds -- the trails, rub lines, scrapes, bedding
areas, and other things you discover will make you a better hunter come fall.
Have They Dropped?
Whitetails can drop their antlers over a wide span of time. Here in the north
(Minnesota), one buck might shed in December, while another male in the same
area may not drop his antlers until March. Health, stress level, and many
unknowns can account for when a particular animal sheds. The best way I monitor
when the deer in my area are shedding is to put my Cuddeback cameras out where
most of my deer activity is taking place. By routinely checking your Cuddebacks
in late winter/early spring, you can unequivocally discern when the
"drop" is on.
Think Like A Deer, Find The Right Spots
It's simple advice, but you won't find a buck's artifacts unless you're crawling
around where he lives. The savvy shed hunter is one who is prepared to put in
some miles walking. An ATV can really help you cover more ground, too. I'll hop
on my Honda and slowly drive my food plot edges first, keeping a watchful eye
for antlers as I go.
Focus most of your efforts at or near food sources, because that's where
most antlers will be found. During the winter, whitetails must feed heavily.
And they also need to conserve energy. So you'll find that most deer will bed
close to feeding areas, to minimize the energy spent walking to and from their
food. When you find these concentrated areas, there's a good chance you'll find
When I cut well-used trails that connect main food sources to bedding areas,
I go on foot and walk the trails. When on the trails, pay close attention to
spots with thick overhanging cover that can snag a loose antler and knock it
free. Also, fence lines, creeks and ravines that force deer to jump can also be
falling-off points for treasured antlers.
When you find the thickest, nastiest cover in a bedding area, get right into
it. Having a bit of snow on the ground will help you locate actual beds in
these areas and sometimes, an antler or two will lie right there next to a big
Search The High Ground
Also, investigate the highest ground on the property you're searching. Bucks
like to bed on these vantage points to have a good, defensive viewing position.
Plus, high spots and the south-facing slopes of these locations typically have
less snow cover than low-lying areas. This means easier browsing opportunities
for deer and an increased likelihood that a buck has dropped his antlers
When you find a nice shed, keep searching the area for the matched set.
Often times it will be within a couple hundred yards from the first one. When
good tracking snow is still on the ground, backtracking and forward tracking
the buck can lead you right to the match. From my experience, it seems like the
bigger the rack, the more likely the antlers will be dropped in close proximity
to one another. This could be because a big-racked buck doesn't like the
lopsided weight on one side of his head, and intentionally shakes the other
Tips For Spotting Antlers
First of all, try to look for "parts" of an antler vs. looking for
the whole enchilada. Keep an eye out for the curve of a main beam, the tips of
tines, etc. You can even train yourself to spot these telltale things by
tossing an antler into tall grass, leaves and brush and then "hunting it
When you take to the field, wear your polarized fishing glasses. They'll cut
down glare if there's still snow on the ground and will also improve contrast
for better spotting. And never go out shed hunting without a good pair of
binoculars. I recommend Nikon Premier 10x42s. They're compact, lightweight,
powerful, and crystal-clear. Binoculars are the key for surveying fields,
hillsides, and other open stretches. They can also save you a long walk for
what you "think" is an antler off in the distance.
Man's Best Friend
More and more shed hunters have put a dog's keen nose to work finding sheds. In
fact, many breeders/handlers now offer shed-hunting training -- right along
with training for waterfowling, upland hunting, and other canine tasks.
If you have a pup you'd like to train, it's a pretty straightforward process
and not too different than training a dog for blind retrieves on birds. A solid
foundation of basic obedience skills is a must. From there, playing retrieval
games with a shed antler sets the groundwork. Start by playing
"fetch" in the yard where the dog can plainly see the antler.
Remember to round off any sharp points from antlers to avoid injury to your
dog. And it doesn't hurt to reward him with little treats when he performs
well. Reward training vs. forced training is definitely more beneficial when it
comes to creating a good shed dog.
As you move into blind retrieves with your dog, this is where his skills
will really develop. He'll find the antlers with his nose and (if all goes
well) will become obsessed with locating the scent of antlers, finding the
source and delivering the prize to your hand.
I read a recent article by an outdoorsman who owns an accomplished
shed-hunting dog. He reports that for every shed he finds himself, his dog
finds 10. That's a pretty good ratio (for the dog). Makes me think I should
take my springer spaniel Scamper out and throw him a 5-point retrieving dummy!
Good (shed) Hunting!
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Editor's Note: Babe has shared his love of the outdoors with TV viewers for more than 25 years. Babe will share his tips and outdoor adventures weekly on sportsmansguide.com. In 1984, Babe's "Good Fishing" program debuted and later his "Outdoor Secrets" show became popular with hunting enthusiasts. Babe's programs appear on Versus (formerly OLN), Fox Sports Net, WILD TV, WFN, and many local networks. Visit www.winkelman.com for air times where you live. Babe also writes hunting, fishing and conservation columns that are carried by up to 350 newspapers each week. Winkelman sponsors include Chevrolet, Miller High Life, Johnsonville Brats, Crestliner Boats, St. Croix Rods, Browning, Hunter's Specialties, Nikon, Minn Kota, Optima Batteries, Mathews, Honda, and many more.