Are you racking up the miles, but not building up the piles? Keep reading for the best shed hunting tips and tricks to put more brown gold in the bank this spring.
1. Know the Local Laws
First things first, ensure shed hunting is allowed in the area you intend to shed hunt before you start shed hunting. Many states, localities, wildlife management areas, etc. have designated shed hunting seasons to prevent stress on vulnerable animals, and some areas are permanently closed to shed hunting, for example, Yellowstone National Park. When in doubt, read the regulations for the target area and/or contact the local conservation officer or game warden.
If you are new to shed hunting, you may not know when to start looking for shed antlers. A lot of factors can influence when a buck or bull will shed their antlers: geography, winter severity, age class, genetics, injuries, predator density, etc. However, throughout the Midwest and northern reaches of the west, the majority of bucks will begin shedding their antlers around mid-February, and nearly all deer will be shed by the end of March—although there are always exceptions. For elk, the shedding generally occurs between the first part of March and the end of April.
For deer sheds, I like to start searching around the first weekend in March, assuming most or all of the snow has melted off. By this time, generally, there are more shed bucks than bucks still carrying antlers. For elk sheds, I like to start searching the first weekend in April for the same reason.
If the ground I am searching has an abundance of competition from other shed hunters or rascally rodents, feasting on precious brown bone, then I may start earlier on those pieces, even combing them twice in the same shed season.
Don’t delay your shed hunting too long, as new green growth can bury sheds that would have been otherwise easily visible before the onset of spring green up.
3. Train Your Eyes
Toss an antler over your shoulder into the natural world, then turn around and try and find it. Throw it in the leaves, tall grass, cattails, next to a conifer, tight to a tree trunk, or in the middle of corn stalk stubble. It is surprising how difficult it can be to spot an antler, even when we know it is there. I read a similar tip as a new shed hunter, and I found this incredibly helpful for training my eyes!
Another great tip for finding more shed antlers is to “look small to score big”. Everyone wants to find a giant antler, but I’ve found training my eyes to look for small to average antlers helps me find more. Training my eyes to look for antler shapes, like: main beam curves, pointy tines, burrs, and bases has also proven extremely helpful.
Training your eyes to look for antler shapes, like: main beams, tines, burrs, and bases increases the odds of bringing home more sheds.
4. Shed Hunting Gear
Below is a list of the best gear for shed hunting.
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Boots – Boots are first on the list for a reason (see tip #5 below). A comfortable pair of boots is essential to a successful shed hunt. Even in premium, antler rich areas, it is common to walk 2 to 3 miles per shed. When I am exploring new areas, that number can often rise to 5-10 miles per shed, so comfortable footwear is a must! I prefer the Kenetrek Mountain Extreme 400, but any comfortable fitting boot will do the trick.
Binoculars – Inevitably, serious shed hunting involves miles and miles of walking (again, see tip #5 below). A pair of quality binoculars are worth 100 times their weight. My binocular of choice is the Vortex Razor HD, but any quality binocular in the 8 to 12 power range will work. My girlfriend, Shawna, prefers a pair of Zeiss Terra EDs. I use my binoculars every single time I shed hunt. In the distance, is that flicker of white a tine or a “stickler”? (that’s what I like to call stick-shaped antlers). Is that the curve of a main beam or a tree branch or root? If it’s 50+ yards away, I am investigating with my binoculars first, and only then with my legs, if the object in question still looks antler-ly. This can happen 10-50 times per shed hunt. Binoculars are also an essential piece of gear in open terrain such as agricultural fields, prairies and the vast expanses of the west.
Backpack – While it might seem impossible as a new shed hunter, there may be days when you find more antlers than you can physically carry in your hands. That’s why strapping on a backpack is an excellent idea. I like to bring along my Tenzing TX15 on deer shed hunting trips, or my Mystery Ranch Metcalf when I’m looking for elk sheds. While I don’t own one, packs such as the Horn Hunter Full Curl are specifically designed for diehard shed hunters.
Having a backpack also provides a convenient way to take along plenty of water, snacks, spare batteries, and any other items to extend time afield.
GPS/GPS App – Use a GPS or a phone app like OnX to track your path. When I find an antler, I like to systematically grid the area and try to match the set or locate another antler, since bucks and bulls will often be in bachelor groups this time of year. Having a GPS or GPS app gives a great visual reference of the areas I have already covered and any areas I may have missed. I am currently using an old Garmin Oregon 550t, but I am looking to upgrade to a Garmin Oregon 750t.
Batteries/Battery Banks – If your navigation instruments (cell phone or handled GPS) run on batteries the way mine do, running out of battery is a great way to cut a day of shed hunting short. In a worst-case scenario, it could also mean getting lost. I always carry at least one set of spare batteries for my handheld GPS in the side pocket of my Vortex Glasspak binocular harness. I also carry an Anker Battery Bank and charging cord to keep my cell phone fully charged throughout the day.
5. Search High Odds Areas
The truth is, shed antlers can fall off almost anywhere in a buck or bulls winter range. However, that doesn’t mean that all areas are created equal. Below is a list of the best places to find shed antlers.
Bedding Areas – Deer and elk spend a good portion of their day bedded. In colder climates, much of that bedding will occur in south facing bedding locations that still offer adequate security cover, where winter weary animals can soak up the sun’s warmth. On April 4th, 2020, we had one of our most successful shed hunts of 2020, and over 80% of the sheds found were located in bedding areas with southern exposure.
Preferred Food Sources – One of the best ways to anticipate where shed antlers might end up is to keep an eye on where bucks or bulls feed during February and March. Taking note of where the local herd spends the majority of the late winter months is one of the single best ways to up the odds of a successful shed hunt. Scour the food source and the nearest bedding areas for the best results, since food and bedding areas will account for the majority of an animal’s day. Check standing cornfields, cut corn fields, CRP, winter wheat and haystack yards. While shed hunting a ranch in Montana, the ranch owner told me the majority of deer sheds he finds are in his haystack yards, which aligns with preferred food sources.
Transition areas – I define transition areas as the primary travel routes between winter bedding and preferred food sources. If I have covered the bedding areas and the food sources, my next stop is the area between the bedding and feeding areas.
Fence lines – Unlike bedding areas, which may be hard to pinpoint without previous knowledge of an area, fence lines are easy to identify. The act of jumping a fence has jarred loose many an antler. Check fence lines on the perimeter of agricultural fields, pastures, and bedding areas. Anytime I see a significant trail crossing a fence, I like to follow it in both directions. If it leads to an agricultural field, or other open area, this is a great time to breakout the binoculars and let the glass do the walking.
Obstacles – Much like fence lines, obstacles such as downed trees, low hanging branches on primary trails, steep embankments, etc. provide an opportunity to knock loose an antler hanging on by the last thread.
6. Miles for Piles
Once the time is right, the eyes are trained, and the gear is gathered, it is time to put on the miles! There’s no way around it, whether its shed #1 or shed #100, shed hunting is a game of miles, and the more miles logged, the more sheds found.
7. Stay Focused
Stay focused. If finding an antler is really the goal, it won’t help to be thinking about that project at work, the mortgage, or what’s for dinner tonight. When I’m shed hunting, I try and keep my eyes focused on the ground and my brain focused on the shape of the antlers I am after.
If I find myself losing focus, I like to stop and pause, often looking behind me. The orientation of a shed may be difficult to spot from one direction of travel, but may be easily visible from the opposite direction.
8. Remember the Moment and Drop a Pin
Taking “as they lay” or “ATL” photos and videos is a great way to remember exactly what that shed looked like in the natural world before the big scoop. When I get home, I tag my antlers with the date and location where I picked them up.
Anytime I pick up a shed, I like to focus on the characteristics of that spot and think about why the animal was there. Over time, common patterns will emerge (like those found in the step #6) and help guide future shed hunting adventures.
9. Revisit Areas That Have Held Sheds Previously
To take shed hunting to the next level, I recommend keeping notes throughout the shed season, along with GPS waypoints. There’s a good chance an area that held antlers this year, could produce again under similar conditions in the future.