Track Down A Crowning Treasure

By Joe Shead

Shhh! Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but I “bagged” several bucks last year. And I didn’t buy any out-of-state hunting licenses, either. Heck, I didn’t even bother to affix a back tag to the antlers, and I found the best hunting was in the spring when I had the woods all to myself!

OK, wait! Before you call a conservation warden, let me explain. I respect and adhere to Wisconsin’s conservation laws. In fact, I wasn’t poaching deer out of season; I was “shed hunting.”

Each year, sometime between December and April, white-tailed bucks shed their antlers. No one is really sure why male species of the deer family shed and regrow antlers each year. What we do know is this annual process happens, triggered by decreasing day length, and in turn, decreasing testosterone levels. Bucks that are stressed or malnourished will drop their antlers before those that are in better health. Then, sometime in April, bucks begin growing a new and usually larger rack.

People have long gathered antlers in the spring, but shed hunting has grown very popular in recent years. I believe the increased interest can be attributed to the quality deer management movement -- through which landowners are taking greater interest in managing their lands and studying deer on their property -- and the craft and cabin décor industry. Artisans routinely make antler knife handles, cribbage boards, lamps, fireplace tool handles and an endless array of other antler crafts and decorations like buttons, drawer pulls and door handles.

No matter your motivation, shed hunting is a nonconsumptive activity that anyone can enjoy. You don’t have to be a deer hunter and you needn’t own land to find sheds. All you need is a desire to take a walk through the spring woods. Plus, shed hunting is a great way to introduce people to the outdoors and spend time with the whole family. It’s an outstanding opportunity to learn about the forests and fields in your area, and how deer and other animals relate to that habitat.

Where can I look for antlers?

OK, so maybe you’re intrigued by the notion of looking for antlers in the woods. It may sound like looking for a needle in a haystack, and some days I wish it were that easy! On the other hand, you can learn by doing and the best shed hunters may find dozens of antlers each year. If you’d like to try your hand at it, first you’ve got to have a place to go.

If you’re a deer hunter, it’s only natural to start looking for antlers on familiar hunting land. You know by experience where and when deer travel on the property. The hunt for antlers can also give you a good idea of which bucks survived the hunting season. You may be pleasantly surprised to discover that there are more bucks on the hunting grounds than you knew.

But what if you don’t own land? Fear not, there are plenty of places to search for sheds. First, think of where you routinely see deer. Most likely the best places are on private land. Though gaining access to hunt deer on a stranger’s land is getting increasingly difficult in an age of big-buck mania, high land prices, and land leasing, you stand a better chance of getting permission to simply walk and look for sheds in winter. It can’t hurt to ask. Most people simply don’t have the time to poke around their woods and fields looking for antlers. In fact, if you come across a farmer who has had a tractor tire punctured by a shed antler, he may welcome you on his property.

Some of the best places to seek sheds are on lands that hold a lot of deer, but don’t allow hunting. Private parcels, business holdings like gravel pits, golf courses, and public spaces like suburban parks and camping areas are all good bets. If the land is privately owned, make sure you acquire permission first. Other places to try include public hunting grounds, and state and national forests that see fewer visitors this time of year. Though these areas are often considered “crowded” during hunting seasons, I’m amazed at the number of sheds I find on public hunting areas. In fact, more than 90 percent of the sheds I find come from these areas.

Where do I find deer in winter?

One key to consistently finding deer antlers is to teach yourself about deer behavior. Before you pick a place to walk, form a game plan so you can recognize areas that are more likely to hold deer. Scout out where deer spend most of their time in late winter and early spring. Keep in mind that in the northern part of the state where snows stay relatively deep, deer may move to deeryards in thick stands of white cedar or other conifers where less snow reaches the ground. These are not necessarily the same places you would see them at other times of the year. To find sheds in the spring, monitor deer movements in the winter, but do your best not to disturb these winter-weary whitetails. You don’t need to actually see the deer; just look for tracks, beds and droppings that indicate areas that deer frequent during winter.

Deer have two basic activities in winter: eating and resting. As a result, the best places to look for cast antlers are in feeding areas, bedding areas and the trails that link them.

What deer eat depends on what’s available in your area. In our southern agricultural areas, winters are milder and deer often find adequate food nosing around for waste corn, alfalfa and other farm crops. They will also eat acorns if they can find them, and they browse on various plants such as red osier dogwood. In the north, deer will prefer agricultural foods if they are available, but in big-woods areas, they must often subsist on natural browse. White cedar is the top winter deer food in the north, and it provides both food and cover. Across the state, people enjoy feeding deer in winter. Feeding stations have a significant impact on deer movements, and it’s not uncommon to find antlers near them. No matter what deer eat, if you can pinpoint preferred food sources, you’re well on your way to finding shed antlers.

Bedding areas are the other major part of the winter deer equation. A deer’s metabolic activity slows in winter and it spends a lot of time bedded down, trying to conserve energy in an effort to stay warm enough to survive brutal weather.

An ideal bedding area protects deer from harsh winds and cold temperatures. For these reasons, deer often bed down in coniferous forests. The branches of these trees catch the snowfall and prevent it from reaching the ground. If you’ve ever hiked through a stand of pines on a snowy winter day, you may have noticed that the snow depth is less among the conifers than in stands of deciduous trees or in the open. The needle-covered branches of pines, spruce, fir and cedar also block the wind and form a thermal canopy that holds in heat, making coniferous forests just a tad warmer than the surrounding areas, which makes all the difference if you’re an animal trying to make it through a severe Wisconsin winter.

But deer don’t always bed down in thick cover. In fact, sometimes they prefer open areas, particularly south-facing hillsides or the north edge of a forest opening. Just like house cats, deer seek out the places where they can soak up winter sunlight. The sun hits these areas most directly, and you can see where snow depth has been greatly reduced. In fact, these areas may have no snow cover while shady areas just a few yards away could hold as much as a foot of snow.

You’ll know you’ve found a bedding area when you see a concentration of oval depressions in the snow or leaf litter. Bucks often segregate from does and fawns in winter, so if you find large beds surrounded by one or two smaller beds that would indicate a doe and her fawn(s), keep searching. Bucks often bed together, or at least in close proximity to each other in winter. Signs of a buck bedding area include buck rubs on the trees, scrapes in the snow or antler imprints in snow. You can also often distinguish deer gender by examining urine patterns in the snow. Bucks leave a line of urine and may dribble while they walk, while does usually burn a single urine hole into the snow.

A winter game with a bony prize

Shed hunting is sort of like an Easter egg hunt, without all the candy. Your goal is to walk through the woods or fields, searching for a hidden prize. As you might expect, an antler lying on the ground isn’t easy to see, especially if it’s small and it has been there a while.

Deer antlers often look very much like the cornstalks and tree branches covering the ground where they are found. Therefore, it is important to walk very s-l-o-w-l-y when you’re looking for antlers and sweep your eyes back and forth. You have to give your eyes time to pick apart the landscape and find that object that just doesn’t quite look right lying on the ground. Don’t scan too far ahead. You should be focusing only about five to 10 yards in front of you. If you’re in an open field you can look a little farther ahead, but even when you’re consciously looking for antlers on the ground, it’s amazing how you can sometimes literally step on them before you see them. Unless the antler is large, I’m usually within 10 feet of it before I see it.

Most often people spot antlers when they see a series of tines projecting up from the ground. Antlers are less conspicuous when they land tines-down. When they do, look for a curving main beam or the parallel lines formed by the series of antler tines. As you search, you’ll see a lot of “antlers” that turn out to be sticks, but sometimes it works the other way. If you see a stick that looks like it might be an antler but you’re not sure, make the effort to confirm what it is. My motto is, “When in doubt, check it out!”

Antlers are easiest to spot on a cloudy day after a rain. The clouds allow you to look without squinting and the wet ground mats down the surrounding vegetation and gives antlers a sheen that stands out from their drab background. If you’re shed hunting while snow still covers the ground, you’ll want to look for tines projecting from the snow in cold weather. If it’s above freezing, the snow will melt around the antler, revealing your prize.

Most of the antlers you’ll find in Wisconsin will appear somewhat white. Most of our bucks carry light-colored racks (as opposed to, say, the chocolate-racked bucks of Saskatchewan or Alberta). Also by late winter, sunlight will have bleached a buck’s antlers somewhat while they’re still attached to the deer’s head. Antlers that have lain on the ground for a year or more (and survived gnawing rodents, who chew on antlers for their calcium content) will be bleached from the sun and will be bright white if found in high, dry areas. Old antlers found in wet areas turn green from algal growth.

As you walk, follow the deer trails where hoof prints leave a path and the vegetation is parted a bit. Look for places where a buck has to jump to cross an obstacle, such as a trail going over a fence or a stream. As deer get ready to shed their antlers in winter, a thin layer of tissue forms above the base (pedicle) that anchors the antler to the skull plate. This tissue, called an abscission layer, forms as testosterone levels drop in bucks. As the tissue dissolves, the antlers loosen over a two- to three-week period and the bone-to-bone connection between antler and skull plate gets wobbly. The jarring that occurs when the deer lands after jumping can knock an antler loose.

Another choice spot to look for sheds is under a lone evergreen, whether it’s standing in an overgrown field or it is the only conifer in a deciduous forest. Deer go out of their way to bed under lone pines and cedars. And they are not alone in this habit. Odd features on the landscape attract animals like deer and coyotes the same way that an underwater rock pile or weedbed draws fish. If you find a shed under a lone evergreen, it will almost always be on the south side, where the buck bedded to take advantage of the sun’s warmth.

Brushy areas are also great bets. Look for a brushy transition between a bedding area and a feeding area. A dense stand of red osier dogwood, alder, willow or other brush along a farm field edge provides good cover for deer, and the dense network of branches can knock antlers from the buck’s head. These shrub species are frequently rubbed by bucks. If you find a lot of rubs, you know you’re looking in a good spot.

As you go from place to place, follow deer trails to maximize your time. Trails are easy to cover because there’s no guesswork. If the antlers are there, they’ll be right at your feet. In more open areas, such as when you’re trying to cover a field, make passes back and forth over an area until you’re sure you’ve covered it.

Hang in there!

Shed hunting isn’t easy. It takes a lot of time, patience and luck. Maximize your opportunities by searching in places with plenty of deer sign. Don’t be disgruntled if you don’t find an antler right away. It took me a long time to find my first, mostly because I really didn’t know what I was doing. As you learn more about deer and how they travel, you’ll get a better idea of where to look for antlers. Keep at it and keep your spirits up. If you try hard enough and long enough, you will find an antler.

Antler hunts offer welcome breaks from winter. It’s a fine time to scout hunting lands for deer trails and other signs. It’s also a great opportunity to take kids with you to work off some energy, breathe a little fresh air, learn a little patience and hone their powers of observation. Pick a mild day and take along kids who have the stamina for a decent walk, say 9- to15-year-olds, and just go. A slow, quiet walk allows plenty of time to also watch birds, look at animal tracks, learn to read deer sign, follow a few burrowing trails and listen for the natural buzz of squirrels, crows, chickadees or watch woodpeckers rapping up some dinner under tree bark.

Shed hunters also justify their pastime to friends and spouses by saying they’re taking their dogs for a walk. This may be so, but there may be more to it for some folks. Just as police officers train dogs to find drugs or bombs, or hunters train dogs to find birds, some shed hunters have learned to teach their dogs to find shed antlers. The dog’s keen sense of smell can pick up the scent of an antler, even when it’s buried under dead grass or snow. Training a shed dog, like training a bird dog, takes repetition and patience, but it can make shed hunting much more enjoyable.

Even when shed hunting is slow, I thoroughly enjoy my time spent outside on a late-March day when geese are returning, robins appear and spring peepers serenade me with their evening song. If nothing else, shed hunting is a great excuse to stretch the legs after a long winter cooped up inside. And the antlers you find provide a year-long reminder of the peaceful searches as winter quietly passes into spring.

Joe Shead (yes, it’s pronounced “shed”) is a shed-hunting fanatic and managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine in Iola. For more information on shed hunting or to order his book, “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers,” visit www.goshedhunting.com.

© 2007 Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine, reprinted with permission.

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