Sometimes for a hunter, those months in between seasons can drag on. Come September, you longingly stare into the fields of your favorite lease, dreaming of the season just around the corner. If you are looking for a fun and productive way to make those off-season months fly by, check out shed hunting. This isn’t some new picker strategy, but a hobby that will have you hooked from day one. If you’ve ever wondered “what is shed hunting”, read on to find out.
What Is Shed Hunting?
Shed hunting is the act of seeking naturally shed antlers from members of the Cervidae family, which includes deer, mule deer, elk, caribou, and moose. Unlike horns, antlers are seasonal and naturally fall off after mating season, during late winter.
The practice of gathering and collecting antlers (shed hunting) dates back to pre-historic days, as antlers were used to decorate the spirit leaders of tribes, or shamans. In addition, Native Americans would use every part of the deer and usually carved the antlers into knives, weapons, and even fishhooks.
Deer and other Cervidae mammals grow antlers in early spring. These antlers grow from the pedicles near the deer’s ears. Pedicles are stubby, bone-like structures that are attached to the deer’s skull. Antlers are made of bone, so when they fall off or break during a fight, they do not bleed. Unlike horns, typically only the male of the species grows antlers, except with caribou and reindeer.
When they first emerge, antlers are covered in a velvety substance. This velvet supplies blood to the antlers as they grow. As rut, or breeding season, approaches, the male deer will start polishing his antlers on tree trunks in order to shed the velvet. They then use their antlers to fight off competing males and attract does.
After rut, and the hardest winter months, deer will start shedding their antlers. They do this between mid January and mid March, but healthy bucks will shed their antlers by late February. The most dominant bucks typically shed their antlers first. The interesting thing about these antlers is that no two are exactly alike.
Benefits of Shed Hunting
When asking what is shed hunting, it’s important to know why people do it in modern times. For hunters, shed hunting is a great way to study the terrain for their hunts in the upcoming season. This is also a great way to assess the health of the deer herds in the area. If done over time, shed hunting can give you a good idea of how many adult male deer made it through the hunting season and the harsh winter.
Whether you shed hunt as a hobby or a livelihood, there are several good uses for the antlers you find. Some avid hunters like to keep the antlers in their natural state and collect them as trophies of the hunt. Thera are some that enjoy making lamps, chandeliers, or even other decorative furniture and items out of the antlers. These pieces can be sold or placed in your own home to admire. If you are a dog lover, antlers are a healthy and natural chew toy for our four-legged friends.
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Shed Hunting Cardinal Rules
If you are asking what is shed hunting, it’s important to know the etiquette of the sport as well as what it’s all about. There are some rules of engagement to consider for this activity.
Hunt On Time
One major rule to follow is to mind when you start. If you hunt too early, your presence could spook the herd and force them to leave their wintering grounds. Winters can be harsh on deer, and trying to find a new home and new food and water sources in the dead of winter can be brutal and devastating for the animals. Wait until early spring or at least after the worst of winter has passed before you scout the area for antlers.
Scout Before You Hunt
A good practice is to scout the area ahead of time without disturbing the herd. Do this with pre-installed trail cameras or the use of binoculars. Get to know the habits of the herd before ever stepping foot in the area. Not only will this give you clues on where to find antlers, but it will also help ensure you don’t disturb the deer. As you scout, look for the bucks to see if they have already shed their horns. Once 80% to 90% of the deer within the nearby area have dropped their antlers, it is a good time to start shed hunting.
Check State Laws
Just like hunting seasons, many states enforce time periods in which you can hunt for antlers. These time periods are in place to protect the local wildlife populations. Just as important as not hunting too early is making sure to not hunt the same area too often. If there is an overwhelming human scent in the area, the local deer will be more likely to uproot and find a safer place to call home. This is not good for the deer, and it isn’t good for the hunting within that area.
Another thing to remember when hunting for sheds is that a majority of the good hunting is on private property. Before entering someone else’s land, it is only right to ask their permission before combing through their acreage: not to mention safer. This is where a good app like the onX Hunt App will come in handy. This app will tell you who owns the land where you want to hunt, and it will give the contact information. It’s important to ask permission before every hunt and leave other’s land as you found it.
Tips and Tricks to a Successful Shed Hunt
In looking at the question what is shed hunting, there are decades of experience that have gone into the following tips and tricks. Read below to find out how to become an expert in the field.
Put On Your Good Hiking Shoes
While finding that first rack can exhilarate you, it rarely comes without first putting in the miles. Shed hunting isn’t one of those sports with quick results. Like hunting, this activity takes patience and diligence. While walking, scan the ground all around you. You are looking for curves and points, and even the white glimmer of the sun reflecting off of the antler. Don’t expect to see an entire antler at once, but get used to seeing these signs.
Where Is as Important as When
Deer are typically on the move. They have to eat a lot, especially in the colder months, so when you are tracking antlers, think about the typical route of the deer in the area. Where is the closest water source? This will more than likely be a nearby source of running water. Also, look for cedar thickets or south and east-facing slopes where they would more than likely hunker down for those cold nights.
Food sources will typically be clumps of trees within an otherwise open field. Do you homework and pull up the area on Google maps to find food spots. Pay close attention to the trails the deer would take to get to the food and water and then back to their shelter. Fence crossings are a good place to spot antlers, as they may fall off while the deer is jumping the fence.
Be Packed and Prepared
A good rule of thumb when gearing up for a shed hunt is to not over-pack. You don’t want to be walking up to ten miles a day with more weight on your back than you need, and you have to leave room in your pack for any treasures you find. Always pack out any trash or other belongings. Typically these hunts are done in wild fields where there won’t be trash cans readily available. Don’t make the deer’s home your trash can and respectfully take your own trash with you.
A day pack filled with sunscreen, bug spray, water, and some snacks is really all you need. If the weather is still cooler, pack an extra jacket or hat. The most important gear is your shoes. As noted, you will put in the miles so makes sure your feet are fitted with good quality socks and hiking boots.
You might get away with a good pair of sneakers if the terrain is flat and not rocky. If you have a good hunting dog, take her along. Some breeds, especially Labrador Retrievers, Drahthaars, and German Shorthairs are great for finding antlers. It will also be a great way for your hunting companion to get some exercise in the off season.
If you’ve been wondering what is shed hunting, now you know it is a great hobby for all ages of hunters and non-hunters alike. Where else can a great work out also be good for your next deer season? Once you start, you will be hooked, but make sure you always respect the deer and the land so your hunts will be successful for everyone.