There’s gold in them hills! Well, it’s more of a slightly faded, brownish gold. But finding those needles of bone in the haystack of the wild is just as exciting and rewarding.
As an elk hunting guide for almost half of my life, I’ve cultivated this land into my office. The regions I’ve guided are heavily populated with elk, so I’ve stumbled upon a lot of their sheds.
The fresher the antler, the higher in value for horn traders and our four-legged friends to gnaw on. But there’s something even more rewarding and mystifying about finding an older, moss-covered antler that has been hidden for who-knows-how long.
So, how does one play this game of hide and seek?
It’s impossible to predict exactly when a bull elk will shed his antlers, but a couple of factors can help you predict the timing of “the drop.” The first is the amount of snowfall the previous year. If last year was more on the dry side, antlers will drop sooner. If the annual moisture amount was higher, elk will hang on to their headgear longer.
The second factor is the timing of last year’s rut. Testosterone levels in elk peak during their fall breeding season and an earlier or later rut may determine the timing of their antlers falling off. Elk will shed close to 6 months after the peak of the rut.
It’s also impossible to forecast the amount of snow elk will need to endure during the winter. Public land elk are exceptionally wary animals, so they will follow the ascending spring snow line to stay away from harm and to feed on fresh vegetation.
Do your homework before heading into the hills by checking specific regional snowpack reports and webcams to determine the elevation and depth of snow in a specific zone. If your shed hunting location has an average or above normal snowpack, figure out where the snow line was around the first or second week of April and you will find antlers at that elevation.
Elk will move down out of the high mountains in early winter when the snow gets too deep and the rifle hunting pressure abates. According to a 2013 article in Montana FWP’s Montana Outdoors, an elk’s seasonal migration averages around 15 miles to a suitable winter range. But elk have been known to migrate up to 125 miles to seek these places to endure the winter.
As a prey species, elk naturally prefer steep and rugged terrain. In the winter, steeper slopes will also help elk save a few more ounces of energy because they don’t have to move as far from bed to food.
Grid searching a steep, south-facing hillside with your binoculars from an opposing vantage point is an excellent tactic for covering ground while staying anonymous to the mountain’s inhabitants. And, if you’re lucky enough to spot one, mark the antler’s location using OnX. Before bombing over to retrieve it, keep glassing from that vantage point—there’s likely another shed close by.
This one is obvious but very important for success. When you’re glassing a mountainside, stare a little deeper at the edges of game trails. Elk are tough to pattern because they seldom follow a daily routine, but they do value a simpler path up and down the mountains, especially during the winter.
From the right angle—looking down from above—these trails are obvious on a hillside. Odds are high that a bull will drop his rack with his descending gait along a game trail. Pay special attention if the trail is interrupted by a section of rocks or a cliff where elk would need to lunge their bodies, generating extra force upon landing, and possibly dropping their racks in their tracks.
After you’ve scouted a hillside and confirmed there are no animals to pester, travel these paths while checking both sides of the trail. Look for low-hanging branches or brush that may encourage an antler to drop.
Elk are vulnerable in the early spring after enduring a long, cold winter. Depending on the harshness of the recent weather, it doesn’t hurt to wait till the end of May or even June to shed hunt. Keep your search humane and ethical.
Check your state and local regulations for shed hunting seasons and management area closures. Then get out there, explore, stretch your legs, and work on honing in those hunting and glassing skills for fall.