If you’re on the outside looking in, shed hunting appears to be a simple endeavor. Just walk some cut cornfields, grid-search a few bedding areas, and then figure out where in your man-cave, or she-shed, you’ll display your findings.
As if. In truth, shed hunting mirrors the greater whitetail community. If you have primo ground to work with, the whole thing is pretty easy. If you don’t, it’s not. That’s not meant to deter newcomers, but instead to inject some reality into the whole thing. Successful shed hunts aren’t all that easy to come by without stellar ground, even for seasoned hunters like myself. If you’re new to the pursuit, it’s far more difficult.
But there are ways in which you can hit the ground with higher odds than the average neophyte. This all starts with tempered expectations.
Before my wife and I had our twin daughters, I shed hunted with my golden retriever, a lot. Almost every day from January through April, Lux and I would walk some property, somewhere, for antlers. I don’t know the miles we put on during those years, but it was a lot of effort. The best shed season I ever had with that dog—a dog I trained to find antlers—was six.
Even with some dog power on my side, a willingness to cover serious ground, and a pretty healthy understanding of the ways of deer, I couldn’t manage more than half of a dozen in a season. I’ve since had a few magical days and shed seasons where the numbers got better but never great. The reality of shed hunting is that you might go weeks without finding one. You can, however, increase your odds if you understand the areas most likely to produce some bone.
Dan Johnson, host of the Nine Finger Chronicles podcast, admits that when he started focusing on shed hunting the way he focuses on actually hunting bucks, his results improved.
“A lot of people think you need to grid-search an entire property to find antlers,” Johnson said. “I think it’s better to consider the bed-to-food patterns and zero in on those lines, those spots. Put your energy into locations you’d actually hunt because of the deer sign, and you’ll be more productive.”
I wholeheartedly concur with Johnson’s assessment but will take it a step further. You should find high-odds spots, and then hunt them in a variety of ways. There might not be antlers in a specific bedding area at the end of February, but will be in March at some point.
Or, a scenario that is far more likely is one where you miss antlers by walking a specific route. If you have an area you know the deer are using this month, or next, walk all the trails. Walk them in different directions, during different lighting conditions. Spotting some tines poking up through the snow or leaf litter during cloudless days where sunlight and shadows dominate the landscape is vastly different from an overcast day with even light.
Also, always carry your binoculars. Every shed season I pick up an antler or two simply from scanning a field or investigating a distant object in the woods that catches my eye. Plus, it’s good practice for when you are actually deer hunting.
People start finding antlers at the end of December in northern regions, and it’s pretty much on from then until the turkeys gobble and the ticks are out. The best time to shed hunt, however, is probably not the morning when you open Christmas presents, although there are advantages to being the first one in the woods.
“A lot of people say that you shouldn’t go too early,” Johnson said. “I disagree, because I share the woods with plenty of shed hunters. I want the first crack at them, even if there are fewer antlers on the ground when I go.”
As someone who shed hunts properties with plenty of competition, this is a good strategy. I pick up a lot of my biggest antlers in January and early February, unless the snow has fallen consistently enough to bury fresh drops. If it has, or I haven’t had as much time to go early, I don’t fret.
The main antler drop in many places will happen in February. This means that every day that ticks by after Valentine’s Day is one where there could be more antlers on the ground. By March, I count on most of the antlers to be out there, somewhere, waiting for me. The odds of finding them are highest then, especially if you’re in an area where the snow might finally melt away.
While it might be prudent to mind-grind over the best time to go, the reality is the more you go, the more antlers you’ll find. This isn’t like hunting on November 7th to experience the best day of the rut. It’s about putting on the miles from one week to the next.
Shed hunting isn’t as easy as it looks, but it is a hell of a lot of fun. It can also be productive if you keep your expectations in check, focus on the highest concentration of deer sign, and don’t shy away from burning some boot leather.
Feature image via Captured Creative.