Joe Shead is living up to his last name.
The founder of Go Shed Hunting estimates he’s picked up 1,000 antlers over the years and labels each of them with the exact spot it came from. As a party trick, he allows friends to choose any shed from his impressive collection and then proceeds to recite specific details of the find. The man knows his sheds.
For him, shed hunting is about more than just a way to kill time in the offseason or find out if a specific buck survived the fall. In fact, the majority of his shed hunting takes place in areas he never hunts. But Shead says the time spent searching teaches him valuable information about deer behavior—something necessary to consistently hunt for sheds or the whitetails themselves.
“More than deer hunting or watching videos, physically being out there looking for sheds forces you to pay attention to deer sign, and you learn a lot about deer behavior because of it,” Shead told MeatEater. “To be successful as a shed hunter, you really have to understand deer movement and deer behavior. The more sheds you find and the better you get at it, you naturally start to travel like deer do. You can look at the landscape and say, ‘This is an area that if I were a deer, I would walk or I would avoid.’ You start to dial it in over time.”
He focuses his shed hunting efforts on wintering areas where he believes bucks are spending the bulk of their time during the cold months.
“In most areas, I’d be looking for places where there’s good bedding cover adjacent to good food sources, like the edge of a coniferous forest where it meets a corn field or soybean field, random cedars here or there, CRP grass, or any kind of cover where deer can take refuge from the cold and the snow,” he said. “Any time you can have bedding area next to a feeding area, that’s a double whammy.”
Being intentional about where he invests time helps Shead make the most of each outing.
“It’s a matter of connecting the dots. It’s kind of simplistic, but you can eliminate a lot of ground. It doesn’t do you a lot of good to just randomly walk. Go where the cover is and where the food is,” Shead said. “There’s always exceptions—you might find an antler where a deer was out and about. But for the most part, you have to play the percentages.”
Shead says these overarching principles remain the same, no matter the region and whether it’s private ground or public land. The one major difference is pressure might force you to adjust your schedule.
In earlier days, he’d fight his way through feet of snow in January and sometimes walk the same trail three to four times each week, hoping to beat out other shed hunters. It ultimately left him burnt out and oftentimes resulted in him jumping deer. Now he prefers to hold off whenever possible.
“Ideally, I wait until the spring as the snow starts to thaw and the grass starts to poke through—that’s my favorite time to be out there,” he said.
But with so many outdoorsmen taking up the hobby in recent years, it’s not always realistic to put it off.
“Shed hunting has gotten so popular that if I’m going on public land, I’m going early and often because a lot of times you’ve got to be the first guy down the trail the day an antler drops or soon after to get it. There’s so much competition nowadays,” Shead said. “Whereas on private land, you can afford to just let it rest, maybe wait till all the bucks have shed, wait till the snow is starting to go away, wait till March.”
For hunters who have their hearts set on finding the matching set from a special buck, he suggests slowly, carefully combing the area. The buck could’ve dropped the second shed seconds after the first, or it could still be holding on for another three weeks. But the best bet is to start small and look hard. If not, you easily could end up a mile away from where you started when the second half of the set was only 200 yards from the first.
“You try to figure out if he was eating, if he was bedding, or if he was traveling when he lost the antler,” he said. “If you find it along a trail, you obviously walk up and down the trail in each direction, hoping the match is somewhat close. Sometimes you’ll get lucky. Otherwise, if you’re really bent on trying to find that antler, you make concentric circles in the area, gridding the area.”
It’s all about strategy. And Shead says all the miles and hard work are worth that rare occasion when you call out an area as the prime spot for a shed, and one is actually lying there.
“It’s what you make of it. It can be a matter of just walking in the woods. But for me, I’m just constantly analyzing,” Shead said. “Every time I find a shed, I ask, ‘Why was it here? What was that buck doing?’ And if you really start to think critically about it and try to determine why the buck was there, you can start to put together patterns and become a better shed hunter rather than just walking willy nilly.”