Public land deer hunting is all the rage lately. It seems as if you can’t swing a tree saddle in a WMA parking lot without hitting at least a couple up-and-coming YouTube stars that hunt “beast” style. This focus on public ground, and the deer that call it home, is not relegated simply to hunting season anymore; it has bled into shed hunting as well.
I see this every year near my home in the Twin Cities and across the river in Wisconsin. It’s a rare day when I hike into the first patch of cover without seeing boot prints in the snow from fellow shed hunters, and just like hunting the same tracts in the fall, it’s simply a mental hurdle that needs to be cleared. If you’re on public land, you’ll have competition.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t antlers out there for the taking. The second largest shed in my collection was laying in the yellow sawgrass on a chunk of public land within a stone’s throw of over a million people. When my golden retriever started to paw at it, I didn’t think it was an antler because she was having trouble picking it up. I’m glad she proved me wrong.
That was a long time and many public land antlers ago. Since then, I’ve developed a strategy that mirrors my bowhunting in the fall, and it all starts with timing.
When the Going is Good
Most shed hunters, just like bow and gun hunters, are weekend warriors either by choice or because that’s simply when they have free time. This also means that the pressure will be highest on Saturdays and Sundays. It also means that a shed hunt on Thursday or Friday might be your best bet to pick up a fresh drop. I use this strategy a lot, and occasionally find antlers nearly on top of fresh boot prints.
And remember, while bucks are out there dropping pretty much anywhere from mid-December to April, the bulk of shedding tends to occur in February. Taking an antler hike late in the week throughout February is your best bet to find fresh antlers before someone else scoops them up.
Fine-Tuned Antler Treks
Unless a trail is being absolutely pounded by deer, or there’s a no-brainer food source worth checking every day, I prefer to shun the most obvious routes. Nothing erodes confidence quicker than following multiple sets of boot prints through the snow.
The good news is that even the most keen-eyed antler hunters will walk right by sheds from time to time. If the main trail has recently been walked, follow a secondary trail. It’s amazing how often you can be within 10 yards of an antler and not know until you’re standing right on top of it. Try planning your routes ahead of time to help you avoid competition. Usually this means looking at access points and then figuring out how to reverse-engineer the most likely paths.
Current Conditions Matter
Where I live, a fresh couple of inches of snow can fall pretty much any day. When it does, the antler finding game changes. If you’re in a part of the country where snowfall is common, the single best days for finding sheds might be the magical time in March or April when temperatures get high enough to start melting the snowpack. Throw on some knee-high rubber boots and be the first one out when the bare ground starts showing.
If you’re too far south for this strategy, keep an eye on the radar anyway. A light rain can be a shed hunter’s best friend since it gives antlers a sheen. It’s hard to explain, but if you’ve seen it, you know exactly what I mean. Not only can a passing storm make antlers glisten, but it’ll likely help keep your competition at home.
Regardless of timing or weather, do yourself a favor and always carry binos. I rarely run into shed hunters who carry optics in the deer woods, but every single year I end up with a few extra antlers from glassing distant, curious looking objects. On public land, not only is this a good idea, but it also helps you be a more efficient shed hunter.
While it sometimes feels like a lost cause, shed hunting on public land is just like deer hunting there. You’ll have to work for your success, but if you do, you’ll find that the opportunities on ground open to all are much better than most believe.
Feature image via Captured Creative.