The number of hours I’ll spend searching for shed antlers this offseason is equal to the number of hours I’ll spend watching Dancing with the Stars.
I’m not saying I won’t take a quick glance at the show as I rip through the channels in search of something less mind-numbing, and I’m not saying I won’t stop and pick up a shed if I happen to see one laying on the ground as I’m out chasing spring gobblers. But this is the extent of my focus, effort, and overall interest in shed hunting. Does that make me a bad whitetail addict? Some would say so.
But I think it means I’ve learned my lesson. I now know a thing or two about the true impact of finding a shed antler in the places I hunt, and that impact isn’t quite worth me searching high and low for them.
What Do Sheds Really Mean? Finding a shed gives me two concrete pieces of information: The buck that grew those antlers was alive long enough to shed them, and he was hanging out in that exact spot when he did so. Aside from those conclusions, there’s just not a lot of info to glean.
I’m not saying I want this to be the case. I spent an awful lot of time and effort trying to infer more about the hunting season that follows 10 months later from a single shed antler. But the simple fact is, I could never draw those conclusions. Now, when I find a shed, I know the above two pieces of intel and I assume the buck is still alive and well somewhere—with “somewhere” being the operative word.
In My World Once upon a time, I had exclusive use of a private parcel in southern Michigan. It was the first, last, and only time I’ve ever enjoyed such an experience. It wasn’t a super-attractive property. The bulk of it was tillable farm ground with a single wooded spot for cover. The magic was in the neighboring property that was thick, wet, and—most importantly—off limits to any hunter. That adjoining sanctuary was a buck-maker, and I’d find multiple older bucks in the neighborhood every year.
I somehow managed to tag a few of those bucks, but the majority proved far smarter than me. Every winter and spring I’d scour the property looking for their sheds. I never found one. It wasn’t for lack of searching; if they were there, I’d have found them.
Every year I’d assume those bucks had been killed. This wasn’t a stretch, considering the amount of hunting pressure all around the property. But, to my knowledge, none of those deer were ever tagged by a hunter. I’d see them the following fall, which told me those bucks had indeed shed their antlers somewhere else.
I can imagine someone finding the sheds from those bucks, spending the next fall hunting hard for the buck that dropped them, and never seeing it. Why? Because the bucks weren’t there. Year after year I’d see this pattern repeat.
The Takeaway I’d love to say I found an answer to this mystery. The truth is, I never did. The closest I’ve come to a solution is that mature bucks have their ways. In heavily hunted areas, they’ve clearly figured out a routine that keeps them alive when the hunting pressure hits. Why the bucks would vacate an area where they were safe during the prime of the hunting pressure and shed their antlers elsewhere is beyond me. But they did, and lots of others did, too.
I’ve also seen the reverse hold true. I’ve hunted properties loaded with sheds in the spring and void of bucks in the fall. Time and time again, I’ve seen a very distinct pattern of seasonal deer movement, particularly in areas where hunting pressure is high. Bucks I see in the summer are gone in the fall. Properties with empty bean fields in summer are loaded with bucks in November.
I don’t pretend to know why this happens. I simply know that it happens far more often than most hunters realize.
The Final Conclusion Don’t get me wrong. Finding the shed of a big buck you’ve been hunting is a good thing. If you’ve seen that buck during the season, then you know he’s comfortable being there when you can legally kill him. But finding a bunch of sheds from bucks you’ve never seen before? That’s where I think the shed-hunting fever falls a bit flat.
I realize my situation is dissimilar from many. I hunt all over the place and seldom work the same areas two years in a row. I’m almost always hunting public ground and, by default, I’m hunting areas with substantial pressure. Deer in those situations behave differently than bucks that live in an area with tightly controlled access. In my world, a shed doesn’t tell me a buck will be around come fall. It simply tells me a buck was there and that it lived long enough to drop its antlers.
The rest I’ll figure out in the fall when more recent intel can be put to immediate use.