The two factors that dictate shed hunting success are location and timing. In regard to location, the more limited the access, the better. Add in some good wintering cover and quality food sources, and timing really doesn’t matter. Just show up when you want and start scooping up sheds.
When you’re competing with the masses, the opposite is true—timing is (almost) everything. Sure, you won’t find any sheds in a really shitty location, but you also won’t find any sheds in the best locations if 20 people have already been through them ahead of you.
The best way to maximize your shed hunting success on public land is to focus your efforts on timing, which means you’re going to want to get out there now.
Obvious Concentrations Aaron Hepler is a whitetail hunting machine from Pennsylvania who spends a lot of time in the woods throughout late February and all of March. His efforts aren’t solely dedicated to filling up his man cave with antlers, because as he readily admits, there are a few reasons to be in the woods right now that all tie together.
“This is the time when you absolutely know where the deer are wintering and what their current habits are,” Hepler said. “There’s no question. The sign is out there, and it’s not going to be any easier than it is now to find the areas the deer are currently using.”
Hepler uses that knowledge as a motivator to put on as many miles as possible from here until spring green-up. “I’m always out looking for new hunting areas and that often leads me to the best winter cover and current food sources,” he said. “This leads me to look for pounded trails and fresh beds. When you do that enough, you find some antlers.”
Weekly Timing This is highly dependent on the region you shed hunt, but throughout much of the whitetail’s range, a hefty percentage of the total buck headgear will be on the ground by the end of February. This, from a total volume and odds perspective, makes a pretty good argument for getting out there now—but there’s more to it.
“I don’t go shed hunting on the weekends,” Hepler said. "This isn’t an option for everyone, but when you get into this part of winter, you know you’ll have competition on the weekend, meaning mid-week shed hunts are often more productive.”
This might sound crazy, but it’s not. In my experience, where a good portion of my shed hunting happens on public lands in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, I often find antlers at the end of the week that I know weren’t there at the beginning of the week.
This perfectly mirrors my best hunts on public lands as well, where weekday hunts consistently produce better results than weekends. If you have a spot you’ve been watching that holds enough deer to provide antlers, if at all possible time your hunts to beat the weekend crowds.
There is another strategy as well, one that involves timing hunts around the weather.
The Beautiful Melt If you shed hunt where some snow is covering the ground, getting out right after the first real melt of the spring can produce record days. This is a no-brainer strategy, but there’s another way to look at it that doesn’t fully rely on the true spring thaw.
The Northern Hemisphere has started tipping back toward the sun, and as a result, the days are getting longer and the midday sun is getting more powerful. We aren’t immune to snow and wintry weather yet, but the possibility of a few days of warmish weather can open the ground—even if just briefly—to willing shed hunters.
Low spots in valleys and hillsides that don’t catch too many rays will be largely unaffected during these events. Other spots and areas that do receive a lot of sun will lose some of their snow cover. These sun-facing hillsides are often preferred bedding areas, which makes for an added bonus. While you might only get a short window to find a freshly uncovered antler before the next snowstorm blows through, you have a chance. This likely isn’t something worth paying close attention to if you have access to tightly controlled ground.
If you have lots of competition for limited antlers, however, pay attention. A single three- or four-day stretch of above-normal temperatures can provide a quick opportunity to beat the crowds to sheds that have been unavailable since they disappeared beneath the snowpack earlier in the winter.
Above all, don’t give up. The best is yet to come as far as shed hunting on public lands is concerned. Locate some concentrations of deer, get out there in the midweek if you can, and keep an eye on extended forecasts to monitor incoming warm weather. Do these things while putting some serious mileage on your boots and you’ll find some bone on ground that's open to anyone.