A well-trained retriever can help you find more shed antlers in addition to fetching your ducks and pheasants. The Lakoskys explain where to start.
Shed hunting isn’t rocket science. Bucks drop their antlers in late winter and you hike around trying to find them. But he who is prepared is more likely to have success. Serious shed hunters develop and work a strategy. A likely part of that strategy is a well-trained canine companion. A good antler dog greatly improves your odds at this needle-in-a-haystack game.
Lee and Tiffany Lakosky eat, breathe and sleep whitetail deer hunting. When the couple isn’t on the road filming for The Crush or making public appearances, they’re at home in Iowa hunting or preparing their farms for hunting. Shed hunting is an important facet of the Lakoskys’ annual plan.
“I’ve been shed hunting for 20 years," Lee says. "Before I had property of my own, I’d look for sheds anywhere I could, like city parks or public land. Now, I find more sheds in a day than I used to find in a year. Having well-managed land certainly helps, but my shed dog also has a lot to do with it.”
Antler Dogs Up Front: Pick the Right Bloodline and Consider Professional Help
Lee and Tiffany’s first antler dog was Tank, a black Lab that’s now 3 years old (we highlighted Tank in this story a few years back). Now they have two more Labs in training: Tiffany’s dog, Mattie, and Tiffany mom’s (Linda) dog, Kyah.
“Last year, when he was a 2-year-old, I would probably find 10 sheds for every one Tank found," Lee says. "But this year, as a 3-year-old, those numbers have reversed and Tank is finding the majority of the sheds. There is no telling how good he is going to get."
Although Lee works with Tank year-round, whether for shed hunting, waterfowl hunting or pheasant hunting, he doesn’t take much credit for the dog’s expertise.
“I could probably train a dog to be a decent shed hunter, and so could just about anybody," Lee says. "But if you want a really great dog, then it should be professionally trained."
All three of the Laskosky family shed dogs have come from and been trained by shed dog expert Tom Dokken.
“Picking the right breed of dog for shed hunting is extremely important," Lee says. "That’s where the knowledge of someone like Tom really comes into play. See, if you want a dog like Tank, who shed hunts but also pheasant hunts, duck hunts and goose hunts, then you want a different breed than a dog that will only shed hunt. Someone like Tom will be able to properly match what you want with the right dog."
Dokken not only trains dogs, he owns Shed Dog Products, a company dedicated to selling antler dog training tools. A quick visit to his website answers a lot of questions about what you need to successfully train your own shed dog. He offers instructional books and DVDs, but his forte is placing the right dog with the right person and completing the duo’s training.
“If you want an exclusive shed dog, you really have to have a dog that has a high retrieve desire, because retrieving an antler isn’t like a bird," Dokken says. "There’s not a lot of excitement to it. It’s the strong retrieve desire that separates the good shed dogs from the great ones."
Dokken agrees that professional training greatly increases your chances of having an exceptional shed dog. Having a dog professionally trained isn’t cheap, though. For example, if you were to hire Dokken to train your puppy, he would first conduct a two-week evaluation when the dog is 5 months old. Then he would want your dog back at 8 months for 12 weeks. The price is $775 a month, but the reward is a well-trained dog that listens, handles and hunts. You must decide if it’s worth it while keeping in mind that the training doesn’t end at the culmination of those 12 weeks.
“More important than anything else is teaching the owners how to handle their dog once it’s trained,” Dokken says. “You’re going to have to work with your dog for the rest of its life, so you must understand how to advance your shed dog along.”
A well trained shed dog is an investment; not only a financial investment, but a lifestyle investment. You’re going to have to live with this pooch for a long time.
“Chances are you’re going to have this dog for 10 to 12 years," Tiffany says. "It’s so worth it to invest the money up front to have a well-trained, disciplined companion for all that time."
How to Find More Sheds
Once you make the commitment to owning a shed dog, your time in the field actually hunting sheds is bound to increase. Lee has learned a lot in the 20 years he’s been shed hunting, and he’s happy to share his knowledge to help others become more successful at finding sheds.
Start looking when season ends. Lee says a few bucks will drop in December, but the majority are dropping in January and February. “You gain so much by monitoring your deer herd with cameras. We run cameras all year long. Once we have the bucks coming to feed, we can watch them day after day. When we know a buck has dropped, we formulate a plan to find his antlers. There’s not a lot of guess work to it. We have a pretty solid system.”
Search the food. Winter food plots are extremely important to Lee’s overall management plan for a number of reasons. For one, they become hot beds for dropped sheds. But more importantly, when your property has an abundance of late-season food while neighboring properties are barren, deer will gravitate your way. Hopefully they’ll take up residence on your place and when fall rolls around, the dominant bucks will remain after running off the subordinates. The Lakoskys use the winter months to recruit new deer to their property and often, they’re introduced to these bucks by their sheds.
Go deer hunting. I once found an antler in the middle of a gravel road. A buck must have jumped the roadside fence and jarred it loose. But there are areas of every property that are consistently productive. Chances are, many of them are near your favorite hunting areas. “Shed hunting is a lot like fishing in the sense that the whole lake isn’t the best place to fish," Dokken says. "You have to do research to locate structure and find where the fish are. With shed hunting, you have to find the yarding areas where deer are bunched up, and then scout those areas so when you do go shed hunting, you have an advantage. It’s pretty simple; if deer aren’t in your area in January and February, then there won’t be any sheds there." Food plots, agricultural fields, bedding areas, fence lines and trails connecting any of these two are key locations. Bedding and feeding areas are prime spots because this is where deer spend the majority of their time.
Dogs smell ... and see, too. Antler dogs obviously help with their strong sense of smell. Just like when hunting birds, dogs have an easier time smelling antlers in damp conditions. But it’s not just their noses that make them valuable. They'll also see antlers that you don't. “Think about it," Lee says. "We are looking for sheds with eyes 6 feet above the ground. A dog’s eyes are only 6 inches above the ground. They are going to see a lot sheds that we miss.”
Shed Hunting Benefits
“During January, February and March, I am learning about my properties and the deer on them," Lee says. "These are the months when I’m cutting lanes, prepping trees for stands and doing whatever else needs to be done in the woods. By April 1, I am ready for the next fall."
Shed hunting is also a great way to build relationships with farmers. “Tires get popped by sheds all the time, and those big tractor tires can be $1,000 each," Dokken says. "So a lot of farmers are open to letting folks onto their land to shed hunt. You never know where it might lead."
If antlers are your thing, then strap on your boots and pound some dirt. And why not add a shed dog to the family? Chances are they’ll greatly enrich your outings in terms of success and sensibility.
“Having the dogs makes shed hunting so much more fun," Tiffany says. "It’s like a family affair. I probably go with Lee a thousand percent more now because I enjoy spending time with our dogs.”
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