Bonnie led Bill Healy to his first shed antler. He was a graduate student at Penn State, studying the food habits of deer in Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest. Bonnie was a guinea pig — really, a tame, whitetail doe. She wore a harness as Healy followed with a clipboard and stopwatch, recording what she ate and how long she ate it.
In the spring of 1965, while watching Bonnie feed, Healy nearly stepped on a shed. He shoved the antler into his back pocket, dropped his handkerchief to mark the spot and continued to watch Bonnie. Later, when she stopped eating and started looking for shade to chew her cud, Healy led Bonnie to the pen and looked for the other antler. It took 20 minutes to find his handkerchief and only seconds to find the matching antler. “It was hanging in a blackberry bush not 2 feet from where the first antler had been,” Healy later wrote in his journal. "Wow! A matching 8-point rack. That experience started a lifelong hobby, and left me with the naive impression that it’s easy to find a matching set of shed antlers."
Since then, Healy has spent hours looking for the "other" antler. Finding pairs is rare, and if found, they usually lie side-by-side.
"Only twice have I found pairs of antlers that weren’t shed in the same place," he said.
A Bone to Pick
Searching for sheds is big game hunting without the game. And it’s growing by leaps and bounds. The trick is finding them before someone else gets them or squirrels and rodents gnaw them for calcium.
Antlers are the fastest-growing structures in the animal kingdom. And the process by which they fall off each winter, one half at a time, involves the most rapid deterioration of living tissue in the wild.
Just as two dreams are never the same or two flowers ever alike, each antler and deer rack is different.
Revered as much as they are, biologists can’t answer with certainty why deer shed their antlers each winter or why they don’t grow year-round as horns do on sheep, goats and cattle.
Whatever the reason, bucks shed their antlers every year when shortened day lengths register in the eyes and a message passes to the brain. Less testosterone is produced and life is cut off to the antlers.
Though part of shed hunting is pure luck, searching food plots, fence lines and travel routes will increase your chances of finding sheds.
Antlers tumble off between January and March, although exact times vary from place to place and year to year. Looking for them gets you closer to nature and if you hunt deer, it offers clues to the hangouts and habits of bucks that survived the previous season.
In mid-winter, bucks spend most of their time looking for food, so smart headhunters focus their attention on places where grub is easy to come by.
Promising places include harvested crop fields, food plots, fields where large hay bales are stored and corn cribs — areas where corn has spilled on the ground. Travel corridors between feeding and bedding areas are worth exploring, as well. Walk remote fence lines, too. Already loose antlers often fall when a buck hits the ground after it leaps.
Rodents and varmints gnawed it. The sun bleached it. It wasn't much to look at unless you were Ric Shirrod.
He was 9 and bird hunting with his dad near their Idaho home when he found his first shed antler, part of a mule deer's personal history. And now it’s part of his own because 35 years later Shirrod still has that old antler.
A taxidermist in West Valley, Shirrod has put his hands on more antlers than he can count. But the ones he finds while shed hunting are special, he says.
"You could walk into 100 different guys' homes who are avid hunters, and maybe 10 of them have a shed antler."
Many sheds end up on walls or mounted atop a cape by taxidermists like Shirrod. Craftsmen use antlers to make lamps chandeliers, furniture, belt buckles, gun grips and knife handles.
"And on the Asian market," Shirrod says, "they grind them up and make tea out of them and — I've never tried this; don't try this at home — it's supposedly an aphrodisiac."
Many shed hunters, though, like Shirrod, enjoy the treasure hunt. What's really fun, he says, is to find one half and see how hard you can work to find the second half.
Easier said than done. Shirrod has found plenty of antlers, but never a matching pair. In January 1998, he and a friend were elk hunting in the Grande Ronde River, and each found one half of a beautiful, 4-point whitetail antler, so fresh that it had blood on the base.
Neither hunter gave up his half so the other could have a matching set.
"I would have mounted that one," Shirrod says with chagrin. "At least on a plaque, if not on an actual head."
But somewhere in the hills west of Yakima, Idaho, perhaps at this moment, a bull elk is shedding its antlers.
And Shirrod knows he's got as good a chance as anybody to find them. Because, eventually, someone will.
A. Every year sometime after the fall mating season. Some animals drop their antlers as early as December, others as late as March. Deer and moose begin growing new antlers during the summer.
Q. Does a deer or moose drop its antlers together?
A. Not usually. Each antler drops off individually. A set of left and right antlers from the same animal may be found a few yards apart or as far apart as a half-mile or more.
Q. When is the best time to hunt for sheds?
A. In the spring, when the snow is receding and patchy and while last year's grasses are matted down. And where snow isn’t an issue, as early as January.
Q. How long do shed antlers last?
A. They can last for years, although the longer they're on the ground, the more discolored they get from the soil and the more likely they are to be eaten by rodents.
Q. Can you find the same animal's sheds year after year?
A. It's possible. An animal's antlers are unique to that animal, a product of its genetics and nutrition. The genetics make each year's set of antlers look almost identical from year to year, although the antlers get larger each year as the animal ages.