Tines were sticking up not 30 feet down the trail I was walking. The party had officially started. At a fast clip, I went down the trail and scooped up a big five-point whitetail shed. Holding it in my hands, I looked it over not once, but many times. I studied the beam, the tines, the base, each and every little scratch. I just stood there, reading the shed, trying to see what kinds of stories it could tell me. After calming down, I pressed on. About 50-feet farther down the trail I found the match, and examined it just the same.
Scenarios such as the one mentioned above are what drive thousands of shed hunters across North America each and every spring. We walk through brush, along trails, under limbs, and over hills searching for antlers that have been left behind by bucks large and small. Shed hunting is a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. Let's take a closer look at the sport of shed hunting, and what it means to you as a hunter and outdoorsman.
I see a lot of questions posted regarding the "where, when, and how" as they relate to finding sheds. Some folks spend a lot of time looking, but little time finding. If this is the case, it's time to figure out why you're not as successful as you'd like to be. Let's fix the problem. I'll tell you right up front that you won't find as many sheds if you're not looking in an area that holds deer during the winter months. To find as many sheds as possible, you must find the areas where the deer are staying around the time the antlers begin to drop. It may sound obvious, but nevertheless, it's an important fact to note. The easiest way to find these areas is to drive around and look for winter food sources -- wheat fields, stubble, etc. and then make a mental note of all the deer activity you see. If you can find several areas that have a good number of deer "yarded up," then you're well on your way to becoming a more successful shed hunter.
Once you've determined where the majority of the deer are wintering, the next question that many people ask is, "When should I start looking?" Timing becomes a very serious issue here. If you go too early, you're likely to find very little -- which could destroy your confidence after the first day. You also run the risk of bumping deer out of the area, which lessens your chances of finding sheds. If you wait too late, you're taking the risk of other shed hunters finding them, mice chewing on the antlers, and spring green-up making them difficult to find. What I like to do is watch wintering areas from a distance with either binoculars or a spotting scope, looking for bucks that have dropped one or both sides. If the wintering area is good enough, you can see large groups of bucks at a time. This makes it easy to see what deer have shed at what time. When I'm confident that all of the bucks in an area have dropped, I'll hit the trails running. Trail cameras can also tell you when a buck has dropped his sheds. In my area of Kansas, most bucks have shed both sides by the third week of March, with the most dominant bucks dropping in late February. I usually don't like to go until I know most of the bucks have dropped. The farther north you go, the earlier they seem to drop.
You've done your homework up to this point. It's early spring, and there are antlers to be found. Now it's time to get down to business. Before leaving for any shed hunt, it's important you bring along a few necessities. I always carry a well-stocked daypack. I pack it with snacks -- a few small candy bars and some Trail's Best beef jerky. You will burn a lot of calories walking down trails so be sure to have an energy supply. I also bring plenty of fluids. Go Fast drink or sugar water are great choices. Replenishing your energy and staying hydrated will make all the difference in your stamina and attention span while afield.
You're all set. Are you ready to wear out some boot leather? Your true success as a shed hunter is going to depend on how much walking you actually do when you leave your truck. What you get out of it really depends on what kind of mileage you put in. My wife and I like to walk out almost every square foot of the property we're shed hunting, using a grid system -- we stand several arm lengths apart, making multiple passes through large areas of timber or grass until it's all been covered. Find a system that works and stick with it.
With that said, there are places on a given piece of ground that deserve extra attention. One such place is a buck's bedding area. We've found most of our hundreds of sheds in and around bedding areas. The law of averages is at work here. Bedding areas are where bucks spend most of their time. Walk as much of the bedding area out as possible, because if there's a winter food source around, there's bone in there somewhere. Look for beds located on south-facing slopes, as they are excellent places to avoid brisk north winds and get some needed sunshine. Another hotspot is any trail that connects a bedding area to a winter feeding area. Walk out all of these trails, taking it slow and checking behind you - you may just miss something. Be sure to check out heavy fence-crossings, as a jumping buck can jar his antlers loose when he lands on the other side. And don't forget to check the food source itself -- a big shed laying in a winter wheat field is a real heart-stopper for a hardcore shed hunter.
When I first started shed hunting, I always looked for the entire antler on the ground. I realized that I was making a big mistake. The more antlers I found, the more I took note of how I spotted them. Often times I just saw a little piece of a beam sticking up or a tine poking out of some brush. Some little curl or feature that looked slightly out of place drew my attention to that exact spot. From that moment forward, I walked into my shed-hunting areas looking for only bits and pieces of antler. I named this technique the "3-Inch Rule," and now my wife and I absolutely live by it when shed hunting.
Basically, the rule says to never look for more than 3 inches of antler at any given time. It's helped our success rate tremendously, and I'm positive it will do the same for you. Once you find a few sheds, toss them ahead of you in the grass or brush without marking where they landed. Try looking for a portion of the antler to re-locate it. Once you get this search image in your mind, you'll be able to pick out many more antler features from surrounding vegetation. One time I spotted about 3 inches of a G2 tine up on a brushy sidehill in almost complete darkness. I ran up and grabbed the big four-point side. Had I not used the rule, I never would have found that shed.
Shed hunting is a sport that's growing by leaps and bounds. Although it's a lot of work, shed hunting is an excellent way to spend time with loved ones, get some great exercise, and there's absolutely no better way to familiarize yourself with a particular piece of property you plan to hunt. Get out this spring and take a long walk through your woods. With a keen eye, a little luck, and a lot of patience, perhaps you'll have a shed hunting success story that you can share with us this spring.