Shed Antler Hunting: An art of logic, luck and long walks
By Kent Boucher
Christmas gifts are excellent indicators of what makes a person tick. Allow me to explain. Most people would probably identify themselves as fitting into one of these three categories: havers, experiencers, and those who fall into both categories. If you were tasked with purchasing a gift for a “haver” you would probably look for an antique collectible or some kind of sports memorabilia to strengthen a collection. For the experiencer, buying a pair of concert tickets would win you the title of Gift Giver of the Year. Then there is the category that I fit into: The people who love to experience sights and sounds, but want to come back with a souvenir to serve as a memorial of the occasion. A guided fishing trip with a decent shot of a few fillets to take home is what we petition Santa for. Since you chose to read this article about shed hunting, I’m going to guess you fit into this category as well. The search itself provides a certain level of fulfilment of course, but it is the moment when we take possession of the antler that our greatest satisfaction is realized. So how do you get more of that?
Logic, Luck and Long walks.
Through the years I have had the privilege to meet some incredible shed hunters. Some find a dozen antlers a year, others find 100+ antlers a year. Regardless of where their shed count falls within this range, a common thread is obvious: all of them know where to look and they understand this by applying the same logic they use to acquire antlers that are still attached to a deer’s head just a few months prior. Put plainly- they go where the deer are. Now before you shout “duhh!” hear me out. A common mistake shed hunters make is spending huge amounts of time scouring areas where the deer spend very little time during the winter months. Sound deer logic would suggest that shed hunters should focus on the most important resources deer depend on during this time of the year in order to locate, and therefore find their dropped antlers. During shed season, deer must focus primarily on meeting two needs: food, and warmth.
Finding food sources for deer is not difficult in Iowa. Ag fields provide ample amounts of high energy feed for deer, so the biggest limiting factor in our state is thermal cover. One common time waster that plagues inexperienced shed hunters is searching stands of hardwood timber. Because these forests contain so many canopies during the warm growing season, ground level plants which offer high insulation value end up shaded, never becoming established within the forest. Furthermore most hardwood species do not contain branches or leaves near the ground to serve as windbreaks when the winds of Old Man Winter come whistling through the timber. This lack of thermal cover combined with the fact that deer prioritize ag fields for food resources means that deer will spend much less time in these areas than they did during the pre-rut and rut times of the year. Based on these realities shed hunters need to plan their searches to center on stands of pines, firs and cedar trees located near ag food sources. These tree species provide excellent protection from the winter conditions, as well as good insulation value that will slow down their loss of body heat to their surroundings, even on some of the coldest days of winter. Another key feature that provides deer with protection from the wintertime elements are grassy areas on field edges near an easy escape route. A dynamite combination is one of these grassy areas that have a lot of southern exposure. Deer love to soak up the warmth from the most direct rays of sunlight and will spend many hours in these locations. The perfect bedding area would include a combination of all of these factors: a stand of cedars, pines or firs surrounded by CRP grasses on a south-facing slope near a corn field.
One of my favorite board games is Scrabble. I have been playing that game at family gatherings for decades. After completing countless games I have arrived at the conclusion that Scrabble requires a lot of luck. Obviously a player can’t show up to the board as a poorly read buffoon and expect lady luck to hand him the game, but even the most well-read grammarian doesn’t stand a chance at winning if she doesn’t draw favorable letter tiles from the bag.
The same is true for shed hunters. They can center all of their efforts on searching the areas where deer spend the vast majority of their time and still come up empty in the end, or they could be driving to work and find an antler lying in the middle of the road. There’s no way around it, luck plays a big factor in shed hunting. The thing about luck though is we can create our own to some extent, and good shed hunters know how to use logic to put them in the position to get lucky more often. This includes keeping an eye on ditches and field edges while riding in a vehicle, or walking known travel routes that include fence and creek crossings in order to see if a deer lost an antler in route to a popular cornfield, or the most luxurious stand of cedars and pines. Another way to crack the code on the luck involved with shed hunting is to look for fresh signs of deer activity. If deer aren’t where you think they should be, that does not mean they have disappeared. Locating evidence of where they are currently spending their time may reveal a hidden food source or an area with less human intrusion. Or a ridge that shields them from the wind and tips the balance away from luck and back toward logic. Even still, there’s no denying that luck plays a significant role in determining your final antler count by season’s end, and acknowledging this reality will help you maintain the right expectations and attitude as you search.
I have often heard it said, “Nothing worthwhile comes easy.” I’m fairly certain that whoever coined that phrase was a shed hunter. Finding antlers requires time and a lot of effort. Some of the same shed hunters I referenced earlier have said that by the end of shed season they averaged several miles of walking for each antler they found, and I often tell people that I typically come across five deer carcasses for each antler I find. The reality is you have to put in the time, and walk the miles in order to find a backpack full of antlers. Some days you will walk all day and find nothing, other days you will hit it big and come home with an arm load, but by the end of the season your math will be consistent with all other shed hunters, a lot of antlers = a lot of long walks.
There are many more tips and tricks for finding shed antlers that I will have to wait to include in future articles, but for now keep this process in mind and you will most likely find more antlers and fun in 2021.