I’m sure many already know this, but unlike what some believe, horns and antlers are not synonymous. They are quite similar features on some animals, however, antlers are cast off annually and grow back again the next year.
On the whitetail deer in this area, antlers can be seen growing on deer, bucks in particular, from spring, throughout the summer, and into early fall. At this time, the velvet that has been nourishing the antler growth is rubbed off by the deer and the hardened antlers are exposed. This is just in time for the upcoming mating season, or rut, where the antlers help deer spar with one another and even mark territory by rubbing up the bark on trees. After the rut and hunting season, some deer have already had their antlers broken off, entirely or partially, by other deer while fighting, or maybe even from gunshots or car accidents. Regardless, during late winter, really anywhere from January through March, those that still have their antlers begin to “shed” them as they fall off of the pedicle on the base of the deer’s skull. Some believe that the decrease in testosterone levels of the deer after the mating season is what releases the antlers, while others believe it is the stress placed on them during this time of the year, while still others blame cold temperatures. In reality it is probably a combination of all three.
Many do not believe that deer hold their antlers for that long, and for a while neither did I. However, I began to get trail camera pictures of, and even see, big bucks all the way into March with their racks fully intact. In addition, this was even during the extreme winter that we had a few years ago. When they are ready to fall off, a small amount of pressure may be all it takes, as some fall off while deer jump fences, while others are shed when they come in contact with brush or even the ground while feeding.
I’ve even heard of some people creating “antler traps,” where they purposely set out some sort of netting of wire to knock off the antler as the buck feeds in the area. Others that do not use these traps may just begin to look for these sheds in fields where the deer have been feeding, along fence lines, or even back in the trails that the deer regularly use. Another great place to look are hillsides that receive quite a bit more sunlight than others, because they will be warmed by the sun more and the snow is likely to be shallower throughout the winter, drawing in the deer.
Honestly, shed hunting can be done at any time of the year, as all it involves is basically walking and searching the ground for these antlers. There is however a fine line between how early and how late to begin your hunting. If you start too early you may risk scaring deer that have not shed yet out of the area, where the antlers may then drop and you cannot find them or do not have permission. On the other hand, if you wait until too late, small critters of the woods like mice, squirrels, and even porcupines may have already found them and chewed them up first, or the ground vegetation may have already greened up the forest floor making searching difficult. Either way, getting out in search of sheds can just be a nice way of curing cabin fever, although this year has truly not been that bad.
Personally, I wouldn’t start yet because I am still seeing and getting pictures of bucks holding their antlers. Once I stop seeing them on top of the deer’s head, I’ll start looking for them on the ground. I’ve heard of people already finding some, but in my area I’ll wait until most have fallen.
Try to cover as much ground as possible, but do not be racing around so fast that you are passing up nearby sheds. Search the areas that the deer have been living and feeding in all winter long. These areas are sometimes referred to as yarding areas, and basically rely on the preferred food source of the deer during the winter.
Using binoculars can help you spot sheds and non-shed look-alikes from a distance. Instead of walking all the way across the field to find only an antler looking clump of grass, you would know from a distance, saving you time and energy for the rest of your search.
Some people take shed hunting pretty seriously, looking for the sheds of a specific deer. Actually finding them is a great indicator that the deer survived the winter and will likely survive until next fall, as long he stays away from the cars and coyotes. Others use dogs, commonly labs that have been trained to smell the bone of the antler on the ground and bring them back to the dog handler. I always thought this would be an awesome way to find sheds as a dog’s sense of smell has got to be way better than our eyesight in the woods and brush.
In some areas shed hunting is even becoming a big business. Antlers are used for a variety of things, one of the most common is decoration. Anyone who walks through the home and furniture section of a big sporting goods store would surely agree. Some matching sets of antlers can bring over thousands of dollars from collectors, bringing a hobby to a whole new level. Some people have now totally replaced hunting for the actual animal with hunting for its sheds. In fact, out west they have laws pertaining to how early shed hunters are first able to start looking on managed lands. The main reason behind this is to give the animals a chance to gain back some of the valuable energy in the spring that they lost in the winter trying to find food. Struggling animals scared by shed hunters may face exhaustion and suffer to the point of death, unfortunately.
Whatever the reason you are out searching for sheds, remember to respect the land and enjoy your time in the awesome creation that we have. Good luck and happy shed hunting!