I can’t explain it. Most others I know afflicted with the same disorder face similar pains justifying their actions. Why would one spend countless hours hiking woodlands, clamoring up cliff-like precipices, wading through cattail jungles and tackling the worst of spring weather to pick up a cast antler? There isn’t even the reward of a meaty venison steak after the laborious task.
I’ve had those thoughts over and over again when questioned by my loving spouse on the collection of thousands of antlers cluttering my barn amid a hasty departure for yet another trip to look for more. Sure, some do it for the reward of a paycheck mainly from antler artists, but for most it is simply described best as an addiction dating to our caveman ancestors.
Opening day isn’t regulated by a game-and-fish commission, aside from a few Western states for the protection of wintering game. Mother Nature rings the opening bell, usually in March. And the “season” continues until the green grass hides sheds or mineral-hungry rodents gnaw antlers to barely recognizable nubs.
Anticipation escalates by weekend scoping of local bucks and bulls from afar to measure when the bulk of them have jettisoned their headgear. My local community has a penned herd of elk, and come spring I check the daily status of the herd bull’s antlers to measure when free-ranging cousins may finish shedding. If the winter has been particularly unforgiving animals may shed earlier, but most years antlers fall off in a timely matter comparable to the rising and setting of the sun. From that point on your take depends primarily on your available free time and your physical endurance.
Locating an antler brings instant satisfaction, but once the warm feeling subsides it can also shed a wealth of information for those willing to look beyond the initial fortune. My best scouting for the coming season is from spring shed hunting. Why? I’m not afraid to venture into bedrooms, sanctuaries and other hideouts I deem off-limits most other times of the year in fear of spooking game into pattern-changing moves.
Rubs, scrapes, wallows and heavily used trails all stand out in the bareness before spring showers vegetate the landscape. Of course the antler itself reveals whether a particular animal survived hunting season and winter’s brutality. But you may also stumble across the carcasses of other big game less fortunate, giving you solid information on what animal densities to expect in the fall. If you hunt migrating game, use the location of shed antlers to backtrack and locate prime habitat to target in hunting season. Put it all together and you have a solid plan in place on where to begin next season’s hunt. That’s a goal equally as valuable as the shed antler in hand.
Here are my trophy tips for all you shed hunters out there:
■ Hold off on shed hunting as long as possible. Early searching could force animals to move into new areas off-limits to you, making shed antlers unavailable. Plus, pressure on wintering animals causes them undue stress when they are most vulnerable after surviving a long winter.
■ Game can drop antlers at any moment, so look for sheds near food and bedding cover, and trails connecting the two. Crops like corn, soybean and winter wheat, and pastures that haven’t received grazing pressure attract hungry big game.
■ Since big game spends considerable time on south-facing slopes it makes sense that a higher percentage of antlers are dropped there. Southern slopes attract game looking for protection from brisk north winds. They also provide the best locations to soak up warm winter rays.
■ For the biggest sheds, look for out-of-the-way micro environments offering isolation, thick cover and a nearby food source. Although the bulk of shed antlers will be near traditional locations, such as high-energy food sources or on south-facing slopes, mature animals don’t always follow the crowd. Trophy animals like to detach themselves from the herd.