Some days the prize is nothing more than exercise and the opportunity to spend a day enjoying outdoor splendor. That's fine with me. Other days can bring the treasure of a handful of antlers or, if you're lucky, a pack full of the pointy prizes.
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.
Do This at the Range
Start range sessions with an understudy rifle
that mimics your deer rifle. You likely haven't fired a round in earnest in months, and no doubt your skills are rusty after the winter/spring layoff. So don't beat yourself up, waste expensive ammo or grow frustrated. Use a rimfire to concentrate on breathing, relaxing, squeezing the trigger and following-through on meaningful shots. Then move to your centerfire rifle of choice.
Bore-sight a new scope at close range.
Weighing 55-70 pounds, shorthairs push size limits, but they can make charming house pets if not overly hyperactive. They may not require as much exercise as setters or pointers, but probably need more than any dog on this list.
Move off the bench.
In preparation for hunting, a bench rest is good for one thing only—assuring your rifle is zeroed. There are no shooting benches in the woods, so why use one for practice? Instead, fire from the prone, sitting, kneeling and offhand positions most likely used while hunting.
Become proficient with artificial shooting rests.
The best field-shooting position can always be enhanced with a backpack, a pair of shooting sticks or a proper sling. Practice shooting with all three, make them part of your "kit" and never leave home without them.
Identify problems with rifles and ammo now.
Extractors break. Scope erectors grow weak and stop taking adjustments. Ammo misfires. Now, not November, is the time to wring out problems with equipment.
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