It is one of nature’s most intriguing questions: Why do buck deer spend so much time and energy growing new antlers all spring and summer only to shed them five or six months later?
Scientists have chewed on that for years. “We still don’t know why,” says noted whitetail biologist Dr. Mickey Hellickson, who points to a couple of theories.
First, some experts believe bucks shed so they’ll have the ability to replace damaged antlers. If a buck had to live his entire life with snapped tines or a broken main beam he couldn’t intimidate his rivals or posture for does.
A second theory suggests that bucks shed and grow new, bigger racks the following year to keep pace with their increasing weight and girth as they mature to 3½ years of age, 4 ½, 5 ½ and so on. This theory seems most logical to me.
Like This? Read more: 5 Best Places To Find Deer Shed Antlers
Science aside, the fact is there are millions of fresh sheds lying hidden in the woods right now (and millions more that are a year or two old) and all of them are ripe for the taking. Hunting antlers is a fun way to spend a spring day, get some great exercise and learn more about your hunting land and the whitetails that dwell there.
After the rut each November and December, bucks’ decreasing testosterone levels cause an abscission layer to form between antlers and their pedicles. As the connective tissue dissolves, antlers get loose and fall off.
As a rule, bucks cast their racks from late December in northern states throughout March and April in the south. Weather and food availability, as well as overall nutrition, can influence when bucks cast their antlers. A severe winter may cause stressed deer to shed earlier than usual. If your area has an early rut, bucks’ testosterone will decrease earlier, causing at least some of them to cast their racks weeks earlier than normal.
Generally, older-aged bucks shed their antlers before younger males. But according to Hellickson and other biologists, the specific time when a buck will toss his rack may be determined heavily by his individual antler cycle. This cycle is independent of other bucks and is theorized to be centered on each animal’s birth date.
How to Find Sheds
A lot of people wander the woods in late winter and spring and wonder why they can’t find many, if any sheds. A wise old shed hunter once told me, “You’ve got to remember that 90 percent of the deer are in 10 percent of the woods at the time when they drop their racks. You’ve got to eliminate the bare areas and find that 10 percent, because that’s where the most antlers will be.”
The first thing is to home in on areas where deer congregated to feed in late winter. Standing soybeans or late-cut bean fields where a lot of pods are on the ground are top spots. Alfalfa and clover fields, as well as standing corn or corn stubble, are great places to find some bone. Note: Standing corn is a pain to hunt unless you have a shed dog (see sidebar).
Thick, scrubby fields – the kind that are good for rabbit hunting – are also good spots to check. These fields might have locust trees with bean pods, which deer love, and shrubs with berries or browse.
I shed hunt mostly in and around food sources, and in nearby staging areas. From there I branch out toward the bedding areas. I follow as many main and secondary trails between food and bedding areas as I can. I find plenty of sheds that fall off a buck’s head and are laying right in the trail I’m walking or just off to the side of it. On a couple of occasions I’ve found one shed, then found the other side of the rack 20 to 100 yards up the path.
Sheds can be tough to see. Regardless of where you look, keep your eyes pointed straight down, scanning only a few feet to the side. Walk slow and easy and grid your area; this will put more antlers in your pack. A rainy day, when antlers have a sheen, is good for shed hunting.
The key to finding 30 or more sheds each spring is to start at the food sources and branch out from those locations. Walk, walk and walk some more. But again, make sure you walk where the deer congregated a couple months ago.
One time, a buddy found two sheds on one of the best farms he hunts, but he knew there were more bucks than that in the area. He checked his maps, pinpointed some huge corn and bean fields a mile away and got permission to shed hunt those fields. By the end of May he’d picked up an additional 33 sheds, and some big ones to boot. Sometimes the best place to find sheds is miles from where to hunt. Get permission to scour those lands and see what you can find.
Finally, remember this: If you find a good number of sheds in an area for a couple of springs in a row, and if the crops and food sources remain the same, you’ll find more antlers there next spring, and the next and the next.
Try a Shed Dog
Using a dog to hunt shed antlers “is the fastest-growing dog sport in the U.S.,” says Minnesota trainer Tom Dokken, America’s foremost authority on shed dogs.
The Labrador retriever is by far the most popular for the sport, but Dokken says that any breed with a strong instinct to retrieve can pick it up quickly. “With just a little basic training, a bird dog can learn to find sheds, and then he can multi-task between retrieving ducks and finding sheds in spring,” he says. Hunting dogs are particularly good shed finders because they quickly zero in on the calcium-phosphorous odor shed antlers emit.
And you might train your family pet, say a Lab or golden retriever you keep in the house, to hunt sheds. “We’re seeing all sorts of people who just want to get out in the woods in the spring and have some fun with their dogs,” says Dokken. “If your dog likes to retrieve anything, a ball or training dummy or whatever, that’s the game. Just substitute an antler, get your dog used to finding and picking it up and having fun with it, and you’ve got the makings of a shed dog.”