How Shed Antlers Can Help Your Whitetail Hunting

The world’s greatest Easter egg hunt for shed antlers is right outside your door and begins at the gate of your nearest whitetail hunting property.

How Shed Antlers Can Help Your Whitetail Hunting

The author and his dog, Sage, enjoy a spring outing for shed antlers and to discover new whitetail sign that could come in handy during a fall hunt.

Each winter and early spring, whitetail bucks jettison their head gear, littering the landscape with their bony treasures. Searching the woodlands and fields for an antler prize is reason enough to get out after a long winter, but why not boost your hunting success at the same time? Why not get a bonus jumpstart for next hunting season while you’re on the hunt for shed antlers?

Shed antlers reveal the obvious. You literally know the trophy potential for the coming season when you pick up an antler. The makeup and mass of a shed antler also reveals maturity of the bucks on your property. That alone may be all you’re looking for, but if you want to refine your hunting plan for the coming season, you should scan your hunting area for telltale clues of how deer are using a property during the hunt.

Although shed hunting takes place well before hunting season, all of the clues left from the rut stand out in the stark backdrop before the spring green up. Many of these signposts occurred during the rut and provide a glimpse of how deer are using a particular plot of land. Piece these clues together and your hunting plan gets an extra boost, not to mention the reality of a trophy artifact you could discover on any given spring hike.

Edges, including fence lines, can reveal trails you could use as ambush points during a fall hunt. Keep your eyes open for whitetail clues while shed hunting.
Edges, including fence lines, can reveal trails you could use as ambush points during a fall hunt. Keep your eyes open for whitetail clues while shed hunting.

Trails to Triumph

Whitetails love trails, and even when they forsake a plotted path they adhere to edges throughout their territory. If winter snow covers your hunting property, trails are relatively easy to find. Whitetails utilize their trail network with more regularity during winter, so the snow-packed pathways quickly become distinguishable from random travel here and there. Take note of these paths because whether it is winter or fall, whitetails adhere to the path of least resistance whenever possible.

Even if snow doesn’t make a presence in your world, you can still find the most highly used trails on a property. If snow doesn’t cover the ground, you’ll likely see an uptick in winter rain showers in whitetail country. Rain plus dirt equals mud. Constant travel on wet ground makes a dark pathway stand out like the Yellow Brick Road.

As you hike for shed antlers, following trails undoubtedly leads you to several finds during a day’s hike, but don’t just stay on the main interstate highways. Whenever a slightly less-used off ramp shows up, put on your blinker.

Following one of these paths-less-traveled a few years back took me into a dense stand of cottonwoods overrun with invasive Russian olive trees. The trail eventually forked several times, but the reason was obvious: Deer were exiting here and there to bed. The following season I set a stand to watch this ambiguous trail and arrowed one of my top 10 bucks.

Rub Line Reveal

Don’t keep your attention focused entirely on the ground as you look for shed antlers and follow trails. Every so often direct your attention up to deer-eye level. You’re now scanning for rubs that accompany any trails you might be following. Of course the obvious reason to look for rubs is the fact it signifies a trail’s usage by bucks. That may sound silly, but bucks adhere to certain trails, especially those leading to large concentrations of females that they seek out during the rut. These rub-laden routes also signify a buck’s travel avenue toward refuge. In other words, they lead to the safest bedrooms on the property. We’ll talk about bedroom snooping later.

While examining rubs you need to become an expert in identifying the difference in fresh rubs from the previous fall as opposed to rubs left from a year or more in the past. Shiny, tan-colored rubs seeping with sap indicate a freshly made rub. Those rubs with gray or brown tinting that appear dry don’t signal a fresh rub, but shouldn’t be ignored either. They also hold valuable evidence as well. If you find a route that has old and new rubs alike along the route take note. It’s likely a pathway used year after year during the breeding season. It’s also a great pathway to success.

You guessed it: That trail-less-traveled I followed into the Russian mess had rubs every 20 to 30 yards. Many were old, but enough fresh rubs from the rut a few months earlier told me a few bucks were homeowners in this terrible tangle.

Scrapes to Success

OK, it’s time to direct your attention back to the ground while shed antler hunting and not for shiny objects. As you traverse trails and field edges, be watchful for scrapes from the previous fall. Old scrapes will be full of leaves that tumbled in October, but those that were working scrapes in November should still be relatively leaf-free. In fact, deer oftentimes keep scrapes open even into the winter freeze up. Those eager, adolescent bucks that were busy after the peak rut did you a major favor. It’s no secret that bucks may make a scrape and never visit it again, but strings of scrapes along primary travel routes oftentimes get used again and again, especially if they have the right overhanging limb.

One giant cedar tree in the bottom of an oak draw in Kansas where I hunt includes a series of scrapes leading to it and away from it in the same locations year after year. Plus, the cedar tree has no less than four active scrapes surrounding it. That’s the type of scrape activity you’re trying to pinpoint while hunting for bone.

On another property I shed hunt, a creek flooded a heavily used trail corridor in the lead-up to the rut. As the rut kicked off, the water receded and immediately the deer began using the travel route, plus they opened up traditional scrapes that just days before had been underwater. Never underestimate the importance of a monster scrape you discover in the spring.

Scrapes from the previous fall are usually clear of debris, and major scrapes could be used year after year.
Scrapes from the previous fall are usually clear of debris, and major scrapes could be used year after year.

Bedroom Bonus

After you’ve scoured the trails, edges and associated fields, it’s time to peek into the bedroom. Bedding areas are a key whitetail hangout, and the more you understand where deer bed the higher your odds will be of planning an appropriate ambush.

Some land managers never go into bedding cover. I don’t argue with their position, but I look at a whitetail’s world in a realistic nature. First, unless your property is several thousand acres, you simply can’t stop a whitetail from walking over property boundaries and bumping into other humans. In most whitetail regions deer interact with humans weekly, if not daily.

And keeping it realistic, your intrusion or two into revered bedding cover will likely be forgotten within a few days just as deer forget about marauding coyotes or other predators that roust them from naptime throughout the year. I wouldn’t make it a habit to barge into deer bedrooms, but an incursion or two while spring shed antler hunting still affords the local whitetail inhabitants four or more months to forget about you, and worry about tractors, chainsaws, black bears — you get the point, right?

Peeking into the bedroom is exciting, but don’t overlook noting the highest concentration of beds as you snoop among them for a bony treasure. As you wrap up your look around the deer dorm room, it’s then time to examine the perimeter. During hunting season you likely won’t invade the bedroom, but setting up perimeter ambushes could boost success in October and during the rut madness. October whitetails are just letting go of nocturnal tendencies so a nearby, bedroom ambush has merit. Rutting bucks sometimes chase through bedrooms at midday and an edge setup could also catch a buck off-guard. Scan the perimeter for obvious trails leading in and out using your other key indicators of buck activity, rubs and scrapes, as defining clues.

Take Notes

Depending on the size of your hunting property, you may have been able to make notes mentally on what you discovered during your shed hunting trips. Don’t bet on it. Instead of hoping for a last-minute photographic memory, keep track of your discoveries. If you’re old school you can simply jot down notes on a tablet or an actual topographical map. Even old-school hunters likely visit the worldwide web at home on a desktop. Some evening take your chicken scratch and transpose it on to a virtual map or better yet, on satellite imagery.

Google Earth offers a way to take field notes and plot them on an actual image. A smarter solution is to utilize specialized hunting apps such as HuntStand or onX Hunt that include features for property ownership, deer sign entry, information sharing, topographical overlays and hunting unit information. And with HuntStand you have access to the best forecasting with graphics that help you determine — in real time — the location of future stands while you hike.

The reason you want to transpose written or mental information on to an aerial image is to see the big picture. By looking down at the positioning of trails, rub lines and scrape routes, a vivid image may jump right out at you. Connecting the dots takes on a real meaning as you look down at all of your notes on an aerial image. Trails to and from bedding, and feeding areas begin to stand out, especially when you adorn them with the Christmas light dots indicating rubs and scrapes. Add in a topographical overlay and soon an old hunting property begins to take on a new life. Subtle routes along ridges, creek-bottom crossings and an overgrown irrigation ditch may be next year’s ambush setup.

A Midwest property I hunt year after year recently began to transform due to my shed hunting sorties and the associated information I gathered. Last season I started hunting a backdoor to a food plot that I would have likely never stumbled across had it not been for shed hunting and digitally jotting notes on my HuntStand app.

Rubs, scrapes and thick bedding cover leading to a food plot jumped out at me after posting the notes and looking down from above. What once was an overlooked entrance is now in the top three of stand locations leading to a hilltop food plot. It’s been a winning location for the past three years, and I see no reason why it won’t continue to be a winner thanks to my spring shed antler hunting.

After spring shed hunting, the author discovered new routes to a food plot, that provided an ambush for this mature whitetail buck.
After spring shed hunting, the author discovered new routes to a food plot, that provided an ambush for this mature whitetail buck.

Sidebar: Plan Wisely

Whitetails head into spring at their weakest health of the year. Bucks and does alike have burned off stored fat during the rut and whittled away any leftovers to keep warm during winter months. As much as 40 percent of daily, winter energy comes from those fat storages. Females are particularly fragile as they carry the precious cargo of future fawns. Any added anxiety could cause them to abort fawns, even if there is a hint of green on the ground. That’s why it is super important not to increase the stress on wildlife while you shed antler hunt.

Check on rules with your state wildlife department before hitting the fields as some states now have shed antler hunting seasons for public lands. Also try to plan your trips during warmer spring days to give animals a break if you do happen to bump them. Even then, if you do encounter wildlife, leave the area or circle wide to avoid having them sense your presence.

One of the tactics I employ is to visit whitetail areas depending on the schedule that they use. For example, a good time to look for shed antlers on a feeding field is midday since more than likely the deer will be back in bedding cover. Dawn and dusk are good times to poke around in bedding cover as deer will be vacating those areas to head toward food. Your observations will help you plan trips into whitetail habitat at the best times for minimal impact.

A final consideration I always employ is to minimize scent. If you’ve done your homework and visit whitetail hotspots when homeowners are likely away, you can further make yourself invisible by incorporating scent elimination products into your strategy. In addition to washing clothes in odor-fighting detergents, use scent-eliminating spray liberally on boots and equipment you take into deer haunts. Combined, your efforts will benefit the health and future of whitetails on your hunting property.

Photos by Mark Kayser

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