Believe it or not, a deer’s head is not the only place you can find antlers. Since they shed every year, many people have started taking to the woods to look for this wonder of nature that has inspired us for thousands of years. If you’d like to start hunting for shed antlers, there are eight main places you should look as well as some tips and tricks to follow to increase your chances of success.
What Is Shed Hunting?
Shed hunting is the art, science or whatever else you want to call it of finding antlers that have been shed by some member of the deer family. In North America, this mainly means elk, moose, mule deer, whitetail deer or even caribou, with whitetail deer antlers being the most common finds in most of the eastern United States.
With the exception of the caribou (also known as reindeer), only the males of these species grow antlers, and they grow a whole new pair each year and then shed it after the mating season or rut. The shedding process is a lot like a child losing a tooth, with the entire antler falling off and remaining preserved on the ground where you can find it.
While all whitetail bucks shed their antlers each year, they can still be difficult to find since they usually get buried in snow, brush and dirt and are located in deep wood cover. For this reason, knowing how to find deer antlers in the woods has evolved into a full-blown hobby and skill set.
What Time Should You Start Shed Hunting?
Early to mid March is the ideal time to start shed hunting. Here’s why.
Whitetail bucks shed their antlers on a fairly predictable yearly schedule. The rut occurs in the fall, usually during November, when the does go into estrus so that they can give birth to fawns in the spring when they’ll have the best chance of survival. After the rut, a buck’s testosterone levels drop, and his antlers fall off.
The first bucks start shedding their antlers at the beginning of January, but some may not shed until late March. This is usually tied to the buck’s maturity with older, more dominant bucks shedding sooner. The result is that the bigger racks will be on the ground earlier in the year.
That said, while you may be tempted to hit the trail on New Year’s Day, it’s advisable to wait until March for a few reasons:
- You want to minimize cover. Early in the winter like in January, snow may likely hide the antlers. Meanwhile, by April green plant cover will be in the way.
- More sheds increases your chances. By the end of March, just about all the bucks will have shed their antlers. This means it’s much more likely you’ll find one even if it’s not the biggest.
- Early shed hunting may push other bucks out of the area. If you start spending a lot of time looking for antlers in a certain area, the bucks will migrate away, possibly before they shed their antlers. This will decrease your chances of finding anything.
- There may actually be a shed hunting season in your state or area. To avoid putting too much stress on wildlife during the winter, game officials in many places have started instituting actual shed hunting seasons, usually starting in March or April, thereby restricting early shed hunting. Check your local laws to be sure.
8 Best Places to Shed Hunt
It’s always possible to just head into a field or wooded area and accidentally find a shed. Nevertheless, knowing where to find deer antlers can increase your chances. Spend extra time looking in the following eight places.
1. Farming Fields
After the rut, bucks are starving—literally. They’ve just spent over a month fighting and chasing does while paying little attention to eating. Now they’re hungry, but it’s winter, and there’s little to eat.
It’s no surprise then that bucks are especially drawn to agricultural plots in the winter at the same time they’re shedding their antlers. This could be farmers’ fields or feeding plots you’ve specifically planted for a herd. Recently harvested corn fields are one of the best places since bucks will come to eat the leftovers and may shed their antlers.
2. Natural Feeding Areas
Aside from manmade fields, you’re also likely to find antlers in or around areas of natural deer food sources. Not only do they spend a lot of time there eating, but they’ll also spend their downtime nearby as well to conserve energy during the harsh winter.
In the winter, food is scarce for deer, so they have fewer options. A big staple is acorns. Check around large patches of oak trees.
3. Deer Bedding Areas
Just like humans, deer spend a significant portion of their lives sleeping. There’s a good chance a buck’s antlers will fall out while he’s asleep, so that’s a prime place to shed hunt.
Buck bedding areas are identifiable by the circular depressions they make in the grass, brush or dirt. Bucks especially like bedding on the crests of ridges or in peninsulas sticking into marshes or ponds. In the winter they’re likely to bed near feeding areas, too.
4. Tall Grass and Thick Brush
Tall grass or thick brush is a difficult place to look for antlers simply because it’s harder to see them. Unfortunately, though, it’s also one of the most likely places for antlers to fall. That’s because, not only do bucks prefer traveling and spending their time in areas of thick cover, but it’s also more likely in these places that a branch or stalk catches his antler and jostles it off.
5. Southern Exposures
Deer like to lie in the sun just like cats and people. This is especially true in the winter when it’s cold. Open southern exposures on hills or ridges are good places to check for antlers. They usually don’t have too much cover either, making the antlers easier to spot.
6. Near Fences and Ditches
When a buck gets to a fence or ditch, he has to leap to cross it. This exaggerated movement can jostle his loose antlers and make them fall out. Check along the edges of these structures.
7. Near Streams
Similar to a ditch, a buck may jump to cross a small stream, which could knock his antlers off. More importantly, deer drink at streams, usually with a lot of head movements. They bend down to drink and jerk their heads up if they hear any noises. Consequently, stream banks are prime shed hunting territory.
8. Travel Routes
Game trails and travel routes are likely places to find whitetail deer antlers. A buck will sometimes run quickly through a travel corridor, and a low-hanging branch can easily catch his antler and pop it off.
You can easily find deer travel corridors by looking for areas where the ground cover or dirt is worn down in a line. These are usually in logical places like through cols and along ridges because deer, just like humans, tend to take the path of least resistance.
Some Tips for Successful Shed Hunting
You might get excited to find this season’s sheds, but don’t zip around the woods so fast you walk right over an antler. Take your time and walk deliberately, scanning the ground as you go.
Walk a Lot
If there are whitetails in your area, there’s more than likely at least one shed somewhere. But whitetail deer have large ranges, and they can shed their antlers anywhere. It’s not uncommon for serious shed hunters to put in over 15 miles in a day, covering all the possible locations we discussed above.
Use Good Light
Antlers easily look like sticks and blend in with the forest. For best shed hunting, go when the light is best: a clear day starting early in the morning to take advantage of the high sun.
Don’t Strain Your Eyes
If you’ve ever tried to find a four-leaf clover, you know that looking too hard just makes everything blend into one so that it’s impossible to see individual patterns. While you’re shed hunting, just lightly scan the ground without staring at any one area too long. You’ll be surprised how easily your eyes can pick up antlers even amongst thick brush.
Also, give your eyes an occasional rest. Look up from the ground every few minutes.
Keep a Shed Journal
For each shed you find, record where, when and how you found it. This is interesting to have in and of itself, but it can also help you find sheds faster the next season.
Look for Bald Bucks
A good way to know if there are sheds around is to look for bucks who don’t have any antlers. Bucks can travel long distances, of course, but if you catch a bald buck on your trail cam or trying to eat your flower bed, his antlers have to be somewhere.
Ask Permission for Secluded Areas
Unless you have a large piece of property, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to take advantage of all of the best places to look for shed antlers. Don’t be afraid to ask for your neighbor’s permission to check a ridgeline or stream. After all, you’re not hunting, just looking for antlers. Additionally, call your local game officials to see if you can shed hunt on public land.
Use Your Dog
Dogs have become increasingly popular in shed hunting. They can be easily trained to look for antlers and love doing it.
Even if you have an old dog who can’t learn the new trick of shed hunting, you can still bring him along. It makes the experience more fun, and you never know, he might just dig up a stick that turns out to be a five-point antler.
Check Your Local Laws
Before shed hunting anywhere, it’s important to check the laws regulating it in your area. As the practice has gotten more popular, some officials have begun instituting seasons and controlling where you’re allowed to look, whether you can use dogs, how many you can take, etc. If you’re unsure, give your local fish and wildlife commission a call.
What Can You Do With Shed Antlers?
Like snowflakes, no two antlers are alike, making them beautiful and striking natural decorations. Aside from displaying as is in your home, many shed hunters have found creative ways to incorporate them into artwork, light fixtures and even furniture. Get creative and let us know what you’ve come up with in the comments.