By Joe Shead
Slowly, carefully, a hunter picks his path through a dense stand of white cedars where he knows a buck has found food and shelter from deep snow and cold. Heavy snowfall in the highlands forced the old buck down to the Lake Superior shore, where only a few inches of snow blanketed the ground. Here, in this cedar-swamp deer yard, the cagey whitetail could outrun hungry wolves and subsist on cedar boughs. The hunter learned this and other lessons from spending countless hours each year in the woods; that's why he concentrates his efforts here.
The hunter spies an antler tine through the thick cover. And then, with one motion, he scoops the shed antler from the forest duff, smiles, and silently congratulates the old buck on surviving another long, brutal winter.
Shed hunters aren't bound by seasons or bag limits. Anyone who knows where and when to look for antlers, and a little bit about the winter habits of bucks and bull moose, has a chance to come home with a prize.
Shed hunters gather antlers as material to make art and crafts, as a means of scouting for next year's deer hunting season, or simply as objects of natural beauty.
Antlers are a renewable resource. Bull moose and whitetail bucks begin growing their first set of antlers in spring when they're about 11 months old.
An expandable, hairlike material called velvet covers growing antlers. These hairs -- as well as a network of nerves within the antlers -- detect objects such as branches. Though a deer might not be able to see its antlers, this nerve network gives him a good sense of their height and width. This phenomenon is known as a kinesthetic sense. Just as we humans have no trouble anticipating how far to bend down as we sit, even though we can't see our backsides, bucks and bull moose can quickly navigate through dense cover without snagging their antlers.
In late summer as testosterone levels rise once again, the layer of soft, spongy tissue under the velvet begins to mineralize and harden. Gradually, the mineralization moves inward and upward from the base of the antler. Blood flow constricts as the antler calcifies and becomes denser. Blood vessels in the velvet also constrict, and the velvet dies and dries out. So too dies the antler.
Deer rub on trees to help peel away the velvet. They frequently eat the protein-rich velvet shards. Once velvet is removed, hardened antlers are revealed. They consist of an outer sheath of compact bone with a slightly spongier core. This softer core helps absorb the clash of antlers when the males fight to establish dominance and mating rights.
Antlers also serve as true signs of health and vigor. A large rack can only be grown once skeletal growth is complete and deer can devote more energy to antler growth and less to body growth. As such, a large rack is visually attractive to prospective mates, who know the male is mature. A large set of antlers can also ward off rival males without a fight because they know by one look at the antlers that the bearer is mature and healthy.
In winter, antlers grow increasingly brittle. The shedding process is amazingly fast and simple. You could drag a buck by its antlers one day, and the antlers would fall off under their own weight the next.
Divining for Whitetail Sheds. Whitetails usually drop their antlers from December through March. Stress -- caused by scarce food, harsh weather, and physical exhaustion from the rut -- causes some animals to shed earlier than less-stressed individuals.
It's often easiest to find antlers after the winter snow has receded and uncovered sheds. One of the best times to seek sheds is on overcast days after a rain, when dampness mats down the forest duff and helps antlers pop out from their surroundings. It's best not to delay your shed excursions too long because squirrels, mice, and porcupines -- chewing on an antler for its mineral content -- can consume it all in a matter of weeks.
Because whitetails live almost anywhere in Minnesota, you can likewise find their sheds statewide. Places with large populations of deer are, of course, more likely to hold more sheds. Think of where you see deer in late winter. Many people find antlers in suburban woodlots or even under backyard bird feeders. Find a place that has winter food and shelter for deer, and you've got the right spot.
Deer often shed while feeding because they bump their antlers on the ground or snag them on brush or cornstalks. Because deer are fond of farm crops, fields of corn, soybeans, rye, and alfalfa are excellent places to find sheds. (Make sure to get the landowner's permission to search there.) In the winter woods, deer eat a variety of natural browse, such as dogwood, aspen, and white cedar. In cities and suburbs, deer congregate to eat shrubs and other plants and even birdseed beneath bird feeders.
As you walk down a deer trail, the antlers will be right at your feet. But you can cover miles of deer trails without ever finding an antler. The best places to search? Focus your efforts on fence crossings, stream crossings, and trails that run through thickets or under low-hanging evergreens -- anywhere a buck might jump and jar loose an antler.
Because deer must conserve energy to survive harsh winters, they spend a lot of time resting in bedding areas that protect them from deep snow and cold. Deer typically seek dense stands of young coniferous trees, such as pine, spruce, and cedar, which block body-heat-robbing wind.
A lone evergreen can also be an attractive bedding site. A shed antler under a lone tree will almost always be on the south side, where deer can take advantage of solar heat.
In areas where evergreen cover isn't available, deer bed down on south-facing hillsides, where winter sunlight is direct and snow cover is lighter. Other potential bedding places include creek bottoms, wooded draws, and thickets of red osier dogwood and alder.
When searching for deer bedding areas, keep in mind that bucks and does typically separate in winter, and it's the buck's spot you seek. Single urine holes burned into the snow indicate does. Bucks spray when they urinate. Small tracks and droppings left by fawns also point to does. Other signs of a buck's bedding place include rubs on trees, antler imprints in snow from feeding, and tracks with unusually wide gait and stride.
Mike Lindquist of Richmond is one of Minnesota's best moose-shed hunters. He typically finds 30 to 40 moose antlers every year, and he's found some of the largest matched sets in the state. Lindquist recommends scouting to see where moose are hanging out in winter, then visiting those same spots after the snow melts.
"Moose like low areas but will also do a lot of feeding on poplar, alder, and birch saplings," he says. "Look for 7- to 10-year-old poplar regrowth. Areas that have recently been logged are also good places to start." Deep snow can sometimes push moose to clear, open areas and trails.
Lindquist says that when you get into an area where moose have been spending a lot of time in winter, you'll know it. "You can tell an area is 'moosey' by the amount of browsing on the tops of the young saplings and brush," he says. "It's almost like it's all been mowed by a blade set at 6 feet." Broken poplar and birch tips indicate moose feeding. Moose walk over young trees, bending and breaking them with their snout to browse on tender young tips.
Successful shed hunters often walk slowly, almost as if trying to sneak up on an antler. A slow pace gives a hunter's eyes time to scour the ground for an antler tine, curving main beam, or rough base poking out from the brush or grass.
Discovering an antler lying on the ground is exciting. But before you begin celebrating, take a look around because sometimes you'll find the matching antler within sight of the first. Deer typically drop their antlers within three days of each other. However, for reasons yet unknown, a buck might carry one antler for an entire month after shedding the first.
If the second antler is going to fall off on the same day, it often falls within minutes of the first. If a deer trail is visible, walk up and down it for 100 yards in both directions. If you can't find deer tracks, walk in ever-widening circles radiating out from the shed for 100 yards, covering the ground in a tight grid. Also check out any nearby fresh rubs. Moose in particular might try to rub the second antler off against a tree to restore balance, because a moose shed weighs about 20 pounds.
"I enjoy searching for moose antlers because of the feeling of isolation. Miles and miles of solitary backcountry roaming can be rewarded through a mixture of persistence and knowledge of where to look and where not to look. A little luck doesn't hurt either," says Lindquist. "Somehow carrying 55 pounds of antler a couple miles back to camp doesn't seem that difficult. Your once-burning, sore legs have a regenerated sense of energy."
Perhaps the most important trait of shed hunters is patience. It takes a long time to learn how whitetails and moose move through the forest. But if you keep hunting and concentrate on the sign around you, you'll find antlers.
Joe Shead is the former managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine. His book Shed Hunting is available at www.goshedhunting.com.