Story and photos by: Jana Waller
Shed hunting is the act of looking for deer, elk or even moose antlers that annually ‘shed’ off the animal’s skull.
When it comes to shed hunting, consistent success involves a ton of luck mixed with a little bit of skill and a whole lot of cardio. I’m by no means a ‘shed expert’ but over the last three decades, I’ve had fun searching for shed antlers and I've learned a thing or two that might help you find more fun than frustration while shed hunting. These are some of my go-to tips and tricks for new shed hunters who venture out in the spring in search of mountain gold.
A lot of shed hunting success depends on the timing. If you’re searching too early in the spring, deer and elk are still ‘packing’ as we say. It can be enticing to get out early to search for sheds when the sun is shining and it's finally nice weather after a long winter. There’s also the hope of beating other shed enthusiasts to public land spots. Whitetails usually shed in February and March, but that can also vary depending on what part of the country you’re in. The big bucks tend to shed first, and they can drop their antlers as soon as December and January. That’s a bit early regardless of where you live but there’s always a chance to find an early shedder. Muleys tend to shed in February and March out west but as I’m writing this blog, it’s March 13 and I saw three Muley bucks still packing today. Elk shed later than deer, typically in late March and April, but just like deer, there are the occasional early droppers. If it’s an early spring and the weather’s beautiful, I always have the attitude that any hike for sheds is worth the exercise if for nothing more than scenery. Occasionally, those early hikes can yield a white shed from last year if it's an area you haven't covered in a while. You'll want to be cautious of bumping the deer and elk out of your area in the effort. Moose shed even earlier than deer and elk, so if you’re in moose country, check the paths of least resistance. Logging roads, open creak bottoms and skidder trails are great spots to find moose paddles once the snow has cleared.
SOUTH FACING SLOPES
Deer and elk like to bed on south facing slopes where the sun shines in late winter. There is less snow and warmer temperatures during the day facing south. I’ve had a lot of luck glassing open south facing mountain ridges.
If you know of areas that deer like to bed during the day, that’s a great spot to look for sheds! Good bedding areas typically have a lot of cover and runways or obvious game trails leading to and from. Bedding areas tend to be fairly close to food sources in the winter so they don't have to expend a lot of energy in the colder months.
When deer or elk have to jump a fence line, the impact can often cause the antler or antlers to fall off when they are close to coming off naturally. I have found many sheds over the years by simply strolling down barbed wire fences.
Deer and elk tend to use the same routes to and from their routine bedding and feeding areas. Their paths, otherwise called game trails or runways, are fantastic places to look for sheds! I can’t count how many times I’ve been heading in one direction and changed up my plan after finding a nice worn-down game trail which lead me to a shed.
Searching near water sources is another great tip. Whether it’s a typical pond, creek, river or lake where deer and elk get their water, or even a water trough, it’s a reason for animals to lower their heads, often bumping their antlers on the ground or on one another, causing them to fall a little sooner than they naturally would.
THESE BOOTS WERE MADE FOR WALKING
Like hunting, the more time you put in, the better chances you’ll have for success. I know a lot of diehard shed hunters who put on dozens of mountain miles each day afield. It’s their passion, their exercise and their escape. They learn the terrain, know where the deer and elk typically shed every year and have great success on public land. They earn those sheds by putting in the time. Private land can be a little easier since you’re not competing with other eyes (you hope!). Even with a new private land shed hunting opportunity, whether it’s your place or you gained access by a nice private landowner, I’d recommend taking a look at the property with the use of the OnX Hunt app. The app shows boundaries, landowner names, public land types and now, their 3D maps make it easier to understand how the animals move throughout the property. You can also mark your map where you’ve found sheds and see patterns after years of marking your waypoints. Speaking of ‘putting your time in’, I actually find more sheds in the course of a year when I’m hunting, simply because I spend so much time outdoors. It’s always so much fun when you’re on a hunt and stumble across a “nature gift,” as I like to call them.
There's always a chance of finding a shed if you're in areas that hold big game. Luck definitely plays a part but if you're armed with some basic knowledge of where game animals tend to winter, their specific bedding and feeding areas and their travel routes, you're on the road to success. It's the equivalent of an exciting Easter egg hunt...but better!
The big question for some of you might be, "Now what? What do you do with your sheds?" I love to display mine around my house in baskets, on tables and dressers and against the fireplace. I've seen them used for lamps, chandeliers and other furniture. For me personally, I don't search for sheds for a specific purpose as much as I do for the excuse to get outside and the rush of finding them before the weather and the squirrels do. Happy hunting!