Updated: Mar 10, 2022
With winter in full swing, cabin fever is slowly creeping in on outdoorsmen and women. The thought of upcoming warmer weather makes it so tempting to hit the woods and find the sheds from the buck that got away. Shed “Hunting” has become more and more popular in recent years. Like any other aspect of hunting, gathering information and doing your research can make you more successful in the hunt for sheds this spring.
Where to Start
With some tweaking, strategies hunters use to find live deer during hunting season can also be used to understand deer movement and increase your chances of finding sheds. Understanding how deer move after rut is over and there are no more does in heat, a deer’s basic needs change from breeding drive to the drive to survive cold winters. Food,
Thermal Cover, and Security are the three basic necessities deer need to thrive in cold and adverse weather.
Food: Deer are browsers by nature. With a nose more than 100 times better than a humans, deer are able to find and dig up food sources like blackberries, green briar, saplings and other woody vegetation that may be covered up by the snow. Food that is planted, whether in an agricultural field or planted by a hunter in the woods, is the most recognizable food source in the winter. Standing corn, beans, winter wheat or rye, and frost hardy food plots are excellent sources of winter time food. Fall Frenzy food plot is a frost hardy brassica blend that provides a long-lasting food source deer are constantly in from fall to late winter. Finding out where different food sources are located in regards to other vital winter survival needs can help identify areas to look for sheds or to back track and find bedding.
Thermal Cover: Whether it is the scorching heat of the summer or the frigid temperatures and snow in the winter, thermal cover is an essential habitat type to consider when scouting or managing a piece of property. Thermal cover, both in the summer and winter, are areas of cover that deer can find shelter in to escape extreme temperatures. The most common thermal cover in the winter are conifers, like cedars, pines and hemlocks, because their dark green foliage absorbs heat, trapping heat in, and providing cover as a windbreak. Protection from the elements means that deer can better regulate their body temperature and more efficiently use their energy.
Security: Mature bucks have been around the block a few times and know how to move around from season to season without being detected by both two-legged and four-legged predators. Infamous “ghost” bucks that many hunters lose sleep over, don’t just disappear out of thin air. Using travel corridors in the landscape or edges and slash created by logging or farming can serve as cover for deer to sneak from one area to the next undetected. Areas with thick cover give deer a sense of security and they frequent those areas in the winter, especially if the area is a transition area that leads from thermal cover or bedding to food.
Knowing When to Start
Finding a shed is like a literal reward when scouting an area you have hunted your entire life or an area that you have never been to before. It takes dedication to put miles upon miles on your boots after season looking for the sheds of the bucks that you couldn’t harvest, but knowing the biology behind why and when bucks shed their antlers can save you time and energy by knowing when is the most opportune time to look for those tines sticking up behind a log or under that tree. Some bucks will drop their antlers earlier or later than other bucks a few hills or a couple counties over, and there are a variety of reasons why bucks shed their antlers at different times than another. It can be extremely tempting when you see posts on social media of someone finding a shed early in winter. Don't get me wrong, finding any shed, big or small, is an accomplishment, but bucks that drop their antlers early more than likely have endured a major stress event, like an injury or lack of proper nutrition, that caused them to prematurely shed their antlers. Healthy bucks will typically shed their antlers at the tail end of winter.
Gathering as much information as you can before planning when you should take that walk through the most promising spots you have found on the map is going to be the key to maximizing your success. Trail cameras are an extremely efficient way to keep tabs on your target bucks and get an understanding of when the deer in your area are starting to drop their antlers. Depending on the laws in your area, winter feeding and attractants are an excellent way to provide an additional beneficial food source for the wildlife in your area. Putting out some Buck Yeah! feed in front of a trail camera is a great way to keep track of the bucks coming in for a snack they can’t resist. Like with most other food sources, when bucks drop their heads to eat, they may even drop their antlers right there at your feed site. Going into your areas too early could bump bucks off onto the neighboring property and dropping their antlers in an area you don’t have access to. So, putting thought and time into reviewing trail camera pictures and weighing your options can increase your chances of finding sheds this season.
Getting your Hands on White Gold
Now that you've done your homework, it's time to take your new found knowledge to the woods. If your luck is like mine, even with all the preparation in the world, you are not guaranteed to find sheds on your first or even first few trips out. Everyone always thinks that an antler not attached to a deer’s head should stick out like a sore thumb on the forest floor, but it really does take some training of your eyes and brain to be able to pick them out among the leaves and brush. Once you get the hang of what to be looking for and using the following tips, your chances of putting your hands on more sheds than the year before will increase before you know it.
Grid Searching: Just like you would if you lose blood on the trail of deer you’ve shot, grid searching and strategically covering as much ground as possible can increase your chances of spotting sheds. This strategy is great for when there are multiple habitat types, like thermal cover, food and security, in close proximity to one another. There are always bucks that drop their sheds in the sneakiest places, but grid searching can help you best cover an area and find as many sheds as possible.
Paying Attention to Crossings: I know it may sound basic, but some of the best places to pay close attention to are crossings. Crossings can be anywhere where you see a trail or know of a place where you always see deer crossing over creeks, logs, other trails, fences, and even roads. These areas are good places to check for sheds because when a buck jumps over to the other side of whatever barrier they are trying to cross, the large jolt of landing on the other side may be enough force to make the antlers fall off right then and there.
More Eyes: Getting a group together to scout and shed hunt an area can increase your odds of finding the majority of the sheds in your area. An added benefit of having a group of people go with you to shed hunt, is the time you are saving yourself from having to walk that whole area by yourself versus the one or two passes it could take with a few people that provide an extra set of feet and eyes to cover more area quicker. Like most hunters, we do enjoy our alone time in the woods, but the comradery of getting a group together and making a day out of spending time in the woods with your friends can be much more fun. Joining groups, like Cervicide, are a great way to connect with other hunters who share the same passion for the outdoors as you.
Train a Dog: Training dogs to find sheds has gained popularity in recent years, because what better way to enjoy your hobbies than sharing them with your four-legged friends. With a sense of smell thousands of times better than a humans and incredible energy and drive, a properly trained dog can greatly increase your chances of finding more sheds. Any breed of dog can be trained to find sheds, but the most common breed you can see being trained as shed dogs are Retrievers: Golden, Labrador, and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. Training supplies from Gun Dog Supply are outstanding field proven products that will ensure your dog gets the best training it deserves. Almost as simple as training a dog to sit, there are so many resources out there to add “Finding Sheds” to your dogs list of skill sets. The pure joy on our dog’s face when they bring you back antler after antler is just as rewarding as adding those sheds to your collection and being able to say the dog you trained found those sheds is priceless.
Shed hunting can be frustrating at times, but with these tips and tricks you will find more sheds this season. Get out there and enjoy the time with your friends and four-legged companions looking for those massive tines peaking up behind a fence row, sticking in the mud on a creek crossing or laying underneath a hemlock. Always remember, if it looks like a stick, it probably is, but check it anyway.