Trodding deliberately through an oak grove and the dynamic air of a fading season, swollen neck and tined, bone-white crown extended in hot-blooded search, the majesty of a mature, rutting whitetail buck commands a certain level of respect. We often calculate a buck’s stature as a product of that mesmerizing, ivory headgear. Yet, these materialistic appendages are dropped after their sexual purpose is served and testosterone levels dip post-rut.
Southeastern bucks typically drop their antlers in late winter as they, exhausted from the reproductive ritual, seek out scarce food supplies.
These shed antlers allow hunters and admirers of antlers to extend their bone seeking well after the deer season concludes.
Over the past decade, it seems, the practice of taking to the woods after hunting season in search of these dropped treasures has taken off. This practice has become particularly popular in the Midwest, where open farm country abounds, making sighting these treasures relatively easy. In the heavily forested east, however, finding shed antlers presents more of a challenge.
Tactical thinking can greatly increase the eastern shed hunters’ chances at locating (and noticing) their targets. Consider these as you take to the woods this winter.
Utilize the Weather
In Virginia, most bucks will drop their headgear sometime between January and late March. The actual time depends on the hormonal differences in individual animals. But, rest assured, most antlers will be on the ground by March.
Successful, Central Virginian shed hunter, Bill Weigold, finds it incredibly important to choose optimal shed-hunting weather that will make sighting antlers on the ground easy. This means avoiding times with patches of white, melting snow that can confuse the eye.
Other times, melting snow can influence deer movement by providing a rare feeding opportunity, providing hints as to where shed antlers might lay.
“One particular winter we had quite a bit of snow and a couple warm days cleared out some hillsides. I figured the deer would go where the food was available, and I found quite a few [sheds] there,” Weigold remembered.
Snow can never really be counted out in the Old Dominion until mid-spring, but once it is finally scarce, Weigold likes to target specific weather days, again, to make sighting dropped antlers relatively easy.
“My favorite time to look for sheds is on a cloudy day after rain,” he said. “The lack of sun eliminates distracting, bright glare on the ground.” Damp, drizzly days are also prime times to hunt. Leaves, dark from rain, and light antlers contrast much sharper than dry leaves illuminated by bright sun.
Shed hunting in the eastern, heavily-forested states is a challenge because of the distribution of deer across a wide range, and because of a cluttered forest floor that distracts the eye. So instead of covering miles and miles of ground aimlessly, it often pays to search small wildlife havens.
Several of the sheds in my own collection were found in a narrow swath of creek bottom forest pinned between busy state roads. Deer hunters know these small woodlots are often concentrated with deer. Shed hunter, Mark Taylor of Roanoke, reports success in scouring the small urban lots and parks of his home city, as well. Human dwellings displace deer, pushing them into these areas of relative seclusion, and where there are lots of deer, there are lots of antlers.
Search Escape Cover
As with any species of wildlife, prime habitat will be comprised of feeding stations, transitional bedding areas, and escape cover. Late winter bucks are both exhausted from the rut and very reclusive due to heavy hunting pressure throughout the fall and early winter. Thus, thick escape cover in relative proximity to a late winter food source—such as grass in a field or on a hillside—will house bucks during the antler-dropping period.
Naturally, areas where bucks spend the most time this time of year will be the shed hunter’s best bet for success. Weigold, who holds quite a collection of finds, says, “I go to the thickest stuff I can find!” Search escape and wintering cover thoroughly and you’re bound to be rewarded.
Whether you enjoy hunting or not, shed hunting provides participants with an excuse to revel in the awakening woods of late winter/early spring. If you’re lucky, you’ll be rewarded for your time on foot. Utilize these tips this month to increase your success and findings.