Introduction to Antler Shed Hunting

Jared Mills • March 09, 2023

Early March in the Midwest... The days lengthen and the itch to get out and do some scouting and field work intensifies. That means it’s time to log miles on the boots in hopes of piling up some shed antlers.

What is shed hunting?

Shed hunting is an annual activity in which hunters and non-hunters alike hit the outdoors in search for freshly cast antlers. The process of antler casting is a fascinating one, and it can vary in timing based on a number of factors. But essentially, whitetail bucks cast, or shed, their antlers every winter before growing a new set each Spring. This is also true for other members in the deer family, such as elk, mule deer, and moose.

The excitement of finding shed antlers makes for an entertaining pastime. It’s more relaxed and laid back in nature compared to hunting, making for a great opportunity to get the whole family involved, including our four-legged friends. Plus, it’s great exercise and as a hunter, you can learn a lot about the deer you’re hunting in the process.

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When is the best time to go shed hunting?

As mentioned, the timing of deer shedding their antlers can vary from animal to animal and can be affected by things like weather, stress, and testosterone levels. But in general, I like to focus most of my efforts around the beginning of March here where I’m located in Iowa. If you go too early, there will still be a large percentage of bucks still holding on to their head gear, therefore fewer sheds available to find. You could also risk spooking some of these bucks over to neighboring properties. I also don’t like to go during times of severe cold weather and add stress to the deer that are trying to conserve their energy. On the flip side of going early, if you wait too long, you risk the antlers being found by somebody else or something else. In wooded areas, squirrels, mice and other critters like to chew on them, and they can do a number on a shed antler in a short period of time. The other thing that can dictate when I start searching is what I see on trail cameras. I like to continue to run these and monitor which bucks are still holding their antlers and which have shed, and I’ll make decisions on when and where to go based on that.

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Where is the best place to look?

The obvious answer here is to focus on where the deer are this time of year. For the most part, deer are fairly routine during these months, moving from bedding to food and back again. However, I personally find way more sheds in bedding areas or travel routes than in feeding areas. During the late winter months, deer still like to bed in secure areas, which often means in or near thick cover. Places that are sheltered from the wind, such as conifer stands that also provide some thermal cover are good bets. Deer like spots that the sun hits as well to provide a little extra warmth or snow melt. This makes south facing slopes a great spot to look. Hillsides and high points are great but don’t overlook the subtle elevation changes either, I have found a good number of antlers just on the north side of a creek bank that received sunlight most of the day.

Travel routes can also be a great spot. Oftentimes deer trails are much more pronounced this time of year, making them easily visible. Pay close attention to spots where deer cross, whether it be a creek, a ditch, or a fence.

Food sources can vary greatly from one area to another, so if you can, take note of where you see the majority of the deer feeding in the evenings this time of year. Here in Iowa, the destination food spots each night are usually agricultural corn and soybean fields. While I don’t find too many of them laying out in the middle of these fields, I do find a fair number of sheds in waterways and grassy spots that are adjacent to these fields, places where the deer will bed throughout the night in between feeding. Also keep in mind that the deer also spend a lot of time-consuming natural browse within the timber, usually throughout the day.

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What are some tips to find more shed antlers?

While there is no substitute for simply putting the time in and racking up the miles to find the most antlers, there are a few things that have helped me be more successful over the years. The first is to use a scanning technique with your eyes rather than simply walking around looking for a full deer antler. I try to go back and forth to my left and right while specifically looking for two aspects of a deer antler. The first thing I scan for is a row of vertical lines similar in color, which would match the tines sticking off an antler’s beam. The second thing is something with a curvature, which would represent the main beam on an antler. In an environment of mostly jagged lines, a curved one can stand out if you’re looking for it. By being more specific in my search, I think I have missed fewer antlers over the years.

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You can also carry a shed antler along and occasionally toss it out in front of you to find it again. This helps train your eyes to what you’re looking for, and helps you practice picking it out in a variety of scenes. Another thing you should carry with you is a set of binoculars. You can save a lot of time and steps by glassing antler-like objects in the distance as opposed to walking all the way over to check to see what it is.

Another tip is to go out on rainy or cloudy days. Shed antlers stick out much more when you don’t have to deal with variable lighting conditions and all the shadows that the sun creates. And when things are wet from a rain, the leaves and debris are often matted down and not camouflaging parts of antlers.

The best tip I can offer though is to slow down. It’s easy to get caught up in the search and move faster to try and cover more ground in a set amount of time. But the faster you go, the higher likelihood you have of walking past shed antlers. In addition, the slower and more methodical you walk, the less your vision level changes, making your scanning more effective.

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Some days will be easier than others for sure, so don’t get discouraged if you have some outings where you don’t come up with antlers. But, when you have a good day, it’ll keep you coming back for more. So get out, cover some ground, and enjoy some time with family and friends outdoors.

--Jared Mills