By Casey Breeds
Casey is an avid outdoorsman based in Massachusetts.
Depending on the day he can be found in the woods, climbing a mountain or on a river fly fishing.
March 19, 2021
I pause to take in the scene before me, the last rays of the setting sun reflect off the snow as winter’s cold wind stings my face. I take a deep breath and keep moving, the snow crunching under my boots. I’m following a well-worn deer trail in the hard January snow and notice a group of small pines with a track diverging towards it. I follow it to the trees and there next to a large bed is the first shed of the season; a fresh drop with blood still on the pedicle. I snap some photos and place the nice 5-point side in my pack, mark the spot on my GPS and do a quick search for the other side. The match does not turn up. I have a couple miles to go to get back to the car, so I work my way swiftly out of the darkening woods.
Some might wonder why we shed hunt, but there are many benefits in searching for nature’s crown, the white tail antler. Knowing which deer have made it through the hunting and winter seasons can help set a plan for next fall. Shed hunting is also a great way to get your family and friends active in the outdoors. Nothing beats seeing the excitement of your spouse or child as they find their first shed. After a long winter spent indoors the exercise and Vitamin D provide a much-needed boost to your personal health as well.
So where do you begin? For many, public land is a great place to start. Thankfully, many states have set aside Wildlife Management Areas for public use. Even better are lands for public use with deer hunting restrictions; if deer have a safety zone, that’s where they will be. With any growing sport, you’ll need to be conscious that to find success you may need to go further and work harder than the next hunter.
Shed hunting is an ideal hobby for someone looking to spend hours in the woods hiking varied terrain. Get ready by factoring in the weather, which can vary greatly during the late winter and early spring seasons. For spotting sheds, damp cloudy days are best; the colors of the woods become muted, and the bone will really shine especially against a dark forest floor. Bright sunny days can hinder your vision, and the blown highlights makes spotting tines difficult. Deer can cover ground effortlessly. It amazes me where deer tracks lead, jagged ledges, steep leaf covered ridges and even long runs through an open forest.
A deer’s diet may be the most important factor in finding sheds. Knowing what and where the deer are eating will help you follow them to bedding and cover. Along the runs, at their food source and in the bedding is where you will find their antlers, it is as simple as that. Here in the Northeast, acorns are the number one crop to easily locate deer. With snow on the ground, it is not hard to find where they have been feeding. They will use their hooves to scrape away the snow to reveal the acorns. This feeding habit leaves a very distinct area of upturned leaves in the woods that should be easier to key in on. Simply follow their tracks to the nearest elevated knoll, pine grove and sunny edge to find their bedding. Beds will be oval shaped and often close together. Bucks will leave a much larger oval and tend to be more spaced apart or solitary. I keep my eyes peeled for on scat size to help me differentiate if large bucks are in the area.
Being able to cover more ground by bringing a partner and splitting up along deer trails can greatly increase your success. Two-way radios can be a fun and efficient way to communicate which way you’ll be headed. If you hunt alone, binoculars are a key tool I use to cover ground more efficiently. Using them can be a game changer in determining whether a root or stick looks like an antler at 50 ft away. Navigation and land maps are another invaluable tool I use. Studying these maps for edges, funnels and property boundaries will help you formulate a plan for each hunt. Tracking software will allow you to mark rub lines, trails, and bedding locations for future use. Landowner information on these maps will help you know which house to approach for permission to access their land.
This season we are adding another tool to our belt; we have been training our puppy Moki to become a shed dog. I am loving the process and sharing the woods with him has been a great addition to our family hunts. Just as hunting with a partner can increase your chance for success, a trained dog can be the perfect companion to cover more ground and smell antlers that you may never see.
I never did find the other side of that antler back in January. In fact, it’s often hard to match up the sides from a buck. With one antler possibly staying attached for a few more days, they could be miles apart. When you do find an antler mark the spot on a GPS or your phone; this will give you a reference point of where to start a circle or grid search. If you are not able to locate it right away do not give up, you may still find it on another hunt. I hope using some of these tips and tricks will make your next hunt one to remember.