To most people, the first thing they think of when someone says ‘sheds’ is the place where you keep you Christmas decorations and lawnmower. To a deer hunter, the word says populates mental flashes of mounts on a wall, antlers in the woods, and the promise of what got away.
Sheds after all, are the antlers dropped by whitetail and mule deer in the spring months.
How do antlers grow during the year?
Deer antlers (not a horn, get it right) are made of solid bone and are shed and regrown every year by adult male deer. When bucks reach six months, they will begin to develop their first small sets of ‘cow horns’ or ‘spikes’.
These antlers will begin to break the skin in the last week of March or first part of April, By May these antlers will be developing velvet and over the summer forks and tines will form. By august these will start to harden and the buck will scrape the velvet off before the first cool breeze of fall. They start to shed after the rut period where bucks compete for breeding does and by mid-march, these will have dropped off.
When is the best time to look?
As spring develops and the bucks drop their tines, April Fool’s Day is what a lot of deer hunters refer to as the “Opening of Shed season.” Throughout the cool months of spring, with a good pair of boots and thick socks, the best sheds are found. Once summer has come, it is often hard to find random deer antlers due to high grass, weeds, and seasonal growth.
Following the summer’s grass, the heavy dusting of oak tree leaves and pine straw in the fall will further end your search. Although some scavengers such as raccoon and coyotes will occasionally scatter, drag away, or devour calcium-rich polished sheds, it is not uncommon to find sheds that are from the year previous the following spring.
Where should I look?
Classically, think to yourself, ‘if I were a deer, what where would I looks my rack at?’ This school of thought is the most valid when searching. Where would a loose antler fall off? Look around fences, barbed wire, logs, and obstacles especially along trails and breaks. Often deer will lose one-half of their rack naturally and then work to break the other half off on a nearby tree or fencepost to even him out.
This usually produces the phenomena of finding one set stuck in a fence from two miles down the trail where you found the first half on an earlier scouting trip. More often than not, it is rare to find both sets of antlers
Effective search methods
You can wander around the woods all day like Hansel and Gretel looking for the Gingerbread house and not find anything, but effective searching techniques can increase your chances of bringing home those nice racks. Stick to known deer habitat where you have seen good deer sign and harvests in previous years.
Avoid high grass, grown over fields and very dense brush as you may walk within inches of a rack and still never see it. The tried and true ‘grid pattern search’ of open areas is effective. In this method you simply search in geometric strait lines about columns about six to ten feet wide and scan your ground as you walk it, adding one column to the next until you cover the whole area methodically.
Lone stands of trees in fields often produce luck as deer are drawn to these areas to bed down and often leave their sheds behind. Most importantly, cover as much ground as possible but do it slowly and deliberately keeping in mind that you are often just going to see a part of the antler poking up and not the whole rack at once.
The use of dogs
Many shed hunters like to travel with their favorite dogs. There are several handbooks and guides on the internet and in hunting catalogs that detail training methods that you can use to cross-train your favorite retriever, beagle, or redbone to look out for those great new toys known as sheds. It is a fast growing hobby with many dog trainers and there is a wealth of information available on this.
The great thing about sheds is that the hardened polished bone of the antlers is remarkably durable. You often see artisans create deer-antler handles for knives and other objects that last many generations. Usually all you need to do is wipe found antler clean with a warm soapy rag and pat it dry to remove dirt and grime.
If you want an older look, you may want to leave the rack in a secure area where natural sunlight will fade the bone. Some collectors soak or boil their finds to harden them further but this is not necessary and can lead to blood staining.
Finally, a thin coat of light stain or sealant can be applied to keep them shiny and fresh.