Analyzing Sheds: What Can They Tell You

By Noel Gandy

Two thunderous shots from a shotgun filled the timber. I anxiously scanned as far as I could see to the north, the direction in which I heard the shots. This was Iowa’s opening day of shotgun season. I was in high school and this was the 8th shotgun season that I had enjoyed with my Dad. I, as most kids, had confidence that my Dad put a good shot on a big Iowa whitetail. Shortly after his two shots sounded, I saw a wide-racked nine point buck headed my way. I took aim, squeezed the trigger of my Knight muzzleloader and the buck disappeared behind a sulfurous cloud of smoke. I will never forget that day, it was a season to remember with the harvest of two trophy bucks. However, it all started about 10 months prior to the season.

Use Sheds to Find a Buck’s Core Area
A study of a radio collared deer in Pennsylvania showed the core range of a buck to be approximately ½ mile by 1 ½ miles. There were some outlying points where the buck would travel outside of that area, especially during the rut. However, if you were to find the sheds of the buck it would be inside that core area of ½ mile by 1 ½ miles. One of the main reasons avid hunters shed hunt is just as the Pennsylvania study reflected, to analyze the activity on the ground they’re hunting.

If you’ve found a shed, then that buck has (most likely) made it through the gun seasons. As long as he makes it through the summer and early fall, avoiding disease, vehicles, and winter hardships, then he will likely be in the area. You can begin making a plan to harvest him. Depending on when he shed his antlers, there is a good chance that he dropped them in a bedding area or on a path from his bedding area to a food source. Did you find the shed in an area of thermal cover, with cedars, switchgrass or thick cover? If so, you have located a bedding area of the buck – one he will be back to. As a bowhunter, I try and set up outside of bedding areas so I can catch bucks and does entering bedding areas in the morning and leaving that area in the afternoon. I give them some space so they do not feel pressured. Analyzing the sheds you find of familiar deer can help you identify bedding, traveled paths, or even preferred food sources during the late winter.

Identifying New Bucks for the Upcoming Year
As much as we are out in the timber, and watch activity through our trail cameras, we do not know everything that goes on in our hunting area. In the story above, I found an early shed from a buck, a beautiful sight the nine point buck that my Dad would later harvest. To my knowledge, I had not seen that buck on the hoof. However, analyzing sheds this late winter can help you identify elusive bucks that have migrated on to your property, and help you get a game plan for the upcoming year. As avid hunters running trail cameras, we know it is not uncommon to find a shed of a buck we don’t recognize – one that has eluded our cameras and our set hunting spots.

Big bucks, the ones that get our hearts racing and fill our dreams, often do not tolerate much pressure. A few bad experiences can send a buck looking for sanctuary in neighboring places. This happens with some of the driving and human intrusion that comes during the hunting seasons. They head for sanctuary. Your place may be that sanctuary. Deer have been hunted, driven and shot at from youth season in September to the last day of late muzzleloader season, January 10. Some dominant bucks have been harvested, and the combination of pressure and changes in the local herd can alters a deer’s core habitat. Finding those sheds of new bucks can help you identify potential shooters for the upcoming year. Use shed information to gain perspective about new and elusive bucks.

Antler Potential for Bucks
While analyzing shed antlers alone, it is impossible to know the exact age of a mature deer. You can combine the knowledge you’ve obtained through the year through trail cameras and what you’ve observed from the treestand to build your knowledge base about particular deer. Most whitetail hunters managing for trophy class deer will not attempt to harvest a promising buck younger than four years old. We know when a buck reaches three years old, he is physically mature and beginning at four years old more energy is put into growing his rack rather than growing his skeletal system. According to a study by Mississippi State University and Texas A&M-Kingsville, where they averaged out several Boon and Crockett bucks, a two year old buck has only gown 60% of his potential antler growth. At three, the buck is showing approximately 80% of his antler potential. Hunters practicing quality deer management will let a 160 inch three year old go in hopes that the three year old will make it to five and develop into a 200-inch buck. A four year old buck, one that has fully developed its skeletal system, and has reached about 90% of the potential rack size often will begin to put on stickers and mass at this age. The study concluded deer to be close to their potential antler development at five years old, but will still grow a bit as a six year old deer.

When I found the shed of the nine point buck my Dad harvested, I could tell it was a deer I would love to see. Without trail camera or observational knowledge, I had no idea how old that deer was. Once he was harvested, his teeth were analyzed and it was determined that he was seven years old. The buck’s rack was actually a little bit smaller than the shed the previous year. You run that risk when you pass the deer. His rack could be as big as it will get, or the neighbors might harvest him.

Every buck has its own growth and development. Generally speaking, bucks will grow their rack as they age. However, injuries, harsh conditions, and food supply all go into consideration when developing a buck’s rack. Finding sheds can help you prep for the upcoming season and help you know where to hunt specific deer.