How Not To Shed Hunt

By Kent Boucher

I once heard a sports radio host ask the question, “Would it be easier to fill out a March Madness bracket by selecting the teams you think will lose instead of the teams you think will win?”He had an interesting hypothesis that still has yet to yield me any major cash winnings, but I think that radio personality was tapping into some kind of psychological ease that comes from flipping our attention to the opposite side of our task we are trying to accomplish. So when it comes to shed hunting, there are plenty of things that a good shed hunter should be doing, which means there are also plenty of things they shouldn’t be doing, and if I go with the March Madness bracket pick ‘em hypothesis, maybe it will be easier to keep all of the tips straight when we start fightin’ the thorns for more horns.

Probably the first thing a shed hunter should do if they don’t want to find any antlers is to begin their search where they saw deer and deer sign when they were bow hunting in October and November. The sheds are where the deer are, right? Right. Are, not were. Deer habitat preferences change greatly throughout the year. Sure, sometimes what’s good in October and November stays hot December through April, but often times this isn’t the case. So if you want to avoid finding any sheds focus on rut travel routes, or October food sources, and on the old deer sign such as dried out scrapes and moldy deer scat, or healed over rubs. And definitely don’t spend your time looking for the signs of fresh deer activity such as large quantities of fresh poop melting holes in the snow, muddy trails knifing through the crusty snow, or large melted and refrozen deer sized impressions in the snow.

I once heard a well known deer hunting expert suggest that targeting southward facing bedding areas was a waste of time for shed hunters. This is sound advice if you want to spend more of your time walking and less of your time picking up antlers. A significant portion of the antler drop time frame coincides with the most frigid temperatures of the year. Deer are well built to handle these temps of course, but they aren’t above seeking out a bed with the most direct rays of sunlight soaking the ground. The longer bucks linger around in their southward facing beds, and the more frequently they visit these beds, the more likely they are to leave behind an antler or two in that bed. You will want to make sure to use your compass to point out ground that slopes in all directions other than south if you’re not wanting to come across any sheds.

Focusing on doe bedding areas is an absolute necessity during the rut, but during the time of year when bucks start shaking loose from their antlers, they generally don’t spend much time at the same evergreen and big bluestem hotels, with the exception of the aforementioned southward facing slope. The shed hunter who hopes to return home with an empty backpack is going to focus hard on areas that contain evidence of an innumerable amount of deer beds because chances are that’s where the does and fawns are spending their winters, and the bucks are going to be elsewhere. Instead of choosing bedding areas that accommodate large family groups of deer, bucks will often seek similar bedding features, but with an occupancy for one. Solitary evergreens or patches of tall grass butting up to a prime cold season food source, and isolated ridges with good vantage points that deflect blustery wind gusts, but funnel in scent streams of potential predators make for prime buck bachelor pads. Shed hunters who are more interested in snapping great pictures of sunsets and picking beggars lice out of their boot laces instead of scooping up antlers should avoid such areas at all costs, and stick to wandering the doe family bedding areas.

When I lived in Davenport I did an incredible amount of urban shed hunting on public access ground. It was only there where I found sheds in close proximity to human activity. Deer that didn’t learn how to avoid people during the starving times of year around the time of Iowa’s settlement forfeited their genetic lines to the hungry bellies of Iowa’s earliest pioneers. The deer that populate our countrysides now come from ancestors who learned to steer clear of us humans long ago, and bucks seem to have extra motivation to do so. While outlier sheds will be found in backyard timbers and around untidy bird feeders, the vast majority of sheds will be found in areas that meet the aforementioned qualifiers with the addition of seclusion from humans. But of course if you only shed hunt just for the exercise, spend your first hour scouring the trails around the parking lot, or the grove of trees on the far end of the barnyard. You won’t have to worry about your hike being weighed down by a fistful of Iowa ivory.

E-scouting is a buzzword every modern hunter is familiar with. In many ways using these mapping apps to highlight prime deer habitat possibilities is extremely helpful, and shed hunters can use them with just as much efficacy. Shed hunters who want to be sure that they won’t use their time e-scouting to improve their ratio of miles walked to sheds picked up will focus solely on the geographical, and vegetation features of only the property they have permission to hunt. What many hunters don’t account for when e-scouting is how their neighbor’s lay of the land affects deer presence and movement on their own property. It’s true that without permission we have no business (and I mean NO BUSINESS) walking onto someone else’s property to shed hunt (or hunt), but we should still use our digital maps to study how those properties factor into where deer choose to spend their time, unless of course we want to walk a lot of miles for no piles.

A veteran shed hunter is always well provisioned to meet the demands of a day of hiking around good shed country. Perhaps the most important tool to bring along is a set of binoculars. The best shed hunters are usually the most efficient shed hunters as well. They find ways to cover immense amounts of ground without sacrificing a careful eye for the curve of a main beam or the white round shape of an antler burr. They achieve this by hiking to the top of vantage points that allow their eyes and binoculars to do the hiking for them, focusing on cut bean fields or tree lines that allow for easier antler spotting from great distances. Once off of the glassing knob and back on their feet, seasoned shed hunters use their binoculars to save time wasting steps to carefully examine “branchlers” and too good to be true corn stalks. Shed hunters who intend to needlessly double back and spend their time finding wooden antlers and searching empty fields will be sure to leave the binoculars in their truck.

As March dawns, and you put the final touches on your shed hunting strategy for this season you will have to decide whether it’s easier to hone your approach based on what not to do, or to just simply put into practice the conventional wisdom of many successful shed hunters from seasons gone by. Regardless of what you decide on your approach, just make sure you are where the deer are. I know that’s where I’ll be.