Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
Whether we see them slinking silently through the shadows of a quiet forest, darting across the road, or standing alone in a yellowed field, the sight of a whitetail buck touches some ancient and primal part of our souls. In fall, a buck’s antlers, rising and curling gracefully above his head, are impossible to miss. In spring, as the antlers lie waiting to be decomposed on the forest floor, they’re almost impossible to find, though this doesn’t keep shed hunters – both human and animal – from looking.
Whether you’re a hunter looking to see if the buck that got away survived the winter, or a nature enthusiast looking to bring a part of the world you love home, antler shed hunting is gaining more and more popularity. It is a difficult and sometimes frustrating venture, but one that has many rewards for those who enjoy spending time in the woods.
Before we get to the finer points of shed hunting, we should review the antler. Unlike the “horns” that animals like cows and goats sport year-round, antlers grow from scratch and are discarded each year. Deer and moose begin growing their antlers in March or April, and they’re fully grown by late August. When the antlers are growing, they are covered in a velvet-like material that supplies blood to the growing antlers. Prior to the breeding season, shortening day length causes a rise in a buck’s testosterone levels, which directly relates to the hardening of the antler and the shedding of velvet. A buck will scrape off the velvet and polish the antlers in preparation for breeding season, during which time he may use them in a dominance fight with another buck. When the breeding season ends, usually late December in the Northeast, the buck no longer has any need for his antlers, and shortly thereafter, the antler, devoid of any blood flow for several months, drops off, leaving a small bloody stump that quickly scabs over.
Finding shed antlers is an exercise in patience. It takes a lot of luck and hours of roaming the woodlands the bucks inhabit. The season for shed hunting begins in February – when most bucks around the northeast lose their antlers –and continues through April. Shed hunters have to figure out where the bucks have been resting, feeding, and find the paths that they travel on. During the early season, especially in far northern areas, finding buck tracks in the snow and simply following them is very effective. Heavy snow will concentrate deer and the antlers they shed. Do be conscious, though, of animal stress, and avoid disturbing deeryards: the dense, evergreen forest stands in which they congregate. Instead, backtrack the animals from their core yards towards adjacent hardwood feeding areas, and look for shed antlers there.
In southern areas of Vermont and New Hampshire where deer don’t, as a general rule, yard in winter, it’s harder, but not impossible, to find sheds. Concentrate your search by eliminating areas where a buck is not likely to lose them. The middle of a field is a rare spot to find antlers, but areas of thickets and woods with heavily traveled deer trails are good places to look, as the thicker cover can simply tug the antlers off the buck’s head. Fence crossings, fallen logs, and any such areas where a buck would have to leap over to cross are often worth an extra glass, as the impact of landing can jar the antlers to the ground. Both moose and deer are drawn to pathways. If you cannot locate any active deer trails, simply follow and search snowmobile trails and power lines that are naturally easy travel routes for these animals. The truth is that there is no definite formula to finding shed antlers; dropping off of bucks’ heads at random times and places, the only sure way to find them is to get out and look.
March and early April are great times to find shed antlers; on good days the antlers will glow on the barren forest floor. But be aware that you’re not the only one looking for sheds. Squirrels, mice, porcupines, even foxes and bears eat antlers, which are full of calcium, phosphorus, and mineral salts. By summer, wild animals large and small will have nearly devoured every antler in the forest.
Willis “Kubie” Brown is an avid fisherman, hunter, and writer who lives in Central Vermont.