Shed the Winter Blahs

Finding a shed antler is a thrill on par with being dealt a royal flush. Jim Low Photo

  …by hunting antlers (Jim Low)

Finding a shed antler is a thrill on par with being dealt a royal flush.  Jim Low Photo
Finding a shed antler is a thrill on par with being dealt a royal flush. Jim Low Photo

I needed to get out of the house yesterday, so I took a brisk, 3-mile walk on trails at the Missouri Department of Conservation’s (MDC) Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.  At one point, I spied half a dozen deer.  The three bucks were easy to pick out, because they were still rocking their autumn headgear.  I was a little surprised that all three males still sported antlers.  Missouri whitetails typically begin shedding their antlers around Jan.  1.  That’s one reason why MDC moved the antlerless deer season from early January to early December several years ago.  With the original timing, hunters were legally shooting quite a few bucks that had already dropped their antlers.

Anyway, it got me thinking about hunting for shed antlers.  It’s easy to slip into a cabin-fever rut this time of year, when most hunting seasons are closed.  Shed hunting can be done any time of day.  You can do it on your favorite deer-hunting land or anywhere deer live, which is pretty much anywhere in the state, including suburban parks, wildlife refuges and other areas that aren’t open to hunting.  You don’t need a gun or a permit.  You don’t even have to be a hunter.

The benefits of shed hunting go far beyond gathering dust-catchers for your mantle.  For one thing, it’s a much more pleasant way of getting exercise than grinding out miles on a treadmill in a gym that smells of moldy sneakers.  The off season – when you aren’t spending every spare hour in a tree stand – is a great time to scout new hunting areas.  And shed hunting can turn up useful clues about the size and habits of bucks that survived the past hunting season.

The most basic principle of successful shed hunting is to focus your efforts in areas where deer spend the most time.  Having just undergone the rigors of the rut, bucks are hungry at this time of year, so they are actively feeding.  If you can find standing corn, that is an excellent place to check.  So are grain bins and other places where grain gets spilled on the ground.  Clover and alfalfa pastures are favorite feeding areas, too.  If you planted turnips or other food plots to attract deer, be sure to include those on your rounds.  Orchards and tree plantations are deer magnets as well.  Be sure to thoroughly comb through sumac thickets and other brushy cover adjacent to food sources.  That’s where loosening antlers are most likely to get snagged and pop off.

Next, check travel lanes between food sources, watering spots and bedding areas.  Logging roads, fencerows, utility rights-of-way and streams – even dry washes – tend to funnel deer movement into predictable routes.  Game trails along these landscape features often are as obvious as superhighways, and are worth checking thoroughly.

Cedar thickets are favorite spots for deer to hunker down during severe weather.  Bushwhacking through them can be a challenge if you are standing up, but they are surprisingly open at ground level.  Pick your way through these, pausing every 50 feet or so to get down on your hands and knees and scan the surrounding ground for sheds.

Deer also spend lots of time resting on south- and west-facing slopes at this time of year. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether these slopes are wooded, brushy or covered in prairie grass.  Hillsides with this orientation receive direct sunlight, which helps deer stay warm.  Their elevation allows deer to see approaching danger while they chew their cud and digest food consumed the previous night.  When checking these areas for sheds, start on one side and methodically walk parallel lines until you have scanned the whole area, watching for matted leaves or grass that indicate day beds.

February and March are the best months for shed hunting.  Once antlers hit the ground, they quickly attract mice, squirrels and other rodents that gnaw on them to take advantage of the calcium and other nutrients they contain.  Even deer go after shed antlers, which is an interesting example of recycling.  Nothing goes to waste in nature, and if you want intact sheds, you have to get there first.

Searching for shed antlers is similar to other types of hunting in that the more you do it, the better you become.  Long-time shed hunters sometimes bring home dozens of trophies in a year.  Neophytes aren’t likely to do that well, but be patient and don’t get discouraged if your initial efforts fail to pay big dividends.  Half the fun of shed hunting is having an excuse to get outdoors and seeing things you would never see if you were sitting in front of the television.  On my recent walk, I got to watch a flock of turkeys feeding.  A pair of Cooper’s hawks entertained me with their aerial courtship, and a juvenile barred owl eyed me curiously, but without apparent fear, as I walked beneath its perch.  Those things seem different with a breeze in your face than equivalent views on The Nature Channel.

I didn’t find any sheds on that walk.  But I’ll be back next week, hoping to glimpse a one-antlered buck and turn his loss into my conversation-piece