Shed Hunting: 3 Tips to find more Bone
By Derek Malcore | PUBLISHED January 31st, 2022
In case you haven’t noticed, shed hunting has become wildly popular over the past 10 years. What was once a niche spring pastime for the hardcore has become a weekend hobby for many. Whether you are looking to try your hand at finding your first antler or are a seasoned vet, we will be sharing a few tips that may help add some heft to your haul this spring!
We also recorded a quick podcast 🎙 about shed hunting that covers these three tips to finding shed antlers.
Tip #1: Trail Cameras
In my experience, trail cameras have been the most critical asset to finding big antlers. Of course, trail cameras can show you where the bucks are spending time, which is very important, but they can also inform you when you should hit the woods. Depending on where you live/ shed hunt, this can be a valuable piece to the puzzle. Knowing when bucks are dropping antlers can help battle the competition. The competition might be other shed hunters, squirrels, and rodents waiting for a snack or snow for us in the north. Knowing that Mr. Buck dropped his antlers and it has only snowed a couple inches since he will tell you that it’s time to burn boot rubber trying to pick up those fresh bones. Conversely, if you see a shed buck on camera and the snow has been piling up since that date, there is no use wasting your time walking the winter wonderland. Time to play the waiting game and hold off on your efforts until things thaw.
Trail cameras placed over quality food sources like fields, oak flats with acorns, 2-3-year-old clear cuts, or cedar swamps in the North should reveal the quality and quantity of bucks wintering in the area. This is also valuable to know as you don’t want to spend hours and hours walking a place that the bucks didn’t spend time in during the shedding season. On the flip side, if your camera tells you that there were good bucks in the area during the shedding season, that intel will help you keep on keeping on when the boots start to feel heavy.
One story to illustrate this point occurred in 2016/17. My family and I have been avid she hunters for over 20 years and have honed in on some areas that deer like to winter every year, especially with an early snowfall. The late archery season found me on a thick edge of a cedar swamp where the deer spend their winter. I was chasing a giant buck that we knew roamed the area, and after setting up a stand and putting out bait just once (was legal in that county), the big guy showed up on camera. This buck was frequently coming in both morning and evening. I took a Wednesday off of work when we had a chilly cold front come through and spent the afternoon waiting for him to show up. I saw 5 antlerless deer but no big antlers. After climbing down and checking my trail camera, I found that he had already shed his antlers! On December 31, he was in front of the camera, and 9 hours later, in the morning light, he was there bald!! Bad news for hunting but great news for finding his sheds. One would think that with only 9 hours in between, it would be reasonably easy to find those antlers, but we found out otherwise. My mother, father, and I walked that spot for 6 weekends, collectively covering over 120 miles looking for that set, and finally, FINALLY, my mother stumbled across them in a thick pocket tucked into a wet slough running through the cedars. A 7x5 rack that scored just over 155” without spread credit. Had it not been for those pictures, there is no way we would have put that much effort into that area.
The first tip was to use trail cameras to locate and help you analyze what time antlers hit the ground. Well, what if it’s too late, you didn’t have cameras set up, but you still want to go find some sheds. Not a problem; plenty of fellow shedders in that same boat, but what you lack in-camera intel, you will want to try to make up for with scouting intel.
Tip #2: Scouting
You need to know where the bucks are spending their time during the period when they shed their antlers. This is simple and quite obvious, but it’s essential nonetheless. Many beginner shed hunters seem to wait until the snow is either entirely melted or almost entirely melted, then they just go walk around their hunting area. This is an excellent way to get bad results.
A person can walk and walk and walk until their boots bust at every seem, but if you aren’t walking where those deer spent their time for that two-month time frame, it’s going to be relatively fruitless. There is always a chance of stumbling into and antler here or there, but to have any kind of consistent success, you need to SCOUT. Whether you scout from the truck, like glassing fields, or checking trails that cross the roads or, better yet, with boots on the ground, you have to get a sense of where the deer are spending their time. If you are a public land shed hunter like myself, you will likely find many public lands are virtually barren of deer in the winter months. You have to find areas with a quality food source nearby or good thermal cover.
If you are the type that wants to take a walk and put boots on the ground, be cautious. Scouting early winter before the drop can get you great intel, but it can also do major damage. If you get into a bedding area and bump the bucks out, they may shift their patterns. Usually, they won’t vacate the area for too long, but depending on how much you disturb, it may be just enough from them to drop that brown gold somewhere else. A word to the wise, tread lightly and try to not scout feeding and travel areas without bumping bedded deer.
If you’ve noticed big tracks crossing a road, out in a field, or just waking a particular trail, make a note of it. Try to figure out where that buck might be bedding, just as if you were hunting him. Try to locate as many “pockets” of deer as you can, and this is when throwing up a camera or two to confirm the bucks in the area could be very helpful. The good thing about the winter months is that the bucks are not wanting to burn more calories than they absolutely have to. Their travel can be limited to a secure, often thermal cover, bedding area to a food source.
Trying to locate as many “deery” areas to shed hunt later in the spring as possible. I usually start my “shed scouting” around Christmas and continue until February. Remember, the walking and scouting now won’t help you pick sheds immediately, but it will save you miles of shed-less walking in the spring and hopefully put you into better areas for finding antlers.
Ideally, at this point, you’ve done your homework. Trail cameras have been in place for months collecting valuable intel, you’ve scouted multiple deer wintering areas loaded with sign, and now all you need to do is find a pack big enough to carry that massive load of antler you are going to find!!
Sadly, most guys just don’t have the time and/or energy to do all of that…for an antler some buck didn’t even want anymore. Life is crazy, time flies, and most of us won’t have it all figured out, but we still want to find an antler here and there, so what do you do?!
Tip #3: Looking
You have to decide that you will mentally focus on finding antlers. Trying to mix scouting and shed hunting together will almost always leave you on one side or the other. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not bad. Many times I’ve gone out to shed hunt but ended up following some hot sign from the fall in the hopes of locating this fall's new hot hunting spot. I love scouting as much, if not 10x more, than the next guy, but I can honestly tell you that you will only find 1/4 of the antlers that you could if you were focused on the ground.
This tip isn’t only about your eyes looking while in the woods, no sir. If you are a novice shed hunter or just someone who wants to home their game, join as many shed hunting grounds as you can on social media. If you can find ATL groups especially join those. If that acronym just caused you a slight head scratch, ATL stands for “As They Lay” and usually refers to when a shed photo was taken. The ATL is the holy grail for shed hunters. It’s the excitement and anticipation of having spotted an antler and knowing that it’s never ever been touched by a human. It’s this incredible relationship, similar to spotting that monster buck while hunting, except this shed isn’t catching your wind and waving the white flag as it heads north to the next county. This shed is YOURS!
The reason I suggest joining these groups is to help train your eye. The more antlers you can run your eyeballs over in as many different terrain types as possible, the better you will be at spotting them in the woods. As a teenager, I used to drool over the photos that a guy posted on his website Minnesotabucks.com. He would find these gorgeous chocolate antlers in these dark cedar swamps. The photos showed massive beams embedded in sphagnum moss. I must have spent hours staring at those, just wishing that one day I would be able to take a photo like one of his. After pouring over 10’s of thousands of shed photos the past decade, it’s safe to say I am halfway decent at spotting them in the wild. Do I still step over/ past a few every now and again? No, never…at least none that I’ll admit here.
After you have trained your eye a bit, it’s all about putting that practice to use in the field. Put yourself in the right areas, then you will need to spend TIME, lots of time, covering areas you know or think bucks were living in. Keep your eyes low and typically look from 10 feet out and closer. Don’t look too far ahead, or I promise you will walk past smaller antlers right between your boots. Investigate every single maybe, and confirm whether it’s antler or branch before moving on.
While you are slowly walking and sweeping that 10 foot and closer range. Stop at least every 20 steps and look behind you. Spend a good 2 minutes looking where you just came from because, in shed hunting, perspective is everything. If you see a stump, or downed log that increases your view 2-3 feet, jump up there and spend a few minutes looking from there.
The most significant visual indicators for sheds are the texture(smooth semi-polished with some glare), beam curve, and tine spacing. If anyone of these triggers goes off as your eyes are sweeping a good area, give it a closer look.
Shed hunting is a mental game, and after 6 hours of hiking, one can start to let their eyes forget what they are looking for. Make sure you stay focused and let your eyes rest when they get home.
The memories each and every shed antler hold are priceless and stay with us for generations! Check out some of the stories these antlers tell.