Late winter/early spring is prime whitetail hunting season! Just ask my wife Tracy and her Lab, Crystal. They love this time of year and spend as much time as possible in the field hunting whitetail sheds.
Shed hunting has increased in popularity substantially during the past decade. Years ago, there were just a few of us hunters who had cabin fever or wanted the advantage of post-season scouting and took to the woods and fields in search of shed antlers. As more folks began pass-ing on immature bucks and allowing more bucks to mature, the quantity’ of larger shed antlers available to find increased. I can remember folks around my home commonly saying, “You can’t find any sheds around here because the dang squirrels eat them all!” That was back during the days when any deer with antlers was shot on sight during the season (and many before and after the season).
Two years ago, Tracy and Crystal found more than 60 sheds! We still have plenty of squirrels and other rodents. A few of the antlers had chew marks on them, but most were in excellent condition. This is a huge win-win relationship between Tracy and me. She really enjoys hunting for sheds (and so do I), and I enjoy all the useful information for hunting and deer herd management that comes from sheds.
First Things First
The first bit of information gleaned from a shed antler is, of course, the size and approximate age of bucks that survived the previous hunting season. Knowing the bucks that will likely be available to chase during the next season is a great motivation to keep up habitat management work during the off-season! I find it interesting and educational to compare what I estimated the better bucks to score based on trail-camera pictures or sightings of the buck. I use the sheds to predict the future size for the buck. For instance, if the following growing season conditions are normal to good, I can count on all but the oldest bucks increasing in antler size from 10-30 percent!
Age can’t accurately be estimated by antler size. Remember, many biologists – myself included – estimated the world-record typical (the Hansen Buck) to be only 3 years old based on his lower jaw! However, pairing the antler (to confirm the buck survived the season) with trail- camera pictures taken during the season allows a good estimate of age and confirmation of antler size. This is a big head start on scouting for the next season by knowing what bucks will likely be in the area to hunt.
All About Location
Where the shed was found provides positive information on where he spent some time during the late winter. This also tells what habitat type bucks are selecting at that time in that area. For example, if the shed was found in a food plot, then it’s likely that food source was important during the late season. That information points me to focus on bedding areas and travel zones near that plot as I plan hunting strategies for the following season.
In addition, mature bucks often seek similar types of cover and food within the same areas. So, if Tracy and Crystal find sheds from multiple mature bucks on slopes that are facing south, then it’s a safe assumption that bucks prefer spending time on south-facing slopes during similar conditions. Good scouting always requires as much thinking as it does collecting data.
For example, if the temperatures have been significantly colder than normal during the late hunting season, I suggest Tracy and Crystal’s hunt sheds on south-facing slopes. During cold weather, bucks spend much of their time on south-facing slopes seeking the sun’s warmth. However, if the temperature during the late season was warmer than normal, then I suggest they search for sheds on north-facing slopes. During warmer temperatures, bucks often seek the shade. Weather conditions should be considered when selecting areas to shed hunt just as they should be when deciding on stand locations.
Identify Herd Health
The shape of the shed is also an indicator of that buck’s health. The bases of shed antlers from healthy bucks will appear rounded, with no portion of the skull attached. Sheds that have a small portion of the skull bone attached are a strong indicator that buck had a brain abscess.
Brain abscesses are usually caused by an injury or fracture to one or more of the skull bones. This injury allows bacteria access to the brain cavity. As the bacteria multiply, it can cause the skull bones to fracture more and sometimes a portion of these bones will remain attached to the antler when it’s shed.
“Weather conditions should be considered when selecting areas to shed hunt just as they should be when deciding on stand locations.”
Bucks can survive brain abscesses, but many do die. When inspecting a shed that had a portion of a skull bone attached, I don’t plan on hunting that buck the following year. If the buck does survive, he will often produce a non-typical antler – at least on the side where the skull was fractured.
Shed hunting is a fun and useful extension to hunting season. Where sheds are found can provide great scouting information for the next late season and an indication of the buck’s health. Use the presence of shed antlers in your area as an excuse to get out and scout!