By: Jeff Gustafson
The Forgotten Spring Season
Mike Christopher and I became friends a few years back. I used to run into him all the time at the boat launch and had heard a lot about his hunting success. (He has a typical Boone and Crockett record whitetail in the books.) The first time he brought me to his cabin, I was mesmerized by his deer sheds: in bursting wicker baskets, on jam-packed shelves, hanging by leather cords from hand-cut cedar poles, not to mention a few giant singles on display throughout his home. This visit occurred after an ice-fishing trip in March 2006, and we made plans for Mike to take me shed hunting once the snow melted.
I had found one or two deer sheds each year while still-hunting, but had never put a pattern together. When Mike and I hooked up, we decided to head to an area where I'd experienced some success hunting and where we could get well away from any roads or human activity. We walked and walked, covering many miles. By the time we got back to the truck at the end of the day, Mike had found 20 deer sheds, including a fresh set from a 150-inch-plus 10-pointer. I found eight. Those sheds had me hooked on a fascinating pastime. For the next month, I spent nearly every free minute in the woods looking for deer sheds. By the end of the season, I had more than 200.
The Overall Benefits
Compared with other outdoor activities, shed hunting is relatively low cost for equipment and gas for travel. It provides the hunter with an opportunity to score some shed antlers, as well as offers valuable insight into the quality of deer in the areas you cover. I guide for whitetails in fall and use the shedhunting season as a scouting tool to find new areas and to look for sheds from quality deer where I already hunt.
Shed hunting is about more than just finding antlers. There are so many other things to discover. I've come across all kinds of great finds: wolf-killed deer (with antlers still attached), bear and wolf skulls, and moose "paddles." As well, old trapper cabins and traps reveal that others have enjoyed the same woods I frequent.
As shed hunting is a spring activity when there's little new cover in the woods, you frequently see wildlife. It's just a great time of year to be outdoors. Grouse are drumming and sheds await the eager searcher.
Shed hunting can be a fun group activity. I go on my own many a day, but on weekends when friends can come along, we take two-way radios so we can banter back and fourth about who has found the most sheds or the biggest – and get a friendly competition going.
We have a few rules. One example is that when we get on a "boneyard" hill (has a lot of sheds), no one will get too far out in front and find all the easy ones. If someone finds a shed another hunter has already found the match for, that person gives it to the original finder so they have the set. Make up such rules ahead of time, so there are no misunderstandings at the end of the day.
There are few better ways to get your body in physical form than spending multiple days shed hunting each year, especially in the Canadian Shield terrain of northern Ontario where big hills dominate the landscape. I fish hard all summer and use shed hunting to tune up in spring. Walking several miles per day takes its toll at first, but after a few trips you will start to feel the benefits.
For Mike Christopher, shed hunting started as a mission to look for sheds from his record buck, but it soon became a scouting activity to look for big-buck sign and new stand locations. "When I shot my record buck in 1999, I spent the following spring looking hard for the sheds from it from the winter before I shot it," he said. "I ended up finding three sheds from that deer, including the set from the year before and one side from two years before I shot it. All the sheds were within 1 mile of the stand where I took the deer. In 10 days spent looking for sheds from my buck, I discovered I could find a lot of sheds. It also showed me how many other big bucks were within a few miles of the original stand that I shot my deer from. There is so much ‘big bush' in Ontario, and if you get away from the easy stuff, you can find some big bucks."
Spring shed hunting provides valuable information that can be utilized during the fall hunting season. The best time to go is as soon as possible after the snow has melted. All the vegetation is flattened from the snow, making deer travel routes highly visible. Scrapes and rubs from the previous fall are very apparent and indicate that bucks use certain areas then.
Carry a hand-held GPS when shed hunting, so that when you come across likely spots to put up a stand or to walk into and still-hunt or rattle, you can mark the location with a waypoint to get back to during the fall hunting season. Over the last few years, this has paid off for me with some good bucks.
Tricks of the Trade
As easy as it is to just put on your boots and start covering ground, there are tricks to finding more sheds than your buddy. The year I started shed hunting with Mike, I used to take a regular butt-whipping. He would constantly find twice as many sheds as me on a daily basis. Since then, I've handed out my own whoopings to some of my buddies. Knowing highpercentage areas to look for helps you find more sheds than your friends.
In Their Bedroom
"I believe deer lose 75% of their antlers when they're bedded down," said Christopher. "You will always find some sheds on heavily used trails, but most of the sheds I find in the big country of northwestern Ontario are on large ridges, in places that deer bed down on south-facing slopes. They might lose them when they jump up to move or when they get spooked, but this is where you're going to find the biggest numbers. "When I get up on a good looking ridge, I usually always look for the biggest Jack pines that have a nice flat spot nearby with some moss underneath them," he continued. "Bucks will bed under these trees and this is where I've found most of my biggest sheds. Bucks spend the majority of their time bedded down in winter, recovering from the rigours of the rut, so it makes sense this is where they're going drop their antlers."
Where to Find Sheds
In my neck of the woods in northwestern Ontario, there are a few highpercentage areas to look for sheds.
They can pop up anywhere, though. I've found my fair share in odd places, like notches in trees (twice) or right under my tree stands, but most of them came from one of these likely spots:
1) The highest south-facing ridges. Most deer lose their antlers while they're bedding, and they spend the most time bedded on high hills, trying to catch some heat from the sun and watch for predators.
2) Cedar stands and swamps. Snow depth during harsh winters will not be as deep in the cedars, making it easier for deer to get around.
3) Trails in urban areas. Sheds can show up anywhere in urban areas, so just get on good deer trails and go. The biggest fresh shed I've ever seen was found by a buddy looking for pucks at an outdoor rink in the middle of downtown Kenora.
Things to Pack
A backpack is essential for the shed hunter, and what you include in it can save the day – and your life. Since this activity involves so much walking with your head down (not up, paying attention to your surroundings), getting lost is easy.
A hand-held GPS unit is invaluable, at least in the big country of northern Ontario. Load contour maps of the area into your GPS , so you can quickly get where you want to go. Here are some other necessities to include in your pack before you hit the woods:
- A compass (in case the GPS doesn't work).
- A first aid kit. You could easily slip and cut yourself, so be prepared.
- Zip-ties for attaching shed antlers to the outside of your pack. They don't fit well inside and they will not feel that great poking you in the back.
- Matches, in case you get wet or need to spend the night.
- Plenty of water. Drink it before you get thirsty. If you wait too long, you will cramp up and the walk out will not be pleasant.
- A small saw and pocket knife.
- A flashlight, in case you need to find your way out of the woods in the dark.
- A two-way radio, to keep tabs on your partners.
Start Doing Circles
Typically, when you find a shed, the match to it will be nearby. Many sets are found within feet of each other, but this doesn't happen all the time. In my experience, you will find matching sheds within 30 yards.
Start searching for a matching shed by doing 5- to 10-yard circles around where you found the original and slowly make larger circles, scouring the area with precision. Sometimes the matching shed can show up in the most inconspicuous spot, such as beside the base of a large tree, implying that the deer might have knocked it off on purpose on the tree, or actually in a tree. I've found a handful of sheds in trees, usually in a V between branches. Deer might actually lodge the antler in a tree to dislocate it. The reasoning behind this is that they probably feel like something is wrong when they drop one antler and continue carrying one – it has to throw their balance off a little bit.
Shed hunting is not necessarily strenuous, but it is a physical activity, and carefully choosing clothing can go a long way towards making the experience more enjoyable. Non-insulated waterproof boots are key and will protect your feet. Quality brush pants are the best, as they resist tearing on branches and bushes and deflect burrs.
Other important gear includes a hat (the sun can really kick out the rays in April and May) and polarizing sunglasses to help separate sheds from the ground on bright days. Shed hunters in agricultural areas might want to bring binoculars along to spot sheds in fields. Although they're less practical in northern-Ontario's thick woods, I access many shed-hunting areas by boat and use binoculars to determine if something that looks like a shed on shore actually is one or not.
Reap the Rewards
With most fishing opportunities shut down because of bad ice or closed seasons, and with limited hunting options, there's no better activity in early spring for Ontario's anglers and hunters than shed hunting. It's a great time of year to be outside, and shed hunting can offer a lot of social interaction with friends.
Shed hunting will also give you even more respect for the wariness of deer. You will find sheds in your hunting areas from deer you never see and you will find out how rare really big bucks actually are. In three seasons of being addicted to this hobby, I've found between 700 and 800 sheds, and only a handful are jaw-droppers. Enjoy the moment when you score on a real hat rack.
Matt Brooks, a Conservation Officer with MNR Kenora District, passes on the following Ontario regulations regarding cast antlers or sheds.
- A person can sell one set of cast antlers (two antlers) per year, if they are lawfully acquired, without a licence.
- A person can buy one set of cast antlers (two antlers) per year for his or her own personal use without a licence.
- A person may obtain a Game Hides and Cast Antlers Dealers Licence from an MNR office in order to buy or sell more than one set of cast antlers per year. They are then required to keep records, etc.
- "Cast antlers" are defined as antlers that have dropped naturally from live deer and moose and are intact and have not been treated.
"People should clearly understand that only cast antlers can be sold, and only one set without a licence,"said Brooks."This doesn't include antlers that are still attached to a skull or antlers that have been cut from a skull. Cast antlers are identified by the pedicle (or rounded bulb) on the base of the antler when they fall off naturally.
The definition of cast antlers also includes cast antlers of American elk and woodland caribou, says David Critchlow, MNR provincial enforcement specialist.
Also, as long as a hunter or trapper is legally licensed to hunt or trap (generally, this would be a licensed hunter or trapper), they may sell cast antlers, says Critchlow. They're not restricted to selling a single set, as is the general public.