When Should You Start Shed Hunting?
We have landed in mid-February, and that can mean but one thing for bored deer hunters. We are collectively chomping at the bit to begin hunting for white gold, or antlers that have dropped from the heads of whitetail deer. Shed antler hunting has become a huge hit for modern outdoorsmen and women.
Beyond the fact that deer antlers are just plain cool, you can actually pick up on a ton of critical information by collecting shed antlers. When a big buck drops an antler in a given location it's like dropping a pin on a map. You know that he's living somewhere in and around that area. All making for a much more complete game-plan when you start hunting again in the fall. Not to mention that shed hunting provides great exercise and some much needed outdoor time during a dull part of the year.
You really cannot go wrong by taking to the field and looking for some sheds, but there is definitely an art to doing it successfully. Consistently finding sheds is not an easy thing to do. In fact, everything is usually working against you stumbling across the white gold.
Timing is absolutely critical when it comes to successful shed hunting. Hit the field too early and you could easily bump a full-racked buck from your property to the neighbor. Meaning that you may overlook a potential shooter that is living right under your nose. But if you play it safe and wait it out too long, there's a great chance that someone or something else could beat you to the punch.
Wildlife enjoys those shed antlers just as much as we do. Everything from rodents to coyotes may grab a shed to gnaw on. Antlers are a great source of calcium, and they definitely don't last forever. Any experienced shed hunter knows the disgust you feel when you happen across a nice shed that has been whittled to nothing by a squirrel.
Competing shed hunters are another big consideration at this point in time. More people than ever before are taking an interest in the practice of shed antler hunting. Some going as far as shed antler poaching, or trespassing onto private property to steal premium bone. There is definitely a market for shed antlers. Competition is strong, so if you drag your feet for too long you may lose out to a fellow shed hunter.
What determines when antlers fall?
Ah, great question. I'm glad you asked! You know, since this is pretty much the whole point of this article and all. Unfortunately for us, there is no exact science to when antlers will begin falling from the heads of whitetail bucks. In fact, you could probably stand a better chance at predicting the exact forecast for opening day of deer season 2019. Every single deer is different.
In general, we know that antlers ultimately drop when testosterone levels drop. Testosterone levels in whitetails will drop steadily as daylight hours decrease from the fall through the winter. But this really doesn't provide us with more than a very general window of when antlers could fall. Basically anytime from January 1st through the end of March.
Regional and health considerations are going to be two of the biggest indicators of when antlers will actually begin dropping. Nutrition is an unquestioned part of this equation. Veteran shed hunters have long believed that deer with better nutrition are capable of hanging on to those antlers for a bit longer. Meaning that deer in places with a ton of food sources like Iowa may hold on longer than deer in a place like West Virginia. Injuries and overall health are also important factors. If a given buck has been injured or struck with a sickness, they will almost always be the first deer to drop their antlers.
Don't forget about our old friend, Mother Nature. Weather definitely plays a role in all of this. Harsh cold and snow will typically force those antlers off a bit earlier than a mild winter will. The winter of 2015-16 was a prime example in my home state of Ohio. We had an incredibly mild winter and bucks held onto their antlers into mid-March.
So, when should we start shed hunting?
It's time to address the question that we have all been waiting for. The reason that you came to this article. I think we have some things to point you in the right direction.
The old calendar can be a pretty dependable reference for timing that shed hunting onslaught, but it's definitely not a uniform tool. We can only rely upon dates on a calendar once we have other factors accounted for. Many of those factors are going to be specific to our particular areas. So you definitely have to do the legwork on your own to determine what dates are best.
As a general rule of thumb for most states in America, anytime from the middle of February through the middle of March is a great time to shed antler hunt. Deer are definitely dropping antlers, and certain bucks have probably been antler-free for some time. However, there are undoubtedly deer still holding onto their antlers in mid-February. If I had to give you specific and exact dates, I would say to place your bets on hitting the field any time between February 15th and March 20th. But I have an even better recommendation for you.
Let the deer tell you. Seriously. When does good scouting ever hurt you in the world of deer hunting? It definitely can't hurt when it comes to shed hunting. Your preference between standard scouting with binoculars or a spotting scope or using a trail camera really does not matter. Either method can easily tell you whether bucks are still sporting a rack.
Observing just a few half-shed or fully shed bucks can give you the green light on stomping around in the woods and fields. Nothing is easier than placing a good trail camera over a popular winter food source. It will paint a crystal-clear picture of what is going on in your particular area. Much more accurate than looking at a calendar and assuming that it's go-time.
If and when you begin seeing a majority of bucks in a given area with one or both antlers missing, you know it's time to go hard and comb the area. But if you just have to get out there and you don't want to take the time to scout it out, we're coming up on that window of opportunity.
Anytime in the next month should be a great time to start your shed antler hunting season.