The holistic approach to whitetail herd management adopted by most in recent years means even though the deer hunting season ends in six days, contact with and active observation of deer herds continue. Beginning roughly next month and carrying on throughout the spring, one much-favored sideline season will be underway in the form of shed hunting.
Unlike permanent horns grown by cattle, members of the deer family grow and shed new sets of antlers every year. Antler genesis, the scientific term for the growing process, begins in the spring and is complete by early fall. The antlers remain in place until after the deer herd’s annual reproductive cycle concludes in late winter, at which point they are shed and the process starts over.
Just as the reproductive cycle, or rut, begins and ends earlier in more northerly climates and progresses in a staggered southwardly succession, so goes the timing of when antlers are shed. Bucks in many parts of Mississippi may not shed their antlers until March, whereas bucks in Ohio may have typically shed theirs weeks ago.
Like all other things reproductive in the deer world, the shedding of antlers is part of an annual cycle used by nature to keep competition fierce and bloodlines strong. Just as the rut in the Deep South is not clearly defined and may happen over many months rather than two or three weeks, so goes the shedding of bucks’ headgear. Bucks do travel, but they maintain a general home range and circulate throughout it, rather than covering miles in any single direction. When the breeding cycle has concluded in their own micro-climate, so to speak, they’ll shed their antlers as a simple step along that way. The best way to know when to begin looking for sheds, then, may be determined by continuing to watch deer and note when big-bodied deer without antlers tend to appear.
This time of year, the deer are grouped up and the bucks are back together. The acorns and browse are all gone, the food sources are concentrated and the deer will be with the food. When you find what they’re eating, you can find where they’re bedding and it’s a good time to walk the field edges and fence rows between one and the other.
In much the way baby teeth loosen gradually rather than springing free all at once, a buck’s antlers get loose before they fall off, and if the deer are jumping or crawling under a fence or if they’re going through heavy brush and the loose antlers get bumped, they’ll often fall off right there. After field edges, the next best place to look is along the deer trails. If a high concentration of deer are using a particular trail, there are likely to be sheds on it.
Seeing the shed antlers on the ground is an art in itself, something that comes along quickly with practice.
“When you find the first one, your eye gets trained to it,” Dustin Whitacre, of Chickasaw County, said. Originally from Zanesville, Ohio, Whitacre has been an enthusiastic whitetail hunter and shed antler collector for decades. “Early on I went shed hunting with my cousin, and one particular time he found 14 while I found two. I know I walked by a lot of the ones he found, but I just wasn’t seeing them then.”
Spotting the natural trophies is a learnable art, much like spotting arrowheads among gravel or seeing the hidden image in a 3D poster. Once you’ve figured out how to look, it’s much easier from that point on.
Finding the antlers soon after they are shed is critical, especially this far south. First, the sheds don’t last forever. Highly mineral rich, the antler material can quickly fall victim to squirrels and rats which gnaw them away to nothing in no time. Second, early spring grasses will soon grow to cover them. Seeing them among pine straw, briars and bramble is an art, but seeing them through knee-high green grass that has them completely overgrown just isn’t feasible, so it pays to hunt quickly, and as soon as possible.
“I started hunting sheds in high school, mainly as a way to see what deer had survived the hunting season and the winter, because the trail cameras that were available then were priced beyond the reach of a kid,” Whitacre said. “I have cameras out now, but I still enjoy finding the sheds. There’s more to it than just a picture.”