Shed Antler Hunting - Part I

As soon as I noticed the sun glare off the tip of the antler tine, I knew which buck had shed the antler that lay on the deer trail in front of me. It was the right side shed antler from a buck I had passed the previous fall with bow and arrow in hand, as well as a buck for which we had dozens of trail camera photos. He was the largest buck on our Iowa property that we knew survived the previous hunting season. And a buck I hoped to have in front of me again the next hunting season!

As luck would have it, the shed buck mentioned above, not only survived to the following year’s hunting season, but he gained more than 20 inches in gross Boone and Crockett Club score and added eight antler points. On top of this, I was the lucky hunter who was able to put a harvest tag on this magnificent buck when I killed him last December! The icing on the cake was the fact that my brother Jason missed the buck minutes before my opportunity... and everything was caught on video! The 194-inch buck is the largest I have ever killed. Thanks to my interest in shed hunting, I can now display the shed antler beside the pedestal mount of the buck.

Antler Shedding
Antler shedding in white-tailed deer occurs anywhere from December through April, depending on the geographic location and the management practices present. The physiological cue is the male hormone testosterone. The way this works is complicated, but changing day lengths are sensed by the eyes, which send this message to the pineal gland, a pea-sized organ at the base of the brain that produces many different hormones. One hormone produced is luteinizing hormone, which controls the amount of testosterone produced.

The antler cycle lags several months behind the changes in day length because the hormonal changes take time. During fall, decreasing day lengths cause melatonin production to increase, resulting in decreased production of both luteinizing hormone and testosterone. Decreasing testosterone levels then cause the antlers to shed.

Antlers are shed when a thin layer of tissue destruction, called the abscission layer, forms between the antlers and the pedicle. This layer forms as a result of the decrease in testosterone. As the connective tissue is dissolved, the antler loosens and is either broken free, or falls off on its own. This degeneration of the bone-to-bone bond between the antler and the pedicle is the fastest deterioration of living tissue known in the animal kingdom.

In white-tailed deer, a poor-quality diet has been found to cause bucks to shed their antlers early. It has been suspected that the lack of adequate nutrition somehow affects testosterone output. Nutritionally-stressed bucks may also grow their antlers and shed their velvet later. Older-aged bucks are thought to shed their antlers earlier than younger bucks.

It has also been reported that higher-ranked (more dominant) bucks shed their antlers sooner than lower-ranked bucks. Older-aged, more dominant bucks probably shed their antlers sooner because of the high energy costs incurred in maintaining a higher dominance rank.

The farther deer are from the equator, the more defined their antler cycle. In other words, northern deer have a shorter “window” of when antler shedding can occur, compared to deer herds in southern states. In addition, the specific date when a buck will shed his antlers may be determined more by his individual antler cycle than any other factor. This cycle is independent of other bucks and is believed to be centered on each animal’s birth date.

Penned deer studies have allowed scientists to measure the exact dates of antler shedding for individual deer year after year. One study in Mississippi found that individual bucks usually shed their antlers at the same time each year and almost always during the same week. Yearling bucks with only spiked antlers shed sooner than yearling bucks with forked antlers, likely because they were more nutritionally stressed than the forked-antlered bucks. This study also indicated there was no relationship between antler mass and date of shedding, although other studies have shown that bucks shed their antlers earlier as they grow older. Additional penned studies have also revealed that bucks usually shed both antlers within three days of each other.
Although there is no evidence that weather directly affects antler shedding, it is likely that severe winters may also cause bucks to shed their antlers earlier than normal because of the nutritional stress this causes.

A Great Hobby
Interest in shed antler hunting continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Package trips are now available in the upper Midwest and Canada solely for hunting shed antlers. Outfitters provide lodging, meals, and several likely areas for clients to hunt. Some shed hunting enthusiasts are paying as much as $3,000 for a week of guided shed hunting!

Shed antler hunting is growing in popularity because the desire to find that "next" shed antler never fades. Except for the guided trips mentioned above, shed hunting is free and the antlers that are found make unique trophies that can be held and admired. Shed hunting is similar to treasure hunting or hunting for arrowheads and is good exercise. Kids of all ages can also take part because no hunting licenses or permits are required. The inherent danger of kids handling guns is also non-existent, making antler hunting an activity for the whole family and a great way to get kids started in outdoor activities. Best of all, the bigger the antler, the easier it is to find!

Why Hunt For Sheds?
Shed antler hunting provides an excellent opportunity to scout before the next deer season. Often times, deer trails, scrapes, and rubs from the previous fall are still visible. While searching for sheds, hunters can try to decipher deer movement patterns based on these signs at a more relaxed pace. In addition, the extra time spent in the brush will help to further familiarize the hunter with his favorite hunting area. Potential leases and new hunting areas can also be scouted while hunting for sheds.

Most trophy deer hunters that I know are also avid shed antler hunters. When a large shed is found, the hunter knows that a big buck is in the general area. Further scouting can narrow down the best areas to ambush the buck that dropped the shed. If a high number of sheds are found, the hunter knows that a lot of bucks are in the area. Hunters interested in antler scores can also measure any sheds that are found to get a more accurate idea of what the buck’s rack would have measured.

Shed antlers also provide clues to the age of the buck that cast the antler. Generally, the heavier the antler, the older the buck; a mature buck no doubt dropped a shed antler with a massive beam and base. An antler with average mass measurements was likely cast by a middle-aged buck. A thin diameter antler, or one with only two or three points, most likely came from a young buck. It is also suspected that beam circumference in relation to burr circumference indicates age. A shed with a beam circumference at the base noticeably smaller than the burr circumference, likely came from a young buck. In most cases, by the time a buck reaches maturity, the beam circumference has increased to the point that it is only slightly less than the circumference around the burr.

Turkey hunters can search for shed antlers as they look for roosting sites and strutting areas. During turkey season, hunters can look for shed antlers as they move from one calling area to the next area. Shed antler hunters can also search for mushrooms or arrowheads while shed hunting as well. The exercise will help to physically prepare hunters for the upcoming season even if no shed antlers are found.

Many times while hunting for shed antlers, I have found complete racks and skulls from bucks that died. These remains not only make unique trophies but can provide the hunter or landowner with information regarding buck survival and mortality. If many skulls are found, a disease may have spread through the deer herd. Or maybe the previous winter was unusually severe. Occasionally, the cause of death can be determined from the remains. And if the lower jaws are present, the hunter can estimate the deer's age by the amount of tooth wear.

When Is The Best Time?
Shed antler hunting is a past time that can be enjoyed anytime of the year. However, in most areas of the U.S., shed hunting is most productive during late winter or spring, immediately after bucks have dropped their antlers. If hunters in these areas wait until summer, most of the sheds will have already disappeared. Over most of the whitetail’s range, squirrels and other rodents quickly chew and gnaw antlers to nothing in an effort to obtain the minerals calcium and phosphorous. Late winter is also a good time for shed hunting because all of the competing hunting seasons have closed.

In arid areas such as south Texas, shed antler hunting is effective year around because the lack of rainfall allows antlers to persist for longer periods. Year-round shed hunting is also productive in south Texas because rodent populations are often low due to high coyote densities. Squirrels and porcupines, additional shed antler “enemies,” are almost non-existent as well because of a lack of trees.

In south Texas, winter is the most productive season of the year to find shed antlers. During winter, all of the antlers dropped the previous spring have turned white from bleaching in the sun. And, as any novice shed hunter quickly learns, a bleached-out antler is a lot easier to spot than a freshly shed, dark-colored antler. Another wintertime advantage is that most of the vegetation has died back, exposing shed antlers that were previously obscured from view. Also during winter, the majority of the brush species found in south Texas have lost their leaves. After leaf drop, hunters are better able to peer through layers of brush in search of cast antlers.

Summer and times of drought during any season, can also be good times to search for south Texas sheds because of a lack of ground vegetation. Springtime, normally the wettest time of the year, can be the most difficult time to look for sheds if your area has received above-normal amounts of rainfall. This “green-up” period results in a tremendous amount of vegetation that can hide even the largest shed antlers from sight.

Next week I’ll share with you the best techniques in finding shed antlers.

Posted by Dr. Mickey W. Hellickson

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