Joe Shead was way ahead of his time.
Ten years ago, he was already big into hunting “sheds.” Relatively few knew what that meant at the time, though.
“People back then, if you talked about shed hunting, would ask if you were looking for a building for your yard or something. They had no idea,” said the Minnesota man.
They do now.
Shed hunting, the sport of combing the late winter woods looking for antlers dropped by bucks — and the subject of Shead’s decade-old book, “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers” – has become a cultural phenomenon.
It’s drawing growing numbers of people each year. Many are hunters, said Alex Gyllstrom, marketing director for Whitetail Properties, an Illinois-based hunting land real estate firm. But increasingly, many of those participating are non-hunting friends and family members of all ages, he added.
The nature of the game is the reason.
Actually hunting deer can be a solitary sport, one that requires long periods of sitting still and being quiet.
Hunting sheds is different. Gyllstrom compared it to the rabbit hunting he enjoys so much in that there’s plenty of room for walking, talking, joking and overall camaraderie.
And for anyone, spotting an antler is exciting.
“To find one is a lot of fun. It truly is a trophy of its own,” Gyllstrom said.
Now is prime time for collecting them.
Whitetail bucks can drop their antlers as early as December, said Jeannine Fleegle, a deer biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. The exact timing is related to hormone changes more than anything.
“Individual antler cycles are not related to other bucks and are thought to be related to birth date,” she added.
But by March, all bucks have shed their head gear, so the volume of antlers on the ground will never be higher than it is right now.
“There are more sheds on the ground than attached to deer heads, which is a huge plus,” Fleegle said.
They won’t necessarily be there forever, though. There are lots of creatures that will eat them.
How quickly can vary.
“I’ve found freshly dropped sheds that were half-eaten by squirrels, mice and other rodents. I’ve also found year-old sheds from the previous winter that hadn’t been touched and were in relatively good shape for their age,” said Josh Honeycutt, associate editor at Realtree.com.
“But ideally, you want to get boots on the ground in search of sheds within a month or so of the antler drop.”
Finding them consistently means focusing on specific locations.
“The places we’ve had our best luck are bedding areas and food sources,” Gyllstrom said. “Those are sort of popular places with deer all year anyway. But especially in winter, that’s where deer really concentrate.”
South-facing slopes, especially those with a little elevation, are also likely spots, he said. Whitetails will lay on those hills to soak up the sun and watch for predators.
Well-worm deer trails are another good spot. Gyllstrom walks them in a zigzag pattern, keeping his eyes open as he goes.
Honeycutt has some favorite places, too, many of them the same or similar.
“I find 75 percent of my sheds in or near bedding areas,” Honeycutt said. “Sometimes you find them near food and water sources, but you’ll retrieve most of them in heavy cover.”
He searches, in order, areas that received minimal hunting pressure during the late-season; thermal bedding areas, like evergreen stands; solar bedding areas, like southern- and eastern-facing slopes; transitional and staging areas; major trails; food sources; and water sources.
It pays to be persistent, added Fleegle, a shed hunter herself. Don’t think that if you’ve walked a trail one day and come up empty it’s not worth checking again. A buck may have come past since your last visit, she said, or the wind may have uncovered a shed.
Consider the weather, too, Honeycutt advised.
“The best time to look for sheds is when you have overcast skies just after a rain,” Honeycutt said. “This is when the lighting is best and antlers really shine when they’re wet.”
Public land as well as private can be productive. Shead does all of his deer hunting – and all of his shed hunting – there. And with more bucks surviving each fall thanks to things like mandatory antler restrictions and hunters even voluntarily passing on young bucks, he has good success.
It’s not unusual for him to collect 25 or more sheds a year from public land, he said.
“It’s a tougher way to do it. But it can be done,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what’s available.”
Finding sheds won’t necessarily tell you where to hunt come fall, Honeycutt said. But it can tell you where to look for more antlers in the future. He said recent studies show that, all other things being equal, a buck will generally shed its antlers within a two- or three-day window from year to year.
“And unless outside factors — weather, food, predators, etc. — influence their winter range, they’ll shed within a few hundred yards of the same spot each year, too,” he added.
Then it’s just a question of what to do with them all.
Shead can’t tell you how many antlers he’s got. But he can tell you he’s kept every one he ever found.
“Even the ratty ones, I’ve got them all,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes I think maybe I ought to get rid of a few, but I never have. I’m afraid to start and open that door.”
Want to learn more?
= Joe Shead has copies of his book, “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers,” available for sale, along with a couple of DVDs on his shed hunting experiences. Details on all of those products can be found here.
= Whitetail Properties is hosting its fourth annual “Shed Rally” on March 18-19. Shed hunters who find antlers can upload photos and videos of their finds to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using #shedrally. Some of the most creative posts will win prizes. A video explaining it all can be found here.
= There’s also an organization known as the North American Shed Hunters Club, which offers all kinds of information on the sport. It can be found by clicking here.