Shed Antler Hunting With Thoughtfulness

Finding cast bone is a kick in the pants, but before you hit the woods, read up on what the shed master (Mark Kayser) has to say about the negative affects a too-early shed ground assault may create. 

by Mark Kayser

Swiping through social media already hints that a major push is underway to find every shed antler jettisoned in the young calendar year. There is nothing wrong with hitting the woods early for a chance at an antlered reward if you put some thought into the entire process.

Various concerns go along with this exciting tangent of big game hunting. As an avid shed antler hunter with more than 30 years of varsity experience (still haven’t made pro), I analyze every possible outing on the effect that outing may have on wildlife, dispersing future shed antler finds, the impact of future hunting and even how it might affect others that enjoy the activity. 

Wildlife Affects

All big game environments are not created equal, especially in whitetail country. Most of North America goes dormant during the winter months, but big game living in the extreme southern tier of the nation rarely deal with snow, ice, or subzero extremes. Travel farther north, and you discover that snow and frigid temperatures stress even the hardiest of the ungulate team. Although animals like elk and moose forage mainly on native species, deer often depend on quality browse, agricultural leftovers, and food plots with winter nutrition. Even with a good food source, deep snow, cold temperatures, and even predators can create enough stress to be life-threatening.

By mid-to late winter, bucks and bulls have lost 20 percent or more of their body weight from the breeding season. Even female deer and elk have burned extra fat to survive. Plus, females have the miracle of life growing inside them, robbing precious calories from all corners of existence. Too much stress causes females to abort young for self-preservation. 

What should all this mean to you? A good plan would be to curtail movement into critical winter range in a harsh winter. Mother Nature may make this decision for you with snow too deep to navigate. Nevertheless, snowshoes, tracked ATVs, and snowmobiles allow access even with winter’s worst at hand. 

Think of how an incursion now could stress wildlife. For this reason, many habitat areas have seasonal closures, and states are even employing shed antler seasons and certifications. Utah requires an online certification course and just extended its closure dates. Wyoming has a shed antler hunting season on its western side, and managed habitat areas throughout the country have closed dates for winter wildlife serenity. 

 Nevertheless, I understand. You don’t want to lose that shed antler to toothy squirrels or a coyote looking for a bone to gnaw on. You may shed hunt on public land or land you share with others, increasing the odds of someone else beating you to the prize. Incorporate common sense before every outing. Also, incorporate the use of a quality binocular. I find as many antlers with my Sig Sauer Zulu 10×42 binoculars as I do stumbling across them in the brush. Even more importantly, I can glass ahead, and if I locate herds of deer or elk, I can maneuver around them to avoid them detecting me. For protection, I keep my binos within easy reach, stowed in my ALPS OutdoorZ Bino Harness X.  

Antlers On The Move

As previously mentioned, a hike through big game habitat could be disruptive. How disruptive? It depends on how often you or others frequent an area, plus other pressures such as frequent predation. Add it all together; the intrusions could cause ungulates to hightail it for safer digs. That means antlers are on the move to likely nastier hideouts. You may convince yourself that a couple of forays into a winter refuge to find the Holy Grail you have been monitoring via trail cameras is worth it. Regardless, those few trips could cause that trophy and others to move due to the harassment. 

To ensure antlers stay in an area, analyze when the bulk of antlers are expected to drop for your region and species. Most big game animals come programmed to drop their antlers nearly the same day or week each year. Unfortunately, that DNA code is often interrupted by stress. For instance, whitetails begin dropping antlers soon after the first of the year, although most drop in February and March across most of the country’s whitetail zone. Mule deer may drop then but tend to shed antlers more in March, and elk do not drop until well into March, with many dropping headgear into April. 

For deer especially, a severe winter or other habitat conditions could create extreme stress and cause them to drop antlers earlier. Despite these variables, document when the bulk of the males will drop in your latitude and use that calendar date, warming spring temperatures, to plan outings. You may push bucks out of their refuge if you forge ahead too early. This could cause them to drop their antlers on dirt you don’t have permission to hike, cast them in rugged terrain, or even jeopardize the life of an animal already on the brink of death from winter stress. Those antlers are mobile, so curb your enthusiasm for the benefit of you, your finds, and the animals.  

Altering Habitat Use For Future Hunts

Some who manage hunting property, particularly whitetails, are concerned about animals taking a permanent hiatus from their property, and this should be a concern. Losing one or both shed antler sides of a mature buck could be hard enough on you, but consider pressuring the animal so much that they change mailing addresses. Various research highlights that deer do leave the country when pressure intensifies. Several studies of GPS-tagged deer on public lands reveal deer leave those woods for greener pastures when hunting pressure intensifies. Some return during lulls and occasionally a buck up and hires a U-Haul for the big move. 

You likely have friends that monitor deer on properties only to discover them living on an adjacent property. That revelation frequently occurs while swapping images of deer between your wildlife management neighbors or as a surprise during hunting season when you lose track of a buck for nearly a year and it is killed miles from your property. 

One way to minimize your impact on game in an area is to use your hunting app to create a journal of all habitat usage, sign, and sightings. Tag these with time stamps, and you can see patterns of when animals are absent in an area. Combine that with optic-aided surveillance from afar, and patterns begin to surface, giving you information on when to launch your search. 

For instance, whitetails have a daily schedule. Most of the winter, they spend most of their time bedded to conserve energy. The remainder of their time is spent browsing for energy. Depending on the severity of the winter, they may put some distance between food and refuge if it doesn’t burn too many calories. They’ll bed near food in extreme circumstances to minimize stress and conserve body energy. With a pattern in hand, schedule your ingress into bedding areas late in the day when big game may be moving toward feed. Use a vice versa approach to food sources and visit those during the day when game is hidden in bedding cover, conserving calories. 

Whether in deer or elk country, I continually make notes on my HuntStand hunting app. Those spring notes also reveal much about fall hunting, especially if you mark clusters of rubs, scrapes, and other signs that could signify breeding season use. 

The Long Game In Society

The overall reason to govern your etiquette while shed hunting has to be wildlife well-being and not pressuring animals in a winter setting. Put your game into stealth mode with a hunting-like approach for a win in that arena.

The second reason for a fine-tuned approach is to keep big government at bay. Shed hunting has exploded in popularity in the last decade or two. So much so that wildlife managers share a growing concern that the activity is adding an unneeded burden on wintering wildlife already stretched to survival limits. New rules, regulations, closures, and the airing of unfortunate instances on winter range fuels more and more oversight of the activity. 

This is mainly a public-land issue, but the lousy PR spills over into all aspects of shed antler hunting. By employing a respectful approach to your outings, we all benefit in the public eye. Hopefully, we can curtail additional control of one of spring’s most rewarding cures for cabin fever.  

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