Should you be thinking about fallen antlers already?
Yes, we know, hunting seasons are not entirely over in some areas. Many states are now adapting longer antlerless seasons that spill over throughout much of January. But we can't help but think about hiking through the woods looking for sheds this time of year. Especially when we start hearing about our fellow hunters starting to pick up the first drops of the year.
However, this brings up a very important question, especially in states where the season is still going. Just when should you think about starting the search? That depends on many factors. Let us look at some of those factors to consider right now.
In truth, some of these factors could determine just how many antlers you end up picking up this season. They could be the difference between getting skunked and finding that coveted matched set from the big boy who gave you the slip this past hunting season.
First and foremost, before you strap on some snowshoes and try to get out there for an early-season search, make sure its legal. Many western states, Utah most notably, have put restrictions on shed hunting in recent years in order to prevent excessive stress on deer and elk during particularly bad winters.
Some states have areas that are already open while others are closed off. If you're in a state with restrictions, treat it like hunting for the animal itself. Check regulations and borders of areas that may be closed before you go. Utah wildlife officials weren't shy about handing out fines to violators last season. You definitely don't want a citation to start off your season.
Contrary to popular belief, there is no set time when the antlers all pop off bucks simultaneously. When a buck sheds depends on many factors including the animal's health, how worn down it is from the rut, how much food it's finding in the winter and how harsh the winter is.
Generally, the harder the winter, the sooner bucks will shed, especially if bucks can't find easy food sources in times of heavy snow.
This isn't a hard and fast rule of course, but the harder the winter, the earlier you can generally get away with hitting the woods. I generally believe hard winters are better for shed hunting. Not because the stress makes them drop faster. It's more because bucks won't wander as far and antler finds can sometimes be more concentrated in feeding areas. After one particularly bad winter I once found six sheds in the same small one acre field. That wasn't all on the same day either. Every time I returned I found one or two more.
Don't forget to use your trail cameras this time of year. They'll tell you exactly when the bucks are dropping and you can then search with more confidence if you know for certain there are fresh antlers on the ground.
Case in point, the young buck in the photo above. I got a photo of him missing a side on one card pull and then found it a few days later.
It's also always nice when you know what you're looking for!
Generally, I like to wait as long as possible before heading out for my first hike of the year on private land. If you can afford to wait for all the antlers to hit the ground, you probably should. Think of it like hunting deer in the regular season. You don't want to bump the buck off your property and onto a neighbor's where he might drop them there instead.
However, private land isn't a luxury everyone can afford. If you're seeking sheds on public land, you're likely going to have competition. Unfortunately, this may force your hand in having to go out and search earlier.
If you're seeing boot prints all over the area you're searching already, someone else is probably already out looking and you shouldn't dawdle. This is especially true if there's a specific buck whose antlers you really want to find.
Trust your instincts
Really, it's never too early to start thinking about shed hunting. Looking for sheds is an extension of off-season scouting and thinking about these things now can pay off big the following fall. Trust your instincts and you may be rewarded with your best shed-hunting season yet. We already can't wait to burn some boot rubber looking for fallen bones this spring!
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