Shed hunting has almost taken over my love of hunting and here is why.
Most people hate the post-holiday season. Hunting seasons are drawing to a close and there isn't much to look forward to in the coming months. If you're in a northern clime, it's a long wait until spring turkey and fishing seasons.
I, on the other hand, love this time of year because it means I'm close to something else. It is almost time for the antlers to start dropping.
Some of you might think I'm crazy, but as time has gone on, I find myself enjoying looking for shed antlers more than hunting the animals themselves. This is how I got here.
The long journey to shed hunting success
My first few years of hunting were pretty much beginner's luck. I shot my first buck in my third hunting season. I was really lucky. My first buck was a 133-inch 10-pointer. A few minutes after I shot that buck, I shot a 4-point that happened to wander down the same path. So my first two bucks and deer ever came on a double. A couple years later, I shot a 140-inch 10-pointer.
At the time, I didn't realize how lucky my last two seasons had been and that the big bucks don't always come that easy. I should have had an idea. I started shed hunting a few years before I began deer hunting. Every off-season, I headed into the woods with friends and family in hopes of picking up a big shed.
Of course, I never found anything. We had no idea what we were doing. We'd head out there and walk every inch of our hunting area right up to the property boundaries on a single hike. It was pretty much dumb luck when on one hike my friend and my dad both managed to pick up an antler. On the former find, it was only found when my friend stepped on it. I had walked right past it.
Michigan is a rough place to deer hunt, let alone shed hunt. It wasn't until I lived for a fall in western Wyoming years later that I finally saw natural deer behavior. I quickly realized then that none of the how-to magazine articles or TV shows applied to Michigan deer hunting. There are half a million hunters here. Simply put, the deer are terrified of their own shadows. Bucks rarely live to be 2.5 years old because the hunting pressure is drastically different than what one finds in big buck paradises like Iowa or the Dakotas. For the most part, deer behavior simply doesn't follow the rules here.
It affects shed hunting, too. Once Michigan's firearms season kicks in, it isn't uncommon for whitetail bucks to either go 100-percent nocturnal in the winter months or to disappear from trail cameras completely. Some get shot miles and miles away. Other bucks disappear without a trace, some only show up on cam again the following July.
When it comes to shed antlers, most Michigan deer hunters here have tried to find sheds at least once. But most give up in frustration. "I can never find a thing!" is a common phrase I hear.
Logically, I should have given up. I spent many late winters and early springs fruitlessly walking the woods on both private land and public simply because I didn't know how to properly search for antlers yet. But for some reason it was an itch I couldn't scratch, and year after year, I tried and failed.
That was until one spring as I made my way through some thick cover. As I ducked under some low branches and stood up, right there at my feet was an old, bleached 4-point side. I was in total shock. It had finally happened; I'd found my first shed!
I found two deer antlers that first successful year, and it lit a fire under me for finding sheds every season from there on.
More rewarding than deer hunting?
As much as I love deer hunting, I've never been particularly good at stalking the animals. So I limit most of my hunts to treestands and ground blinds. While I enjoy this type of hunting, it can get a little frustrating sitting there in the late season when the deer herd just isn't cooperating and your tags are still unfilled.
But with shed hunting, you have to get up and work for everything that you find. There really isn't hunting gear that can give you an advantage other than a pair of good boots and some binoculars. The rest is on you as a hunter. Hunting from a blind or treestand at times is simply all about luck. For the most part, there is no such thing in shed hunting. You have to work to earn every antler you find. This has made every antler I've found special, no matter the size.
The funny thing about shed hunting is that one would think it would be easier to find the antlers the bigger they are. But no, just like hunting the actual animals, the opposite seems to be true. One goal I've been working on for the past five years is just to find a 5-point side. I still haven't done it after nearly 20 years of shed hunting. I've picked up tons of 4-point sides from the bedding areas and food plots, but a 5-point deer shed has eluded me. The quest to find one has probably driven more of my time in the deer woods than hunting for the animals themselves.
A newfound respect for the animal
As much as I love taking a big buck and filling my freezer full of venison. I also sometimes catch myself hoping I never see specific bucks just so I can look for their antlers in the spring. Why? Well, it's hard to put a finger on it. It may be something only the most die-hard antler hunters can understand. But I guess there are a variety of reasons really. The first is simply this: once you shoot a big buck, the story ends. Once that monster buck is gone, he's gone and nothing is going to bring him back.
Don't get me wrong. I love harvesting a deer. Six years ago, I shot a 117-inch 10 pointer, left me with my hands shaking uncontrollably for a solid five minutes after the shot. This past season, I shot a 110-inch, 7-pointer to end a long deer-less drought. This year was especially rewarding because I didn't get many hunting trips in due to work and other commitments. But I'm also always hit with a slight twinge of sadness when this happens because it means that the chase is over. You can't help but respect any buck that defies to the odds to live long enough to grow an impressive set of antlers.
But with shed antler hunting, the story doesn't end. You're just writing another chapter when you pick up a big piece of white gold. It's especially rewarding if you can do it on public land. Shed hunting also gives you something to look forward to the following season. Part of me is always excited to think about what that big buck may look like the following season.
As I write this, the snow is starting to melt here in Michigan, exposing bare ground. Conditions are perfect for the start of shed season and I can't wait to spot the first tine of the year. I can't wait to hit those favorite south-facing slopes. I can't wait to check those heavily traversed feeding areas.
Like catch and release, but for hunting
When Manabu Kurita caught a 22-pound, 5-ounce bass in Japan in 2009, many anglers were livid that the fish was kept. Never mind the fact largemouth bass are considered an invasive species there and by law have to be kept when caught by law.
But the incident just goes to show the evolution of fishing. Sure there are tons of anglers who still fish to eat. There's nothing wrong with that. There are also many anglers who just like to fish for the pure fun of it. We love and respect these animals. While we want to interact with them in some way, we also don't necessarily feel we have to kill one to enjoy them. Much like releasing a bass to grow bigger, every antler I find is another buck I get to seek for another year of possible adventures.
This is kind of the point I'm at with deer and shed antler hunting. In recent years, I've taken as much joy from matching up a set of sheds from a buck I have on camera all year than I've gotten from downing a big buck with my shotgun. Sure, I don't get the tasty venison, but I do get to take a little piece of that deer home that I can enjoy for years after the fact. To me, hunting was never strictly about the harvest anyway. I'm not going to die of starvation if I don't get a deer, which is why I'm fine with not shooting one every year. I know there are plenty of serious shed hunters who will agree.
Not that it doesn't suck to get skunked during deer season, but shed hunting helps make up for it. As soon as the calendar turns over Jan. 1, I'm already making my shed hunting strategies and taking stock of what is still out there and what sheds it may be possible to find. It's like a second season. But better because this one has no specified times I can go. It has no bag limits or size restrictions. One of the other benefits I don't get from sitting on my butt in a treestand is the exercise I get from hours and hours of hiking.
Go out and give shed hunting a serious try this year while your buddies are all lamenting the end of deer season. I'm happy and excited this time of year because the fun is just beginning. You may find like me, that shed hunting is just as fun, if not more fun than hunting for the deer themselves.