Finding shed antlers isn’t easy. If you want to know just how hard shed hunting it is, go through your trail-cam inventory and count up the bucks you know or suspect made it through the hunting season. Then multiply that number by two (for each antler). Got your total? Now compare that to the average number of sheds you find each season. Odds are you’re missing a whole lot of horns. Don’t feel bad. I know some of the best shed hunters on the planet, and they don’t get them all, either. But we can all get better. Through a combination of hard work and smarter searching, you can start to close that gap between the number of sheds on the ground and the number you actually find. Here are 20 shed hunting tips for making this spring’s bone-collecting season your best ever.
1. Wait for prime shed hunting conditions.
It’s natural to want to start shed hunting early, especially in areas where it’s a competition sport. But if you want the most antlers for your efforts, wait until you know the majority of bucks have dropped both sides. Observe hot food sources from afar and keep trail cams out in popular feeding and travel areas. When you start seeing half-racks, gather your shed hunting gear. Spot a bunch of bald bucks, and it’s time to go scoop up some antlers.
2. Search deer bedrooms for shed antlers.
“Food is important,” says Dan Johnson, veteran shed hunter and whitetail blogger. “But to me, shed hunting is a lot like early- and late- season hunting; you want to know where bucks are bedding. Usually it’s in cover close to a food source, but also in an area with lots of direct sunlight (think south-facing slopes) and protection from the wind.” Johnson, who lives in southern Iowa, recently proved his theory by picking up eight sheds in a single day in such an area.
3. Walk along the water.
Whitetails need, or at least like, to grab a drink of fresh water regardless of season. This makes any open water sources—springs, creeks, and rivers—as the trails and funnels leading to and from them, excellent places to search for sheds. In fact, one of the most memorable sheds I’ve ever found was one I spotted as I glassed a major trail that led off a south-facing slope to a flowing river over a quarter-mile away. Deer were making a nightly run from their bedding area to grab a drink before dispersing to several nearby ag fields. So, while winter food sources are always a solid bet for shed hunting, don’t neglect open water in the area, as deer will visit it regularly to hydrate.
4. Slow down to spot more bone.
Spotting a shed antler usually means spying part of a nut-brown beam against an oak-leaf backdrop or a white tine tip against a patch of snow. The only way to do that—other than sheer luck—is to take your time. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that finding more sheds is as simple as covering more ground. It isn’t. Instead of covering three miles as fast as you can walk it, cover half that amount at a leisurely pace. You might not walk as far, but you’ll probably find more horns.
5. Look for shed antlers within bow range.
It’s human nature to let your eyes bounce all over the landscape, hoping you’ll spot that tall-tined shed screaming to be found. But that’s a mistake, says whitetail expert Mark Drury (druryoutdoors.com). “Most of the antlers I find are within that same range I’d expect to kill a good buck with a bow,” he says. “I’ve learned that if I can keep my focus in that 30-yards-and-under area—including frequent glancing right at my feet— I simply find more sheds.”
6. Don’t forget to look up now and then.
Shed hunt long enough and you’ll inevitably adopt the slumped posture of a Cro-Magnon. To avoid a trip to the chiropractor, make a point of looking up now and then, especially in brushy areas—because you might spot a “hanger” shed. While it’s certainly true that the vast majority of antlers will be lying on the ground, every now and then bucks will shove their heads into shrubs or small trees to work an antler loose. While finding a hanger shed doesn’t happen often, it makes for a memorable find and gives your neck a much-needed stretch.
7. Wait for ideal shed hunting weather.
It seems counter-intuitive, but sunny days—when bright light should highlight antlers—present some of the toughest shed hunting conditions. Too much contrast is to blame. Sure, a sunbeam can highlight a horn if it hits it just right, but that same bright sun creates harsh shadows that can hide even a dandy antler. Wait for an overcast day, and you’ll spot shed antlers that you would walk right past in harsh sunlight.
8. Go for the green in big-woods habitat.
Pennsylvania whitetail guide Steve Sherk, who hunts in the big woods of the Allegheny Mountains, says that finding sheds can be as simple as finding the thick green growth of conifer trees. “In a hard winter, our bucks go to stands of pine, spruce, and hemlock located low on the mountain,” he says. “Those spots offer them good thermal cover and protection from the wind, so they just bed up there and don’t move much. I keep cameras on the edges of these areas, and when I start getting pics of shed bucks, I just move in and start looking. I’ve found a bunch of antlers–including matched sets–lying right in a buck’s bed.”
9. Save your shed hunting for the prime hours of the day.
Of course, we have to go shed hunting whenever we have the time, and if that means a sunny day, don’t stay home. But instead of pounding ground all day, focus your effort on the same prime time morning and evening slots you would if you were hunting deer instead of just antlers. Keep that sun—now low in the sky—at your back, and sheds should jump out at you.
10. Keep a shed-hunting journal.
You can take some of the random bumbling and roving out of shed hunting by keeping a journal. Every time you take a shed trek, simply write down the date, location, and duration of your search. Follow that info with data on any sheds you scoop up, including location, size, etc. You can also include weather conditions and time of day. Over time you’ll have accumulated a personal data bank of the best spots, times, and conditions for maximizing your shed hunting efforts.
11. Go back to the same spots to find more sheds.
It’s tempting to write off an area you’ve already searched, but don’t. Remember, antler drop is a bell-shaped curve, with some bucks dropping early, a bunch casting a few weeks later, and a handful seemingly waiting for their new antlers to pop the old ones off. Keep working tried-and-true spots until you are sure deer are done dropping antlers.
12. Be sure to check green food sources for sheds.
Most winter deer feeding focuses on high-carb sources like corn and beans, so it would be silly to ignore those spots while shed hunting. But in the prime antler-drop weeks of late winter and early spring, the first green forage of the season (grasses, forbs, and alfalfa) starts popping up. Whitetails crave green food now and will abandon the winter stuff in a heartbeat. Follow them and you’ll pick up horns everyone else is missing.
13. Score and scribe your shed antlers.
If you find more than a couple sheds every year and you’re like most of us, you’ll probably toss them in a pile. And given enough time, you’ll not only forget where you found the antler but also what year (trust me on this). If you don’t want to keep a journal (see Tip 10), then just take a minute or two to grab a No. 2 pencil and write the date and location you found the antler itself. This is useful information in any case, but especially helpful if you’re trying to match a shed with a buck that’s still walking. I also rough-score my larger sheds and pencil that on the antler too. Pencil marks can easily be erased with a finger or a damp rag if you want to see your antler “clean” again.
14. Gather friends and family and then split up to search.
Shed hunting can be a great social activity, a time to gather with other deer nuts and enjoy some time in the woods. But while there’s a definite advantage to having extra legs and eyes, too many guys on the same hunt can also work against you, according to Mark Drury. “We used to make a skirmish line, like an old deer drive, for our team shed hunts,” he says. “Then we learned that one guy would see a buddy getting ahead of him and hurry to catch up, and then the next guy would see that and pick up the pace…and before we knew it, we were racing through prime ground, which is a sure-fire way to miss sheds. Now we just divide up in groups of three or four, take smaller chunks of ground, and focus on really covering them well.”
15. Use a Grid Search to Find a Matched Set
What’s the toughest shed on the planet to grab? Right, the matching side to a dandy you already found. Sometimes those giant deer are kind enough to drop both sides next to each other, but not often. While snatching a single side is certainly cause for celebration, it inevitably leads to a desperate search for the elusive match. Experts like Mark Drury and Don Kisky long ago told me the value of setting up a grid search in the immediate area. Get out or pull up a map, pick a manageable block of real estate adjacent to the first find, and systematically walk it. If that block doesn’t produce, create another one and start over, repeating the process until you’ve walked every square foot within a 500-yard circle around the initial antler. Extra eyes help here too.
16. Turn you dog into a shed hunting machine.
Think of how many more sheds you could find if your eyes were only two feet off the dirt and you could smell antlers! Well, that’s not happening, but you can teach your dog to find antlers and increase your shed finding many-fold. For a rundown of training tips from one of the country’s top dog men, check out the story we did last year on training your own shed dog.
17. Take the kids out shed hunting.
My friend Steven Koenen and his wife, Melissa, started taking their daughter, Braelyn, on shed hunts in a toboggan before she could walk far, and now, as a toddler, she is already a veteran shed hunter. “It’s fun to see her excitement when we find a shed, and she’s kind of turned into a bit of a snob,” Steven laughs. “Melissa found a nice side off a 2-year old buck the other day, and Brae turned to me and said ‘Look dad, mommy found a small one!’” Like fishing and small game hunting, shed hunting is a perfect introduction to the outdoors for youngsters, as it’s active, allows them to talk, and can be cut short whenever kids get tired. Hint: Don’t be afraid to up the odds by planting an antler or three for kids to find, as nothing breeds excitement more than success, even if it’s engineered. Koenen notes that going with a youngster slows the entire process down which, not surprisingly, has helped him find more sheds himself.
18. Check the places where bucks duck and jump.
Ditches, creek crossings, and fence jumps are all great shed-finding spots, mainly because the effort required to cross the obstacle frequently jars a buck’s antlers loose. I find more antlers in these spots after a low-snow winter, and I think it’s because bucks are traveling widely as they switch to different food sources throughout the season.
19. Keep your eyes near the road to find more sheds.
Let’s be clear: I am not advocating distracted driving here. (It should go without saying that no antler is worth a wreck.) But do keep your eyes peeled for sheds as you drive low-traffic back roads in good deer country. I’ve found many road sheds over the years, and most follow a similar pattern: I slow way down when I know I’m approaching a fence jump, farm field, or ditch crossing, and then I just scan for anything that looks antler-ish. If I spot something, I stop, pull out the binoculars, and verify. Finally—and this is a critical step—unless I know the landowner won’t mind my scooping the shed (I’m going to offer it to him anyway), I don’t set foot on the property until I secure permission. I found the only matched set of the season last year this way. When I walked up to admire the four-point left side, I spotted the right side lying 10 yards away.
20. Get Crafty With Your Sheds
After 19 pro tips for finding sheds, we’re going to end with a tip that assumes you’ll find some. While the biggest sheds we pick up are usually displayed prominently, the smaller ones are often relegated to a box or crate where they live in obscurity for years. Why not turn these natural works of art into useful items you can display proudly? If you’ve got a pile of sheds, you can create a chandelier or lamp stand. That beefy main beam–all that’s left after squirrels and mice destroyed the tines–can be turned into a handle for a knife or letter opener. And with a simple bandsaw and drill, you can turn cross-sections of antler into unique buttons for your favorite wool hunting shirt. I have more than one friend who has turned his shed-hunting obsession into a side business.
Read Next: 18 More Keys to Finding More Shed Antlers