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Shed Antlers: Another Reason to Explore Nature in Winter

Maybe you’re a hunter. Maybe you’re not.

But, there’s a unique form of hunting you will enjoy. It is a challenging and rewarding pastime that makes for an excellent family outdoor activity this time of year.

It is shed deer antler hunting.

Beginning in late December and continuing through April, white-tailed and mule deer shed their antlers for regrowth purposes in Nebraska. A number of deer drop their antlers in February and March.

A white-tailed deer buck with one antler trots in the woods on a mid-January day in rural Saunders County, Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Nebraska law allows a person to pick up, possess, buy, sell, or barter antlers or horns that have been dropped or shed by deer, elk, or pronghorn (antelope).

Some compare shed deer antler hunting to an Easter egg hunt, but on a larger scale for greater prizes and without all the candy, of course.

A shed mule deer antler in the Nebraska sandhills. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The objective of shed hunting is to hike through the woods or fields in search of these hidden prizes — molted antlers! As you might expect, an antler lying on the ground or in brush isn’t necessarily easy to spot, especially if it’s small and it has been there a while or if there is deep snow cover. Their whitish-gray color can blend with cover on the ground. Sometimes, you’ll find a shed deer antler in the strangest of places. Also, each dropped antler is different and has one-of-a-kind characteristics much like snowflakes further lending to the intrigue of the hunt. Interestingly, you’ll find that some have even been gnawed by mice, squirrels, foxes and porcupines.

Finding deer antler sheds has become a very popular hobby for hunters and non-hunters alike. The rewards of a shed antler hunt are many. The antlers found in the wild can be used for everything from pure collecting purposes to dog chews to making crafts such as picture frames, knife handles coat racks and chandeliers. Shed antlers may also be shared with others who may not have access to nature. The antlers can even be scored by the North American Shed Hunter’s Club.

But, shed hunting as it is called, is really so much more than those things. It goes deeper. This kind of hunting stimulates the emotional connection we humans have to the natural world. It is about wonder and awe. It makes you wonder if there is a thick, tall, wide set of antlers with many points glimmering in the sunlight amid the snow cover or leaf matter of a forest floor. The awe enters the picture the moment you locate, handle and examine one of these hard, weathered pieces of material containing variety of minerals passed from soil to plants and condensed into blood-nourished bone. 

The base of a shed white-tailed deer antler. Photo by Rob Schutte.

You then have directly connected with nature’s handiwork. For avid shed hunters, it is an emotional rush when you find an antler in the woods, along the edge of an agricultural field or on the prairie. And, locating a matching set of shed antlers is like finding a gold nugget!

Shed hunting forces you to know and connect with the land. You’re constantly, closely surveying the countryside. You’re seeing a variety of wildlife in the process, many different birds. You’re looking intently for signs made by deer. You’re specifically looking for fresh deer tracks, droppings and beds which are obvious indicators that you may be near some antler gold.

Your blogger inspects a white-tailed deer bed in the snow cover of a sheltered windbreak in rural Sarpy County, Nebraska for shed antlers. Photo by Steve Wagner.

Coming across rubbed trees or dirt scrapes made by bucks along deer trails is cause for additional excitement and will certainly prompt you to keep moving throughout an area in the hopes that an antler is laying on the ground not far away.

A shed white-tailed deer antler in snow cover on a Douglas County, Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Shed deer antler hunting really is a simple outdoor pursuit, It doesn’t take much to do. You need to have  permission from landowners to go on their properties, a partner (for safety), a Smartphone or iPhone (for map apps), the proper clothing, a decent pair of binoculars (to glass at extended distances) as well as a five-gallon bucket (hard-sided carrying device to help prevent getting impaled by antlers). Hunting for antlers is not a fitness race either, and should be done with a slower, more leisurely pace so as not to walk past them.

There is also just something about just being in the woods in late winter and early spring. You can walk into a wooded location, sit on a log and glass for the tines of antlers without hearing hardly any noises, except possibly for the wind whistling through the trees and your partner checking on your location. The solitude alone though is worth an antler hunt!

Searching for antlers develops skills for hunters and all outdoor enthusiasts. After a few trips, you gain an understanding of particular areas. You learn the use of habitat by wildlife, and the patterns of deer and other wild animals related to weather. You learn what white-tailed deer have for a winter diet that will also help on future, late season hunts. You learn that deer are creatures of habit — going to the same proximity to spend the winter every year. You also learn that shed antlers offer a snapshot of what particular bucks or what caliber of bucks survived the hunting seasons and are living in a given tract of land for next year’s seasons.

For youth, shed deer antler hunting represents some cool things. It is a nice change of pace, different scenery and good energy release. Kids naturally have the components needed to become successful shed antler hunters. They are low to the ground, curious, love to play games, enjoy finding treasure, get excited to be in a wilderness setting and  possess a lot of energy. The more young people become interested in outdoor activities like shed antler hunting the longer they will carry their enthusiasm and appreciation for nature and memories of their adventures with them.

A youngster displays a shed white-tailed deer antler she found in a wooded area in Douglas County, Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Where and when should a person go look for shed deer antlers? Anyplace where deer hang out regularly and their antlers can fall off, be jolted off or intentionally knocked off. Here are some tips on where and when to find them.

*CHECK THE MENU: In winter, seek areas where deer concentrate to feed. Often, one field, most likely a cornfield that has not been tilled, that has dense woodland cover nearby, will draw all the deer while other fields are left untouched.

*LOOK IN THEIR BEDS: Ovals in grass or snow denote deer beds. They may offer rewards for shed hunters because of the increased likelihood of finding matched sets of antlers, as well as small shed antlers. Be sure to look closely.

*DON’T GO TOO FAR PAST THE BEDROOM: Do not overlook primary deer trails leading into or out of bedding areas for shed deer antlers. Deer trails along south-facing slopes with mature hardwood trees, conifers or plum thickets nearby that have lower-hanging branches are always productive.

* WHERE THEY JUMP: Any spot where a buck has to jump such things as fences, creeks and ditches are all good places to search for shed antlers.

*THE SPECIAL DAYS TO ANTLER HUNT: If you’re serious about finding shed deer antlers, you need to gear into or around what are referred to as the “special days” to hunt for them at appropriately spaced intervals. These are President’s Day (Mid-Late February), St. Patrick’s Day (March 17th), April Fool’s Day (April 1st), Tax Deadline Day (April 15th) and May Day (May 1). By hunting sheds on or near these days, you can help eliminate constant stress on deer and frequently disturbing other wildlife.

*THE CAMERA OPTION: Another option to know when to go hunting for shed deer antlers is to hang digital trail cameras around feeding areas like agricultural fields, or at least along the main trails leading to and from those feeding areas.Once the bucks in your images become antlerless, it will be time to start searching for sheds.

*SHED WEATHER: Regarding weather for shed antler hunting, believe it or not, rainy days are optimal days for seeking sheds because the antlers can shine and catch your eye. Also, don’t let snow cover stop you from shed hunting either as the antlers, or parts thereof, can really stand out and be much easier to detect!

Keep in mind that time outdoors hunting shed antlers is time well-spent!

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About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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