The Significance of Shed Antlers
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a shed antler fanatic, especially when it comes to blacktail sheds. Each time I find an antler, a surge of energy rips through me as I frantically begin scanning the ground for the match. Unconsciously my mind conjures up images of the buck on the hoof and what he was doing – and more importantly, why.
Looking back, there was a time I didn’t care too much about sheds. I might haul one out with me during a fall hunt from time to time but I certainly never put any thought into looking for them in the winter or early spring. All that’s changed over the last decade.
Today, I look forward to the late winter and early spring nearly as much as the opener of early bow season. There are sheds to be found and they play a key role in my overall blacktail strategy. Before we dive in, let’s examine the physiology involved.
The length of daylight, or photoperiod, decreases in late fall. The diminishing amount of daylight reaching the back of the deer’s eye triggers the pituitary gland to produce fewer hormones, which in turn, drops the level of testosterone coursing through a buck’s body. This reduction in testosterone is the major catalyst that drives antlers to drop.
When testosterone levels drop significantly, bone-eating cells called “osteoclasts” form at the pedicle, where the antler attaches to the skull. These osteoclasts reabsorb calcium from the antler, drawing it back into the skull. Eventually, so much calcium is reabsorbed that only tiny, threadlike connections called “spicules” hold the antler in place. When these connections become too weak to support the antler, it falls off. The process happens so quickly, scientists have noted you could literally hang a moose by its antlers one day, and the antlers would fall off under their own weight the next. As a result, antlers release from the pedicle anytime, anyplace.
The significance of shed antlers is multi-faceted. First and most obvious, cast antlers reveal the size/age-class of bucks that survived beyond the close of most hunting seasons. This fact alone should be motivation enough to turn off the ball game and hit the woods. Secondly, the specific location where you find antlers provides insight into what that buck was doing and where he chose to be at that particular time. For example, was the antler at the edge of a blackberry patch (preferred food source) or was it cast along a brush-choked trail leading into a bedding thicket? These special finds are telling you a story and if you listen carefully and remain curious you can come away with much more than another bone for the pile.
I have found many sheds in or around core rut zones (see Part 2). I believe there are two primary reasons for this. The rut runs through December and does are settled back into their core areas, or have shifted to quality food sources adjacent to rutting areas. Bucks are still interested in sniffing out those last few estrous females and concurrently I’ve seen bucks void of antlers in late December.
Another aspect to consider is habitat change over time. If you are finding old sheds in the same area you are finding fresh sheds, this tells you that bucks are wintering in this particular area for a reason. Your job now is to understand why. Most likely it’s an area that provides a key winter food source but there may be other reasons as well. Security cover, thermal cover during cold winters and/or an easy place to hole up and conserve energy. Keep a notebook with you on your shed hunts and log the as many relevant details as you can. I also plot them on an aerial map and update it annually for the areas I hunt.
In 2007 I moved from Oregon back to my home state of Washington and I was once again learning new areas. That winter while hiking through a brushy area that looked “bucky”, I found a small 3pt antler that was at least one year old, if not two. A couple minutes later I found another fork-horn antler from a different buck based on the shape and weathering. I’m not known as the most lucky of shed hunters so finding two in less than 5 minutes was a big deal! I knew I’d located a preferred wintering area for at least a handful of bucks.
Time passed and hundreds of hours were logged hiking this and other new areas as I collected data. I found another half-dozen sheds along the way and noted the particulars – date, time, size, location details, age of antler, and weather conditions (for example, if the shed appeared to have been dropped before or after the last snow, was the winter mild, severe, etc.).
The first 3-point I found on the left, and the match set found the following year.
The following winter I was back in the area and after considerable time invested and without finding any antlers, I decided to move up the ridge into a patch of reprod. 2008 was a harsh low-land winter so my reasoning was that bucks would be seeking the canopy cover provided by the mature stand of Douglas Fir and the 15-year growth that bordered it. Bingo! Not 10 minutes later I found a great 4×3 match set laying side by side beneath the heavy reprod canopy.
Several trail cameras finally revealed the buck I was after.
Finding blacktail sheds in western Washington and Oregon can be challenging. Consider these photos below. Finding fresh sheds is an all-out race with spring green up. Finding old blacktail sheds is not about glassing open hillsides for sun-bleached antlers. Instead you’ll need more luck than anything. Big leaf maples and red alder trees literally cover the ground with a blanket of leaves each fall so any antlers from the previous year will likely get covered up in mixed forest areas. In openings and clear cuts, you will contend with sword ferns and salal, both of which reduce visibility to almost nil. Oak habitats provide and easier go but in my experience you also complete with a lot more squirrels. So there’s no easy answer. The buck above has (3) more sets of antlers strewn across my hunting area somewhere. I have yet to find any of them.
Part 5 of this series is all about natural food source considerations for the time of year you hunt.
The white blob looked out of place…
The Prize! A match that took me four years to find.
See anything? A brute of a buck dropped this 6 point shed in an open area. It went un-found for at least 4 or 5 years.
A long day and not much to show for it, but these old sheds play a key role in my overall blacktail strategy over time.