Although deer hunting seasons wrapped up a few weeks ago with the close of archery season, the search for shed antlers is just picking up.
“I’ve been out a couple times and found a few, but I have also seen a few deer still carrying antlers,” said Aberdeen’s Mark Grote, who manages Wylie Park. “When I see that I tend to back out of an area so I don’t chase them onto a neighbor’s place.”
Bucks typically lose their antlers from January through March, though in some rare cases they cast them earlier.
“The first one I found this year was by accident in December when I was out taking down ground blinds,” Grote said. “Shed hunting’s a blast, and actually I think it’s a growing sport.”
Grote arrowed his first archery buck in 1983 and said he’s been actively shed hunting ever since. He primarily targets an area of private land along the James River where he’s been hunting since 1994.
“When I first started it was all about learning about the deer so I could hunt them the following year,” he said. “Now it’s more about getting out there and enjoying it.”
Grote said hunters can learn a lot about the deer they hunt not only from the sheds themselves, but from other deer signs left behind in the field.
“Most people that are into this are outdoor people, and this is just another excuse to get out there and learn about deer,” he said. “You can see where they wintered, see the trails and see where they’re rubbing. This time of year you can get into areas where you can’t or don’t want to get into during the year in case you spook them out of the area you want to hunt. It adds a whole other element to being an outdoorsman and can help you become a better hunter.”
While Grote has been shed hunting for more than three decades, he’s only taken his secret weapon with him into the field the past few years. Trapper, Grote’s dog, is a cross between a Golden Retriever and an English Setter.
“He’s just a red dog that loves to hang out with me,” Grote said. “He’s a runner and loves to go. My kids actually trained him to find sheds; they’re the ones that got that ball rolling. They trained him in the house during the winter with antlers I’d brought home. They’d make him sit and stay and then hide the bones all over the house — in my boots, in the laundry — and he’d go find them. They got pretty creative.”
Using dogs, primarily retrieving breeds, to hunt sheds is also growing in popularity. In fact, real and even fake, synthetic antlers can commonly be found right next to more traditional training and retrieving dummies in many sporting goods stores. Books, DVDs, YouTube videos and plenty of articles are also dedicated to shed-dog training.
“Their noses are incredible and can find more sheds than human eyesight alone,” Grote said. “They can dig up antlers from under the snow that your eyes just can’t see or that you walk over. My dog doesn’t find every shed — he’s no miracle dog. But he sure loves what he’s doing and finds more than I would with the naked eye.”
However, Grote said that people have to remember that while shed hunting dogs will still be dogs.
“One thing to keep in mind is that an antler is a bone,” he said. “Mine’s brought back leg bones or ribs and is just as happy as can be. I just take it, pet him, tell him good dog and away we go.”
Live animals also can distract a shed dog from the task at hand.
“Another thing to keep in mind — and my dog gets confused on this — is when pheasants start popping up,” he said. “You can tell he’s wondering if he’s pheasant hunting or not, and I know he’s missed some sheds because he’s on a rooster.”
Still, Grote said Trapper goes with him on every shed hunt and has even been called in as a reinforcement on others.
“I have friends who do this without a dog,” he said. “They’ll find a big shed but can’t find the other matching antler, so they’ll call and say, ‘Bring the dog!’ It’s really no different than pheasant or waterfowl hunting, because it’s pure awesomeness to watch a good dog work. It’s an art form in my eyes.”
It’s no surprise that to find more sheds you need to search in places likely to hold deer, and Grote said during the winter months that means finding bedding areas and reliable food sources.
“What it comes down to is where they’re spending the most time,” he said. “Your most active areas are in their beds or feeding areas, but not so much their travel corridors. This time of year they’re either sleeping or on their feet eating, and they’re generally sleeping close to where they eat.”
Grote said deer trails that cross a fence line can be a decent spot to look, as sometimes the antler can be jarred loose when a deer hops a fence. However, he said any exposed corn or bean stubble next to good habitat is a likely bet.
He also said areas that hold a lot of deer during hunting seasons may not be the best location for shed hunting.
“Another thing that you have to be aware of is where a deer winters isn’t necessarily where it lives year-round — that’s a big misconception,” he said. “For instance, where I archery hunt it’s great during the season, but come winter even the does move out of there and find a better spot to winter.”
The biggest thing to remember, Grote said, is that you can’t find a shed sitting on your couch.
“It’s not always just me and the dog,” he said. “I’ve taken all my kids and even my wife has gone with me. It’s a great way to spend the day outside.”
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