Updated: Dec 9, 2020
In our last article, Making A Shed Hunting Plan, we discussed mapping out your shed hunting trips to maximize your efficiency when afield. But suppose you have never shed hunted before, haven't had much luck, or just need a refresher. Here is a crash course in all the basics of how to have success in pursuit of some white gold this spring.
If you needed to write an effective shed hunting guide or tell someone where to shed hunt in 10 words or less, it would read just like this:
1.) Active food sources
2.) Bedding areas
3.) Everywhere in between
This article could end there with a "Good luck!" after just 8 words and provide enough information that you could go shed hunt and have success. Although this would be sufficient, it merely scratches the surface and there is more to know than these 3 things if you truly want to be a successful shed hunter. Let's dive in!
What to Bring Shed Hunting
As with any hunting trip, some gear is essential and some just helps you be more effective. In this case, all you really need is a good pair of comfortable boots and to dress warm enough so you aren't ready to go home after 30 minutes. These next items are not essential, but will improve your experience tremendously:
1.) Day Pack- This can be anything from a simple draw string bag to a small hunting pack to a large back pack. We have used all and don't have a preference besides it needs to accommodate everything on this list besides our binoculars.
Our current choice is the Willow Creek pack by ALPS Outdoorz because it includes a water bladder, is medium size at just 18" tall, and can be found on amazon for a very reasonable price, click the image below to check it out! In addition to your gear, if large enough you could also use it to pack any found sheds in so you don't need to tote them around in hand.
2.) Binoculars- If you have them, a good pair of binos should never be left at home on a shed hunting adventure. Reason being, they will save you extra miles in walking up to sticks and other objects that look like antlers.
I cannot tell you how many times I have seen what looked to be an antler from 100 yards across a field only to glass it with my binoculars and realize it was just a stick laying in a precarious way to look like a shed antler.
On the flip side, I also cannot tell you how many times I forgot my binoculars and would walk 100-200 yards to check out a potential shed just to find out it was a stick. We highly recommend a roof prism style binocular in either 8x42 or 10x42 as they're compact and provide excellent clarity for both hunting and scouting purposes.
Prices will range from $50-$1000 but you don't need to break the bank. My previous binoculars were an inexpensive pair of Bushnell Sportsman 10x42 but have recently been upgraded to the Vortex Diamondback HD 10 x42's (highly recommend!).
Both on a Vortex Optics Harness that can be easily found online. Nikon and Leupold also both have great binoculars at reasonable prices and its an investment you wouldn't regret.
3.) Water and snacks- whatever you need to get you through the day. Don't let dehydration and hunger curb your outing.
4.) Toilet paper- self explanatory. Don't let #3 lead to a #2 that ruins your day.
5.) A walking stick- Completely optional but if you have one with a hook on the end its amazing how much easier it is to navigate terrain and pull in those hard to reach antlers that have been dragged into the brush. It's also useful for pushing briers out of the way to save your own limbs from getting cut up!
Now that we have essential gear covered, lets take a look at the when!
When is shed hunting season? Timing is everything!
The one question we always see from novice shed hunters is, "What time of the year should I go shed hunting?" And our general rule of thumb here in the northeast is the first day of March without snow.
Reason being that if you start shed hunting too early, many bucks may not have dropped yet and you run the risk of pressuring bucks out of the area that otherwise would have dropped nearby. Running trail cameras will help you determine when the majority of your local bucks have dropped and tell you when it's safe to head out in search.
Some years most bucks will have dropped in mid to late February and some years most bucks don't drop until the middle of March, it can be fairly random at times.
Separate from the month or time of the year, some weather conditions also need to be considered when shed hunting. If it's March 15th and all of your local bucks had shed but there is 20'' of snow on the ground, you're probably better off waiting until the snow melts to go searching as most antlers will be covered. In years we have little to no snow, I will go out towards the end of February and search the easy places such as fields to find those early drops.
When the snow is gone and the time of year is right, day to day weather can also make an impact on your success. Cloudy, overcast days after some rain will be best and even rainy days can be excellent shed hunting days. Reason being, the ground will look dark and antlers will stand out more than when the sun is out. The worst days will be bright and sunny with no cloud cover as everything will have more glare, more shine, and more shadows than usual. If you need to go on a sunny day, walking with the sun at your back will be best.
Where to Look When Shed Hunting
Active Food Sources
The first place we recommend starting your search is any active food source in your hunting area. These spots will vary, both from year to year and even week to week. A field that is green in December may be brown by February and deer will stop feeding there.
Sometimes acorns will be present one week and long gone the next, so it's your job to find the hot spot that deer are using. Food sources are pretty straight forward so we won't spend much time on the them but here is a list of common ones where you can start:
1.) Crops/fields- cut or standing corn, soybeans, green alfalfa fields, rye, winter wheat, turnips, etc. Sometimes deer will even feed on native grasses. While the edges of these fields and 20 yards inside the woods by these areas will be best, don't overlook the center of the fields.
Not all sheds will standout when glassing with your binoculars and due to the very slightest terrain changes, it's not hard to overlook a shed until you're 20 feet away from it. Grassy buffers between fields or in adjacent woods should be thoroughly combed through as deer will bed here between feeding sessions.
Also pay attention to fence/hedge rows, hay bales, etc. that are often near fields as they can be hot spots with a hot spot.
2.) Mast Crops/Fruit Bearing Trees- some acorns will be left over from the fall and if deer find them, will browse until they're gone. Similarly, apple orchards or other fruit bearing trees may have late drops that deer will find and feed on.
3.) General Browse- Deer are browsers by nature meaning they will feed on anything they can throughout the day. In fact, natural browse will make up most of their diet in most situations during all seasons of the year.
This includes leaves, twigs, and even early buds on trees. It's a good idea to check for downed trees from the winter that may have buds on them. In big woods, browse might be the only food available for the local deer herd, making it hard for the shed hunter as deer won't be concentrated in one small area.
Besides feeding, deer that have been heavily pressured will spend most of their time in prime bedding locations this time of year. Primarily because they will feel safe and secondly because it will keep them warm. But not all bedding areas are created equally when it comes to cold winter weather so hone in on these spots:
1.) South facing slopes! South facing slopes receive more sunlight and earlier in the day than their north facing siblings so if you have to prioritize, start with them. Anytime you're driving past or walking through the woods, you'll notice that if there is snow on the ground, one side of a hill will have less than the other or no snow at all, this is the south facing slope.
2.) When there is heavy snow, cedar/pine covered creek bottoms will provide plenty of cover for the local deer herd and will cause them to use these locations as a yarding area. Be sure to walk these places thoroughly.
3.) Similar to #2, any type of random pine tree or cluster of pine trees are worth investigating as they all provide some time of cover from the wind, rain, and snow. Sometimes, trails will bounce from tree to tree so they're easy to follow in the bedding area.
4.) Some other bedding areas will be less obvious, such as benches that receive a lot of sunlight or natural grasses in low lying areas. But when they are found, and deer are clearly using them, they should be checked well and often.
Once you have identified feeding and bedding areas, the last place you need to identify is any beaten down trail between these 2 locations. Unless deer are regularly being bumped, it's safe to say that almost all of their time will be spent bedding, walking to food, feeding, walking back to bed, and bedding again.
Pay extra close attention to any obstacles that the deer have to navigate such as creek crossings, logs/downed trees, fence crossing (over or under), thick vegetation, etc. These places can cause an antler to jar loose more than when a deer is just walking so be on the lookout.
When walking trails and transition zones, pay attention to not just the trail or path, but also 20-30 feet off the trail as antlers don't always fall straight to the ground. Squirrels and other critters have also been known to drag antlers around if they find them so don't expect every shed antler to be on the trail you're walking.
If you have limited time to shed hunt, these are the 3 places you need to focus on as they will yield the most pieces of white gold this spring.
When walking these 3 areas, there are additional things you can do to increase your odds of finding a shed, as not all of them will be laying in plain sight ready to jump up and bite you.
1.) Slow Down! It's okay to walk miles for piles, but be the tortoise not the hare. It's easy to walk past sheds that don't stand out if you're going to fast so take your time.
Use your binoculars to glass trails or fields when able to save you time and energy to avoid walking up on things that aren't sheds and spotting sheds from a long distance away.
2.) Stay focused! Don't get distracted by deer sign such as rubs and scrapes. It's okay to look at that stuff, but when you do, take extra time to adequately check the rest of the land around it to not overlook anything.
This also goes for technology, if you find yourself constantly checking your phone, turn it off, put it away, and enjoy the great outdoors. If you need to check your phone for mapping purposes, just be sure to not be walking at the same time.
3.) Don't look for antlers! While this may sound counter intuitive, hear me out. Most sheds are not going to be lying in plain sight on a beaten trail just waiting to be picked up. Often times they may be covered with leaves with just the tines sticking up, or behind a stick tines down, etc.
So look for features of an antler and not just what you would expect to see. This includes the curve of a main beam and tines sticking up. To practice this, carry around an old antler and toss it over your back into the woods then turn around and see how quick you can pick it out.
4.) Miles for Piles! Just get out and walk! It's good to be out enjoying the outdoors anyways so cover as much ground as you can. Don't be afraid to check hot spots more than once because you never know when a deer that was holding drops after you've already walked through.
This especially holds true when you start your search in mid February when all bucks haven't dropped yet. It's also easy to miss sheds, I can't tell you how many times I've found sheds from the previous winter that I had walked past numerous times while shed hunting and archery hunting.
5.) Train a dog! Dogs are great companions, especially in the outdoors! Training one to use it's nose can increase your success rate when out searching for sheds.
6.) Don't lose confidence! It can be discouraging to walk miles and miles without finding a single shed, we get it. But when you start to lose confidence, your concentration wanes and you won't be searching nearly as hard as you should be.
If you've ever found a shed, notice how you go on high alert trying to find that other side and how your enthusiasm peaks to find more? I know its hard, but try to keep that enthusiasm high, even when luck seems to be low.
This guide is not all encompassing, as I'm not sure that such a guide exists because there is no better teacher than experience. The more sheds you find, the better you'll get at finding them, it's as simple as that.
At the very worst, you'll have spent a day enjoying God's great country in the outdoors surrounded by peace and serenity.
If you are truly having a hard time, check out our article from last year outlining 5 reasons why you Aren't Finding Sheds. So get out and find that white gold! Oh, and be sure to share your success with us when you do!!
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