It’s a great time to look for molted deer antlers in Kentucky’s forests and fields.
Shed hunting is legal only on private property. Sheds cannot be sold unless they are made into knife handles, shelves, table lamps, chandeliers, coat racks, or some other useful or decorative item.
For avid deer hunters, the hunt for molted antlers is a post-season scavenger hunt in late winter.
Hunters who are lucky enough to find a set of two large antlers have a ready-made set of antlers that are used to simulate deer fighting during rut.
Here are some shed hunting tips:
• Go slowly and bring binoculars, so you can scan areas that are difficult to walk through. Don’t just wander aimlessly. Walk slowly and thoroughly search the area, in all directions. Focus on one small area at a time and very methodically, concentrating on the ground, 10 to 15 feet ahead, to the left, and to the right. Stop from time to time to really survey the terrain around and behind you. It’s easy to walk several feet away from an antler and never see it.
• While squirrels and mice chew on antlers and damage them, it is possible to find antlers that are many years old. There will always be antlers on the ground to find.
• Antler hot spots are the edges of harvested crop fields, fences, walkways to rest areas, and places where deer now feed, such as green fields of winter wheat. Follow the tracks of deer as they cross ditches and fences, up and down hills, and through thickets.
• A good time to look for sheds is an overcast and cloudy day. It’s much easier to see the sheds without all the glare from the bright sun. Rain tends to cake the leaves and makes the antlers stand out. Train your eyes to look for the bright tip of a tooth among the leaf litter and dull brown sticks.
• The more pairs of eyes you have, the better, so invite family or friends (hunting buddies) to the hunting party in the shed. Get out now before the brush turns green and the mosquitoes and ticks become bothersome.
Deer Antler Growth Cycle
Although some males “drop” their antlers from late January through February, it is not unusual to see a male in early March, with his helmet still intact.
Deer antlers become weak at the pedicle (base) and fall off the deer’s skull, usually when they become loose by jumping a ditch (or fence), getting up from their beds, running, or walking through thick cover. A crust forms over the pedicles and new growth will not resume for several weeks.
Antler growth begins slowly in early spring, then accelerates in June, with longer days and an abundance of protein-rich forage. The antlers of the older males grow rapidly, as much as two inches of the length of the main beam per week, during this period.
The growing and forming antlers are soft and fluffy, covered by a velvety skin that feeds on blood vessels. As the antlers reach their final length and configuration in late summer, they begin to harden into bone. The blood supply is cut off and the velvet coat dries up. By late August, early September, many Kentucky bucks have shed velvet and polished antlers on young trees and woody shrubs.
Antler size and configuration are influenced by access to quality nutrition, age and genetics. Antler growth is regulated by hormones, which are controlled by the photoperiod (length of daylight).
Hunting sheds with a dog
It is possible to train your dog to find sheds.
Of the hunting dog breeds, the Labrador Retriever is the best choice. Labradors may instinctively find and bring you antlers, but training your pup will ensure a lifetime of shed-finding success.
Start with a simple game of fetch using a small antler, or part of an antler. This will help your dog distinguish between an antler and his favorite toy when he arrives in the woods or fields.
Grind off the sharp points so the dog doesn’t get hurt by the uncomfortable new toy. A small piece of antler is ideal for puppy training. Only real antlers will work – it’s the smell of antlers that dogs seek, so use a new shed, not one that’s sun-bleached or dried out. Old antlers have likely lost a significant portion of their scent, making it difficult for your dog to locate them by smell.
Give your dog deer antlers to get him used to the look, feel, and smell of antlers. Let your dog play with the antlers and use them as chew toys. This is one of the best ways to get your dog used to finding sheds in the wild.
Training begins by throwing deer antler sheds in the yard during the summer, giving the command “find the shed.” When your dog obeys his command and retrieves the antlers, give him a treat followed by lots of petting and praise.
It won’t take you many times to do this before your dog can find antlers in the woods. Any dog that is able to retrieve home during a game of fetch will probably be able to return with a shed that it finds in the woods.
Another reason to look for shed antlers after deer season is to walk through hunting areas.
Deer tracks, scratches and antler scuffs will continue to be visible until late winter. Fallen antlers are proof that a deer made it through the season and provide clues as to where it feeds, roosts, and the travel routes it uses. An area where a shed was found could be a good place to hunt or set up a tracking camera next season. Don’t underestimate the value of information gained by searching for sheds.
Deer hunters are fascinated by deer antlers, their endless forms, and their annual growth cycle. A deer shed is a reminder of a wild creature that we passionately admire and pursue every fall.