By Mark Kenyon
I’m getting the itch. I’ve been cooped up inside long enough, and the next phase of the whitetail season is weighing heavy on my mind. Shed season!
That said, the question I often ponder and one we hear often from readers is this – when should you start shed hunting?
Today we’re going to tackle that very question. But first, why is it an important question to have an answer to in the first place?
Why Is It Important To Know When To Start Shed Hunting?
Assuming you’d like to find piles of shed antlers this year, the timing of when you shed hunt is important for three reasons:
1. The Impact of Human Pressure: First and foremost, timing of your shed hunting is important because of the impacts of human pressure. Just like during the actual hunting season, human presence negatively effects deer behavior – and if you muck a property up enough, deer might completely move off of it. If you go tromping around and push bucks off your property before they have shed their antlers, you’ll never even have a chance to find them. That said, the key is to leave your property alone, as much as possible, until you know there is a good probability that most deer have lost their antlers.
2. Rodent chewing: Now as important as it is to not shed hunt too much before antlers drop, it’s equally important not to shed hunt too long AFTER they drop. Once antlers hit the ground, they immediately are at risk of being chewed up by squirrels, porcupines and other rodents. If left on the ground long enough, they’ll be chewed to bits.
3. Human Competition: In addition to rodents chewing up antlers, you also need to worry about other shed hunters. As shed hunting continues to pick up in popularity, more and more antler hunters are hitting the woods. If you wait too long, you may miss out on all the antlers that were on the ground waiting for you.
What Effects Timing Of Antler Drop?
Given the three factors above, I think you can see now why it’s important not to shed hunt too soon or too late. So that said, how do we figure out when that most important timing of antler drop is? In order to understand this, we need to examine the several factors that impact that timing.
1. Drop In Testosterone: After the rut, testosterone levels in bucks decline throughout the late fall/winter as the level of daylight decreases, and in turn this drop in testosterone eventually results in the dropping of the antler. According to Joe Shead in the book “Shed Hunting”, as testosterone levels decline, cells called osteoclats at the base of the antler begin to reabsorb calcium from the antlers. Eventually these osteoclats create pits and spicules that separate the antler from the pedicle. This then leads to the antler completely separating and being cast off.
2. Weather: While testosterone levels ultimately are responsible for antler casting, that process can be sped up or slowed down by other health related factors. One of those big factors that can impact health is weather. Extreme cold or snow can put great stress on a whitetail, and in turn can speed up the process of the antlers dropping.
3. Injuries: Injuries of course also can speed up the antler drop process, when a whitetail needs to divert energy and resources to other parts of the body, the antlers get cast much sooner.
4. Available Nutrition: Again, related to health, deer with greater access to high nutrition foods will likely hold on to their antlers longer, and on the opposite end of the spectrum – deer with a lack of food are likely to drop sooner.
So How Do I Know When To Start Shed Hunting?
Now that we understand why it’s important to properly time our shed hunting, and we better understand what causes antlers to drop – it’s time to examine how we can answer the ultimate question of when to start shed hunting. The answer to this question, of course, will be different for each one of us in our own unique situations and locations. That said, take into account the four considerations below to come up with your own custom “shed hunting start date” and then prepare to find some bone this spring!
1. Date: Due to the fact that levels of daylight at certain times of year are consistent annually, there is a general timeframe each year when most antlers drop. While there are always anomalies, the majority of antlers (health factors not withstanding) drop sometime between January 15th and March 1. For this reason, typically the best times to be out shed hunting (in my opinion) are February 15 – March 30. Take this date range as a starting point, and then consider the three additional modifying factors below…
2. Trail Camera Observations: While the Jan 15 – March 1 timeframe is the most common for antler drop, it can always be different for certain deer or different areas. For that reason, I’d highly recommend monitoring your own local whitetail herd with trail cameras to understand the progress of antler casting in your area. Place trail cameras on food sources or with some kind of attractant in front of them, and then check your pictures to determine when most antlers have been dropped. Once you see that, you’ll know it’s almost time to go.
3. Local Health Factors: As mentioned earlier, health factors can greatly impact antler drop – and if you know your local deer are struggling with low amounts of food or tough weather conditions, you can expect an earlier drop. If you’re trying to find antlers from a specific buck, and he’s injured, there’s also a good chance of him dropping early.
4. Snow Level: Finally you need to consider the impact that snow on the ground will have on your chances of actually finding sheds. Finding antlers in the snow, while possible, is much more difficult. The best situation for shed hunting is to get out there just as soon as the snow melts. With now snow, those antlers will stand out against the brown leaves and hopefully squirrels will not have had much of a chance to get to them yet!
For more information regarding shed hunting tips and tactics, check out our comprehensive shed hunting resource “Everything You Need To Know About Shed Hunting”