For many, spring means searching far and wide for antler sheds

Story & Photos by JAIX CHAIX
When the cold winter gives way to the warmer days of spring, so begins the unofficial season for “shed hunting” – the time when deer lose their antlers on the ground.

For some, shed hunting can be as exciting and rewarding as deer hunting. Especially for those who may have missed their trophy buck – but can lay claim to his shed antlers.

Indeed, there are several similarities between deer hunting and shed hunting. For example, those who go “shedding” or “shed hunting” regard their hobby (or obsession) with similar tradition, tactics, secrecy and preparation as deer hunting.

And just like knowing a good hunting spot, since antler sheds tend to be found in similar areas, or along shared paths, many shed hunters keep their “shed spots” secret (some even keep their GPS units or memory cards under lock and key in a gun safe).

As with deer hunting, experience and skill matters: the more experience and skill you have hunting sheds, the more sheds you’ll likely find.

Deer-Antler

A deer antler along a trail in the Flathead National Forest.

Hobby shed hunters may find a dozen or so antlers each spring. Yet more avid shed hunters may find dozens each year. And just like hunting a trophy buck, finding that many antler sheds takes time, preparation and keenly developed skills.

One shed hunter – let’s call him “RJ” (he wished to remain anonymous, like many shed hunters) – said the more you understand about deer, and deer behavior, the more sheds you can find. As RJ explained, “Anyone can take a walk in the woods, but a good shed finder knows where to look – and how to look.”

He also explained how some shed hunters use binoculars, while others develop a type of “splatter vision” – a way of looking at an area with a kind of wide focus, that makes certain things stand out. RJ also explained that training your eyes can make a big difference, especially since “it’s not like a whole antler will just be laying out in the open waiting for you to come along … Sometimes just a piece of antler may be visible.”

“And like hunting, you’ve got to remember you’re in the animals’ territory,” he said. “If you go at the wrong time, or make too much noise, or give off a smell, you could push some trophy bucks off into some place you can’t get to.”

RJ considers himself a “hobby shed hunter.” He heads out in the spring to spend more time afield, keep his skills sharp for hunting season in the fall, and pick up a few “keepsakes” along the way. But he’s friends with another shed hunter, one he considers “an all-out pro.”

“Jake” takes time off from work to go shed hunting “when the time is right,” as he described it. Jake said, “For me, hunting a deer is hunting the animal itself … hunting a shed, is like hunting its ghost – the next best thing.”

Jake is considered one of the “pros” among avid shed hunters. Some years, he may find more than 100 sheds, many of them in pairs, and some from larger big game animals, such as elk and moose. “The special ones, the trophy pairs, I keep those,” he explained, while acknowledging that some of his sheds are made into specialty handicrafts such as knife handles, and furniture pieces.

“I don’t sell my sheds on eBay or what have you. I give them to people I know here in the valley, who appreciate the sheds … the animals they came from, how they got there, and can make something special with them.”

For Jake, shed hunting is “the other deer hunting tradition,” and one that he shares with his son. Jake reminisced, “When my son was little, I would have him go hide sheds for me, so that I could train  him to find them. Now he’s a grown man, and we go shedding together, so it’s a tradition in that sense.”

antler-shed-lamp

A lamp made with antler sheds.

And while honoring another tradition of shed hunting, Jake added, “It may be a family tradition of sorts, but that doesn’t mean I’m telling him all my shed spots anytime soon.”

Speaking of family, Jeff Absalonson recalled how he started shed hunting with his brother-in-law, back in 2000. “He was really into hunting, and I got into it, too,” he recalled.

Since then, shed hunting has been a fun, inexpensive way for Jeff and his wife to enjoy the outdoors. Absalonson has lived in the Flathead Valley his entire life, and for him shed hunting is about exploring a new place – and finding a shed or two just makes a good day outside even better.

“It’s more of a novelty,” Absalonson said. “I might find 20 or 30 a year. I’ll keep the big ones and use them for decoration around the house.”

So if you see some folks walking about this spring, staring at nothing, then darting to the ground for no good reason, realize they may be taking part in the “other deer season.”