By Eric Christensen

Picking up shed antlers has become widely popular among many different outdoor fanatics. I ask myself often, “What has made shed hunting such a widespread activity?” Twenty years ago, there seemed to be just a handful of people willing to walk the winter range looking for dropped antlers. It was rare to run into a fellow shed hunter out hiking on a cold, late winter day or cut a fresh pair of boot tracks going across a ridge. Back in the day, I would wait well into late April or early May before looking for a pair of drops. Mostly, I wanted to wait for the majority of the elk and deer to cast off their head gear. I remember my grandfather asking me why I was wasting time and money to go pick up dropped sheds. He could not grasp why someone would put forth the effort to pick up elk and deer antlers that were not attached to the animal that dropped them.

This giant muledeer matched pair was picked up in southern Utah. It scores around 217 inches. It takes a lot of miles of searching to pick up a set like this.

This giant muledeer matched pair was picked up in southern Utah. It scores around 217 inches. It takes a lot of miles of searching to pick up a set like this.

Unfortunately, times have changes and the new-age shed hunter can watch a particular animal for weeks and months, waiting for the buck to trade his old pair of antlers in for a new, fuzzy set. When the Asian market had started buying antlers for medicinal purposes, it gave people a new way to earn some extra cash for doing something they loved. Social media also has been a massive spotlight for shed hunters to show off what they have found. There are several people and so called “productions companies” showing off their weekend trips with antlers around a fire or the back of a truck. This has been one main contributor for getting people out, walking the hills each spring. What these ‘show-off’ shed hunters don’t realize is that by showing off their prize, they have created an interest for everyone to be the one holding a 200” set of mule deer antlers on an Instagram post and in the long run and in some cases, has saturated the chances of finding even one antler from an entire day of hiking.

Shed hunting provides another form of instinctual hunting that millions of people enjoy. Looking into an area that might be ripe with antlers, stimulates that emotional connection to nature; It makes you wonder if there is a giant set of sheds burning in the sun for one lucky person to pick up. It really is a hunt. You’re reading the country side, looking for sign from deer and elk. Fresh tracks are an obvious sign that you may be near some brown gold. Walking up a ridge and finding freshly rubbed trees many times has kept my feet moving for several miles in hopes that I may find the bone laying on the ground that just killed those branches. There is just something about being in the wilderness in the wintertime. It seems like you can hike up into an area and sit to glass without hearing any noise of any kind. I have gained a deep love for that peace, as I’ve sat behind my optics looking for tines poking over a bush.

Freshly dropped mule deer antlers make all the hiking very rewarding.

Freshly dropped mule deer antlers make all the hiking very rewarding.

Searching for antlers helps develop skills for hunting. After a few trips, you can start to get a feel for areas that hold deer and elk. Learning what these animals feed on for a winter diet will also help on future, late season hunts. Elk and deer are creatures of habit. They will go to the same areas to winter and summer every year. It amazes me that these animals will travel well over 50 miles or more when they transition from summer, to rut and then to winter mode. How do they know where to go and how to get there? I’ve only had the pleasure of finding multiple years of antlers from an animal a few times in my more than twenty years of shed hunting. When it happens, it makes you want to quit your job to keep looking for more and more antlers.

Another tool that antler hunting provides to the hunting crowd is judging antlers while attached to their skull. I honed my field judging skills after filming several elk in the summer and rut, then picking up their antlers in the winter. I would write down what I thought all the bulls would score and then compared my notes to the actual antlers. It really opened my eyes how deceiving some racks can be. There is no better teacher for field judging elk or deer than seeing them on the hoof and then holding their antlers.

Now that I have kids getting a little older, I have started taking them on family shed trips. It is extremely rewarding to see their faces light-up and feed off their excitement when they find their own antlers. It is imperative that we develop a younger-aged hunting crowd to carry on the man’s desire to interact and respect wildlife. Shed hunting for youth teaches them so many necessary skills that they will use when they are old enough to get out and hunt for themselves.

One major problem that shed hunting has created is competition. Just like in most cases in life, there will always be a small number of people willing to do anything for a set of antlers. Antler gathering laws have now been established in some states to combat people willing to trespass on private property or drive their ATV’s across winter range, harassing wildlife. We as sportsmen must respect the delicate balance of these animals fighting for survival in winter ranges, even though it is a very small number of individuals cheating others and breaking laws to gain an advantage over other shed hunters. I’ve seen bull elk drop a hundred pounds from chasing cows in the rut. Their winter range is crucial for gaining back important calories, not only to survive the winter, but it can also affect next year’s growth if they are malnourished going into the spring.

It’s pretty rare to have both antlers drop right next to each other

It’s pretty rare to have both antlers drop right next to each other

Finding a new matched set of sheds is one of the best moments shed hunters can have. Finding the first brown antler is like injecting adrenaline straight into your veins. I’ve hiked for many miles longer than planned after stumbling onto a large white or brown antler. One problem with finding a single antler is the shed hunter now has to scour the hillsides and nearby drainages, hoping the other side is close by. Climbing back into the cab of your truck, knowing that the other side is still out in the wilderness, can drive you nuts. It’s amazing to me that the other antler can stay on the buck or bulls’ head for a whole 24 hours or longer. I watched a good 340-class elk drop an antler while I was glassing him and the other side had already been cast off sometime before. I thought a brown set was in the bag. It took me a week to find the other side, with some help from a fellow shed fanatic. It was only about 400 yards from where I watched the bull drop his second antler.

Remember to check local and state regulations regarding shed hunting in your area, as they can change each year. Here are some states that have started antler gathering laws to prevent wildlife from being harassed or harmed while surviving the winter:

Utah – Shed hunters must complete an Antler Gathering Course that you can take on the Utah Division of Wildlife website. You must carry the certificate from February 1st through April 15th. Kids are covered under your certificate and do not need to complete the course.

Deadheads: Antlers attached to the skull plate can’t be moved or taken.

Wyoming – From January 1st through April 30th collecting sheds on public lands west of the Continental Divide, excluding the Great Divide Basin, is illegal. Wyoming will enforce this law and has had several convictions of persons violating their shed law.

Deadheads: No current restriction’s for antlers attached to a skull.

Colorado – Shed antler hunting is not allowed from January 1 – March 14 on public lands in GMUs 25, 26, 35, 36, 43, 44, 47, 54, 55, 66, 67, 444, 471 and 551. From March 15 – May 15, these areas are closed to shed hunting only from sunset to 10am.

Deadheads: No current restriction’s for antlers attached to a skull.

Nevada -No current restriction’s for shed hunting.

Deadhead: Deer and elk antlers attached to the skull are legal to pick up in Nevada.

New Mexico – No current restriction’s for shed hunting.

Deadhead: Deer and elk antlers attached to the skull are illegal to pick up.

Idaho -No current restriction’s for shed hunting.

Deadhead: Deer and elk antlers attached to the skull are legal to pick up.

Montana – State owned Wildlife Management Areas are closed until around June 1st. All other public land is open to antler gathering.

Deadheads: No current restriction’s for antlers attached to a skull.

Arizona – Has no current antler gathering restrictions.

Deadheads: No current restriction’s for antlers attached to a skull.