A guide to picking up bones on winter range and converting them to greenbacks.
By Gary Lewis
Mike Crawford took down his binos and pointed.
“Gary, there’s a big one. I think it’s a six-point elk shed.”
Using hand signals, Mike walked me in from 600 yards away.
After a few errant zigs and zags, I picked it up. It was a mule deer shed, not an elk antler.
Since Mike wanted elk antlers and I wanted deer drops, I took it home to put it on the mantle, a reminder of a good day on the mountain.
Picking up a fresh antler is like picking up a gold nugget. Well, maybe not quite, but there’s no denying each piece is a treasure.
To the shed hunter, antlers are brown gold. Some are sold, some given away, some kept as trophies. The price per pound fluctuates; often deer is worth more. Fresh, all-brown antlers can bring between $7 for elk all the way up to $20 per pound for whitetail.
Who buys antlers?
Antlers are used for dog chews, chandeliers, knife handles, beads, buttons and art. Heavy elk antlers are often used in furniture, as supports for coffee tables and to form the backs or legs of chairs. Common pieces are crated up and sent overseas to serve the medicinal markets in China and Japan.
Jason Preston is an antler buyer who makes his home in Oregon and buys antlers from around the west. His company (www.wildchewz.com) converts Grade-A elk headgear to chews for dogs. Lately, he has been paying about $8 per pound.
“The Asian market takes quite a bit,” Preston said. “They are used in homeopathic medicines and the Asians believe antlers have powers in them that do the same thing Viagra does.”
A taxidermy studio is a good place to sell unique pieces.
Tim McLagan, of Bend, Oregon, is an award-winning taxidermist and a sometime buyer of antlers. He is looking for specific configurations that fit into the chandeliers and lamps he builds. Big elk antlers often end up in floor lamps. For chandeliers, he likes deer.
“I like to have four lefts or four rights of the same diameter, all the same size, if I’m building a chandelier. For a table lamp, it doesn’t matter, I can make a lamp from any two antlers.”
In general, the most sought after sheds are big and brown, but collectors and buyers watch for other qualities. Antlers are graded according to age and exposure.
A-grade antlers are fresh, brown all the way around with no cracks. B-grades are hard white, good and solid with maybe some hairline sun-bake cracks. C-grade sheds are chalky, cracked, chipped, broken and/or chewed.
That six-month old deer antler – brown on one side, white on the other – I found would have fetched close to $20. That, combined with the spike elk antler I found that day would have paid for my fuel. Sometimes we do better.
When and where to find antlers
In the Pacific Northwest, deer begin to shed their antlers in February. By the end of March, most mule deer and blacktail have dropped their headgear. Elk shed a few weeks later. A big bull can keep last year’s crown all the way into April.
Brian Davis, a shed enthusiast who makes his home in Redmond, Oregon, likes to hit the ground in February and hunt “horns” into early June.
“I’ve found them on rock cropping’s, sandy soft areas, under trees, in buck brush, in canyons,” Davis said. “Deer and elk take different routes in the late winter and early spring because the feed is in different places than it was in the fall.”
One of best ways to find dropped antlers is to sit and glass from a long way off. Wear the binos on a shoulder rig rather than carrying them in a backpack. Sit down and glass far hillsides and look for white tips of bone above the tops of the grass.
Sightings of deer or elk offer clues to the places where sheds may be found, but it’s important to give the animals a wide berth. Get too close to a bachelor group of bucks or bulls and it is possible to stress them at the critical period of the season when they should be recovering from winter.
Look for antlers, not animals. Prospect the places they have been, not where they are headed.
Another way to find sheds is to employ an antler dog. Some breeders and trainers focus on developing the traits that turn a four-legger’s nose into an antler detector. Kevin and Diane Schmid, owners of North Idaho Antler Dogs (www.northidahoantlerdogs), based in Pierce, Idaho, work mostly with labs. Steve Waller, of Tall Timber Pudelpointers, in Oakland, Oregon, works with both labs and pudelpointers.
“They need to have a strong desire to retrieve, probably stronger than normal. In a lot of cases, that antler has been laying there for a year. Which means the dog may not be quite as excited about finding a dried piece of deer headgear as he might get about jumping a chukar or covey of quail,” Waller said.
“The key thing is they need to be force-fetch trained so that once they get the antler in their mouth, they’ll deliver it.”
Using a dog to locate sheds can save a lot of time. And on good wintering grounds, a dog can bring a lot of extra bone to hand.
Mule deer sheds are measured according to the number of points, tine length and circumference. The eye-guard is called the G1 and the back point is referred to as the G2. The tine that forks from the G2 is the G3. On a typical four-point frame, the G4 is the point that grows from the main beam. Overall scores are measured in inches. A big one will stretch the tape to 70 inches or more.
Elk antlers are measured in a similar fashion. On a typical six-point frame, the points come off the main beam. The brow tine is called the G1, the G2 is the next one and so forth. A trophy elk shed runs 150 inches and weighs four to eight pounds.
Prices fluctuate. Sometimes white ones are more valuable than brown. Some artists prefer smaller ‘craft’ antlers.
How many antlers are there?
How many antlers hit the ground each year? In the state of Texas, they say, there are about 4-million whitetail deer.
Maybe 400,000 of those are antlered, which equates to 800,000 sheds each year.
Alabama has an estimated 1.8-million deer. That means there are probably 180,000 antlered bucks (and a few females) to drop 360,000 sheds on the ground.
Let’s say there are 215,000 mule deer where I live, in Oregon. Of those, maybe 32,000 are bucks. That equates to 64,000 fresh antler sheds this year. Add to that the number of blacktail and whitetail bucks, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt bulls and a few moose (yes, there are moose in Oregon). That is a lot of bone on the ground.
For some people, it’s about a trophy antler or one from a special buck. For others, it’s important to get a matched set.
My first find was a matched 4×4 chalky mule deer set. If I’d sold them, I might have made two dollars, but those antlers meant something to me. I kept them and turned them into a hat rack. In fact, I’ve kept far more antlers than I’ve sold.
A few years ago, in the desert, I took a trail through a grove of mountain mahogany and spotted ivory-tipped tines that protruded through the duff. I picked up the left side of a six-point elk’s castoff crown. I strapped it on, continued south along the ridge and stopped.
What happens when a bull drops an antler? All of a sudden he is unbalanced and wants to shake the other one off. I turned around and stalked back. In two more minutes I had a matching pair of six-point sheds to pack off the ridge. Now they are part of a living room lamp crafted from elk antlers taken in Colorado and picked up in Oregon.
We don’t find them every time, but we pick them up often enough to keep going. Those spring and summer days are rare and fine when any moment we could snatch up a monarch’s cast-off crown.
To order a signed copy of Gary Lewis’s Hunting Oregon, send $24.95 (includes S&H) to GLO, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com