Shed hunting around the US is different depending on which state you are in. You can use similar shed hunting strategies throughout the Western and Southwestern states, even though the terrain and climates are different between regions.
Deer and elk drop their antlers when their testosterone levels decrease after the rut. Generally, deer will drop their antlers around January, and elk will drop antlers later in February or March. Each state has specific dates that you are allowed to shed hunt, so be sure to research the regulations in the state. In the western states, the season opens about a month after animals drop their antlers. In order to successfully find sheds, it is important to understand wintering grounds, elevation zones, and terrain.
Wintering grounds are areas where deer and elk live during the coldest and snowiest months of the year. Deer and elk are generally migratory animals that will travel to winter ranges during colder seasons and weather. These ranges are usually lower in elevation which provides elk and deer with better feed and weather conditions.
Generally, deer and elk will drop their antlers in winter ranges when the weather is still cold and snowy. By the time shed season opens up around April, most animals will have already started moving back to their summer rang—making it difficult to find sheds based on where the animals are during the shed season. By doing research and talking with local officials you can pinpoint specific winter ranges that will yield more antlers.
The best way to find sheds is focusing on elevations that the animals would have spent when they dropped. Wintering grounds will give you a starting point of elevation to spend searching for antlers. If you’re searching in a new area, start hiking by gaining or losing elevation unit you find animal sign or sheds.
Once you find sign or sheds, determine the elevation, and use it to create an elevation zone to focus on. This tactic will help you save time and energy during outings.
If you find sign and sheds around 7000 ft elevation, start your search in that elevation band and then move higher or lower depending on success. Elevation zones will be different in each unit but you can use the same strategy anywhere. Once you find a shed, maintain that elevation both directions to find more.
Terrain that holds shed antlers will vary depending on the area that you are shed hunting. Although sheds can be found anywhere on a unit, generally, mature sheds are found in steep and remote country. This is due to older age class bucks and bulls relocating in rough country to find refuge and to rest from a hard rut season and human pressure. The areas can be as simple as a micro ridge that off the beaten path or a remote basin that is away from trails. The terrain that holds more shed could also be a hard area to glass and only is accessible by hiking. The harder the area is to access the more likely animals and sheds will be there.
In the field there are a few key indicators that you are in the right or wrong area.
1. Tracks: Close examination can give you an idea when animals were in that specific area. Shed seasons are usually a month later than when the antler was shed. The tracks you should be focusing on should be about a month old. If you find fresh tracks then you are probably too high because the animals are working back up to their summer range.
2. Cover: In searching in the field or online find an area with sufficient cover and food for Elk. Cover could be heavily forested areas or steep remote areas away from roads and livestock.
Once you find a freshly dropped side of a big single, use two strategies to match up the set. First, mark the location on your mapping app, like OnX maps maps or Scout to Hunt and then search for tracks. When you find tracks, guess which direction the buck or bull came from. Hike in the direction and if you cannot find the matching side quickly, go back to the waypoint.
Second, grid the nearby area. Gridding is hiking in a zig zag pattern up and down from the location of the shed. Hike in 10–15-yard grid lines to ensure you don’t miss the antler if it is hidden.
If you live out of state or it’s the first time that you will be going to the new area, pre-season scouting is critical. Just like scouting for a hunt, you can make calls to local biologists, game wardens, forest service, and hunters to gain information on deer and elk. The time spent doing your research will pay dividends in your shed hunting success.
Once you get enough information about the wintering grounds and unit you can head to your mapping app and start to pinpoint certain areas that you want to spend time in. Start by finding areas that are off the road and trails. When you have the area picked out, find glassing points that will allow me to look over the entire area. Make sure to find multiple glassing points on the same ridge to see different perspectives of the hillside.
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