Now that it’s February and deer seasons are over across most of the country, what’s a dedicated bowhunter to do between now and his or her next bowhunting fix?
For many, the answer is a simple one — chase offseason hogs, travel south for exotic game, or simply wait until spring turkey season.
But for others, the time frame after the Super Bowl means that it’s time to go shed hunting as the search commences for antlers cast aside in recent days by bucks and bulls trying to make it through the winter.
Sometimes though, the act of looking for headbones isn’t quite as simple as it might first appear. While shed hunting isn’t regulated everywhere in the country, it is to some degree in places like Utah.
Take, for instance, the following selection from a press release that was issued in late January by the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. In that news release, the Utah DWR reminds would-be shed hunters that there is some homework to be done before going to look for antlers as winter slowly gives way to spring.
Meaning that if you want to go shed hunting in Utah over the next several weeks, you’ll need to first pass a shed hunting ethics class.
"After dropping their antlers, male deer, elk and moose will grow a new set starting this spring. Looking for the shed antlers is a fun activity that your whole family can enjoy. However, late winter and early spring is a tough time of year for deer, elk and moose, which is why the educational ethics course is required if you want to go shed hunting between Feb. 1 and April 15.
"During winter, big game animals, especially deer, often have a difficult time finding food," DWR Law Enforcement Chief Justin Shirley said. "If you spook an animal and cause it to run, the animal has to use up fat reserves and energy it needs to make it through the winter.
"From late winter through early spring, the habitat that big-game animals rely on is usually wet, which means it's more at risk for damage. Fortunately, you can gather shed antlers without stressing the animals or damaging their habitat, and the free antler gathering ethics course will teach you how.”
While the ethics course isn’t a requirement for shed gathering in Utah after April 15, it is between now and then. In that Feb. 1 to April 15 timeframe, those who successfully complete the course will be required to print their certificate of completion and carry it while gathering antlers.
In addition to the ethics course completion required by Utah, a few other states have regulations concerning shed hunting — a list that includes West Virginia where it is illegal to shed hunt.
In other places, there can be restrictions based on which type of governmental agency oversees the land, certain seasonal closures, the need for written permission from landowners, and not being allowed to collect parts from certain big-game animals — like sheep.
One thing to keep in mind is that in many places it's illegal to collect a set of antlers that are still attached to a skull. In some instances, authorities want to know where such skulls were found. Why? Because while the buck or bull may have died of natural causes, it’s also possible that a poaching crime was committed. In that case, authorities want to ensure that’s not the case.
The bottom line is this — since shed hunting regulations can vary from state to state and from one agency to the next, contact the respective agency to get all the pertinent information you’ll need to legally shed hunt this winter and spring.
Where to Look
Once you’ve ascertained that you can legally look for sheds where you hunt and/or live, where should you look for gathering success?
Well, aside from looking at resources like this great shed hunting story by Petersen’s Bowhunting columnist Bill Winke, there are a few key ideas to keep in mind.
First, locations where whitetails and other game animals typically feed in the late winter and early spring are key locations to keep in mind. In the Midwest, many big-buck sheds are found in bean fields, harvested corn fields and food plots.
A second place to look is the cover that whitetails and other game animals use for rest and security. Of course, you will need to be careful to search for antlers here since you don’t want to kick a buck or bull — or does, for that matter — out at harsh and stressful times of the winter and spring season. In other words, you might wait to search heavy cover until spring has sprung.
And according to Gregg Ritz — a longtime midwestern hunter and Outdoor Sportsman Group television personality who hosts the Hunt Masters program on Outdoor Channel — there’s a third area that can sometimes be forgotten.
“This is probably obvious to most people, but when a deer jumps a fence (in late winter or early spring), he stands a chance to lose an antler there,” said Ritz.
With that in mind, don’t overlook fencerows, heavy travel corridors that animals traverse regularly, or terrain features like a running creek that might cause them to leave their feet.