By Bill Winke
I am going to tell you a shed-hunting story. I am not a huge shed hunter, but this was my finest hour — maybe my only hour.
First, a little context. Every good story has a backstory to set the stage and create the needed drama. My backstory could quickly morph into a full-blown story, so I will strive to keep this short so we can get to the shed-hunting part before you lose hope.
I started hunting a particular buck in 2009. He was already pretty nice. I would have shot him, but like all bucks his age (he was 4 1/2 years old then, to the best of my knowledge), he was mostly nocturnal. Though I hunted him for 30 days, I only saw him twice.
In 2010, he was a good bit bigger. I hunted him for 45 days and never saw him once. A few trail-camera photos suggested he was still around, and that fueled my hope. It was really the worst season of my life. I didn’t like the idea of hunting a ghost, but I also didn’t like the idea of not hunting him. I kept thinking, What if he slips up today and I am not there? I went all-in on one deer and lost the pot to a better hand.
By 2011, he had grown into a world-class buck — a real jaw-dropper! I know, because my jaw dropped when I got the first trail-cam photos of him in mid-September. His antlers were so big they looked grotesque, but in the back of my mind, I feared another year of obsession with no reward.
However, the 2011 season was a very pleasant surprise. The buck, now 6 1/2 years old, was a totally different animal — a much more hunter-friendly animal. His cloak of invisibility seemed to have lost its charge, as he went from being the least visible deer on the farm in 2010 to one of the most visible deer in 2011.
I would like to say I killed him that year, but I didn’t. I had a 30-yard shot at him out of a ground blind in a small bean field in early January 2012. I was really pumping adrenaline and never thought to aim low. He jumped the string and I hit him very high, right above the shoulder. No blood, no deer. The trail camera on that ridge showed him right back in the same field a couple days after the season. The wound had completely healed over in less than two weeks.
Now, we are getting to the good part. Once I saw him there on camera, I adopted one mission: find those antlers before a squirrel could nibble off one inch of those long tines.
Waiting for the Drop
I didn’t want to wait until our customary time of late February to start looking for his antlers. Instead, I ran a trail camera over a small pile of corn I refreshed when I pulled the card every two days. When I pulled it on Jan. 23, I had a photo of my boy without antlers. I knew it was him because of the coloration of his face. The bridge of his nose had become a very distinct black as the season went on.
The very next day, I mobilized three of my employees to help me find the antlers. We figured they would not be too far from the camera site, since that was the area where he was most visible that entire fall and winter.
With little more than an hour of searching, we found both sides. One side was right in the small field, not 40 yards from where the blind had been when I hit him high, and the other was on a small, secondary hardwood ridge that dropped off the edge of the field. Boom; just like that, we were holding two antlers that each scored more than 90 inches! What a sight. We all just stood staring at them for a long time, hardly believing they were real.
Mounting the Sheds
To do justice to the sheds, I decided to get them mounted on a form to best display them. I took them to Rick Whitaker, who found a device that you can attach to a taxidermy form in the place of the skull cap. It has two square pegs on ball joints that you can adjust. Rick then drilled holes into the bases of the antlers and glued in square tubing that would slide over the square pegs.
This system allowed Rick to look at my many trail-cam photos of the buck and set the swiveling bases to the perfect position that matched the way the antlers set on the buck when he still carried them.
Then, for a cape, he used one from an early-season buck shot by a young lady named Allison Winchell. It was a gorgeous, short-haired cape with not a single nick. When Rick was done, the mounted sheds were a thing of beauty — the truest form of artwork nature can produce.
Hunting the Buck
I killed that buck the next November. He was standing about 30 yards from where we found the antler in the field in January. The story of the hunt itself is pretty well documented in these pages, because I have looked for any excuse to write about that deer over the years. He was so unique and taught me so much about the behavior of mature bucks. I had so much fun hunting him and following his progression in antler size and evolution in behavior for those four seasons that my farm felt notably empty for a couple of years after I killed him. It was bittersweet, for sure.
This shed story is not so much about the lessons it taught me. I knew a lot about that deer already, but there was a lesson here that we can all apply.
I first heard this lesson from a very well-traveled shed hunter named Lee Murphy. For many years, Lee hunted sheds all over the place: Minnesota, Iowa, the Dakotas, Canada — probably other places, too. He found some unbelievable sets over the years. He also had some awesome stories. He said he actually followed one buck for several days, at a safe distance, watching him and waiting for him to shed.
Man, that dude had some grit — and some time. But the thing I remember best about his stories was the way he was able to apply his shed-hunting to bowhunting.
Lee had access to bowhunt only a small percentage of the places he was able to shed hunt. So, it’s not surprising that the antlers he found on farms where he actually bowhunted carried the most future value. He told me that in a high percentage of cases, he encountered, and often killed, the bucks whose sheds he found very close to where he found the antlers.
Much of this took place before we had access to trail cameras, so we looked for any data points we could find to help us narrow our search for mature bucks. Lee’s best source of this all-important information was the location of shed antlers.
So, if you hunt a large area, a new area or don’t have trail cameras out, the places you find shed antlers this winter should be high priority starting points when you start to prepare for the season.
That is what I found with the giant buck I killed in 2012, and a few since, and that is what Lee Murphy learned over many years (maybe even decades) of hardcore shed hunting.