Holding a white-tailed deer antler is like touching a biological miracle.
Antlers grow in a blood-charged rush each summer on male deer. They harden into bone by fall and become weapons in an eons-old game for domination, as bucks battle for the chance to mate with does.
Then nature recycles the minerals and nutrients. Bucks shed their antlers in late winter or
early spring. That’s when Tyler Dykes of Blue Springs starts searching for shed antlers in what he considers his bonus hunting season.
“The minute you grab one of these antlers, you have a connection with nature,” Dykes says. “It may sound crazy, but it’s an emotional rush when you find one. It’s like holding something that’s a piece of something bigger than yourself.”
Dykes, who is the earth science teacher at the Delta Woods Middle School in Lee’s Summit, hunts deer with firearms and archery equipment. He takes students and his young son, Mason, afield to look for shed antlers.
Simplicity and getting outdoors makes looking for shed antlers a popular late-winter activity for individuals and families. There are no bag limits or special equipment, and unlike most hunting, you can make as much noise as you like while searching for your quarry. You simply walk the fields and forests that deer frequent and look near and far for antlers.
Looking for shed antlers is easy. Finding them is challenging. Shed antlers don’t hide, but it seems that way at times because bucks often drop them in fields with tall grass or brushy areas. Their whitish-gray color often blends with cover on the ground. Plus, they can drop anywhere over vast acres.
Shed hunters consider a found antler a trophy.
One day last winter, Dykes walked the fields at the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area and saw plenty of deer trails and bedding areas—but no antlers. A few days later at another public area, he found three, including a matching pair.
“I found the five-pointers with my son, who proceeded to run toward them after I spotted them. He picked them up and shouted, ‘I found it!’” Dykes says with a broad grin. “It was a proud papa moment, I must say.”
Hunting shed antlers is not unlike regular hunting and fishing. Success varies and luck helps.
Vince Crawford of Hamilton, Mo., walked into some fields in Caldwell County early last March. He sent his stepson Tristen Milligan, 16, ahead to one brushy draw bisecting a hay field. Crawford and stepson Kable Milligan, 9, walked another arm of the draw. Ten minutes into the walk, Tristen was waving and holding up an antler. A few minutes later, he found the other antler from the 10-point buck only yards away.
“Is that crazy or what?” says Crawford, who is a conservation agent in Caldwell County. “We’d racked up about 25 hours this winter on antler shed hunts before this and only found one antler—and now this. You’ve just got to go out at the right time.”
Good luck helps, but veteran shed hunters also use several important skills to increase their odds.
White-tailed bucks can lose their antlers any time from early January to early spring. Weather seems to affect the peak times when bucks are dropping antlers, Crawford says. Last year, some bucks didn’t drop their antlers until spring because a warm winter with little snow provided deer with more food and less stress. In a cold and snowy winter, with a scarcity of food and higher energy demands, bucks might drop their antlers in January.
A shed antler doesn’t last forever in the wild. Critters, such as mice, gnaw on antlers to get the minerals. Weather fades them.
Looking for an antler in a hayfield is daunting without a plan. Dykes’ strategy is to stick primarily to the edges of fields and woodlands. Visibility is better, and deer often frequent edge areas during morning and evening feeding times. A deer walking into brush with a loose antler might snag it on a tree limb that pulls it off.
“I just follow the trails and roads next to the timber,” Dykes says. “I haven’t had much luck looking in the thick timber. It seems like they blend in more there.”
Trails with deer tracks in mud or snow are prime locations. Dykes will follow a trail into trees or tall grass for a short ways, especially if it appears it will lead to bedding areas. The more time a deer spends in an area increases the odds that an antler will fall off in that location.
“Although I’ve often wondered if I’m just following does when I’m walking the trails,” he says.
Crawford’s family also prefers to look for sheds near wooded edges, especially near ponds or a good food source. Deer in late winter stay close to food, water, and shelter. That’s where antlers drop.
Sometimes a particular spot will produce shed antler finds year after year. Usually that’s because a deer herd beds down in the area consistently, he says.
If one antler is found, look carefully in the surrounding area for the other antler. There’s no guarantee it’s there, but Crawford says losing one antler will sometimes make a buck feel out of balance and they will rub against something nearby, trying to lose the other one.
A practiced eye helps. Crawford lets his gaze wander across fields in an almost out-of-focus manner, until an unusual shape prompts him to focus. A shed hunter can search more ground with eyes than with feet.
“I’m not looking for an antler,” he says. “I look for four or five inches in a straight line, and I’m looking for a white line.”
A group of family or friends has better odds because they have more people searching more prime areas.
Most veteran shed hunters wear a backpack to carry found antlers. A helpful hint is to lash the antlers to the outside of the pack, so they don’t poke you in the back during a long hike.
The more knowledgeable a shed hunter is about white-tailed deer habits and signs of their activity in the field, the more successful they will be at finding shed antlers. That’s one reason, besides companionship, that Crawford likes to take his sons.
“They’re learning about deer habits and habitat when we do this, things like where to find good bedding places for deer,” he says. “And you can’t scare off an antler, which makes hunting them a really good activity for kids.”
Public lands, such as Department conservation areas, are excellent places to look for shed antlers. Dykes often searches at the James A. Reed Memorial Wildlife Area, the Burr Oak Woods Conservation Area in Blue Springs, and on Jackson County park lands, which also have healthy deer populations. Urban wildlands are just as likely to hold shed antlers as rural areas.
Getting permission to hunt shed antlers on private property can often be obtained by asking permission from landowners. Always be courteous and never enter private property without permission.
No permit is needed to find or possess shed antlers, Crawford says, as long as they are not attached to a skull. Sometimes hunters find antlers attached to a skull where a deer has died in the field. Those finds can be kept but only if the local conservation agent is contacted and issues a possession permit. Some people mount a matched pair of antlers together on a trophy board. Others use them to decorate tables or gun cabinets. Dykes and his sons add their finds to an ever-growing ball of antlers.
Another bonus of antler shed hunts is that the openness of winter’s woods and meadows makes it easier to spot wildlife. Crawford and his sons stop to examine a raccoon skull. Later, they top a hill and notice a large flock of wild turkeys in the distance. They see a coyote slinking through a brush patch. Best of all, they watch more than a dozen deer trotting over a distant rise.
“The number one thing in finding shed antlers is covering ground,” Crawford says. “You’ve got to put in the miles to find the tines.”