Shed Hunting Tips: Regional Tactics and Strategies From the Pros

We’ve broken down the best shed hunting info, tips and calendar information to help you succeed in the spring season.

It’s easy to get lost in the hundreds of existing articles about shed hunting, tips and tricks, dos and don’ts and—of course—the top five ways to find more sheds. There is undoubtedly a wide array of great information available, but we wanted to talk about shed hunting a little differently than anything we could find out there on the web.

In the article below, we break down the general time of year YOU should start looking for sheds in YOUR area. Knowing when ungulates shed their antlers is not an exact science, but there are some factors that can certainly point you in the right direction.

To understand when to start your search, it is important to learn the key factors that cause the drop. The largest factor is a change in hormone levels—most specifically, testosterone. Testosterone drops off significantly as soon as the rut winds down for deer, and drops much more gradually in elk. In some states that may be December, in others that may be February and generally for elk, March seems to be the month. Does and cows coming into estrus late can also sometimes affect this timeline. Another key factor is the individual animal’s stress level, which can be heightened by a lack of food, harsh winters and health. Generally the more stress, the sooner he is going to shed his antlers. With that in mind, more often than not mature bucks and bulls that have taken the largest tolls during the rut drop their antlers first.

Infographic of American broken out by region showing the best shed hunting dates.

When it comes to shed hunting, timing is important for many reasons. First and foremost as a hunter, outdoorsman/woman and conservationist, deer and elk are at their most vulnerable during the winter months. It is important to leave them undisturbed to give them the best chance of survival during these harsh months. Also, from a whitetail standpoint, if you are poking around your property for sheds too early, you very well may bump bucks onto adjacent, neighboring properties where they may drop their antlers. Rodents also utilize sheds for much needed calcium; they need the nutrients to survive but it is always disappointing to find a shed that has been chewed up.

Read on to explore strategies per region, with expert advice from folks who live there and, year-after-year, collect their fair share of bone.

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Northeast and Midwest

Because both of these regions have similar climates, sheds should start to fall at about the same time, and the strategies used to find them are also consistent.

  • Trail camera deployment: Ensuring some fresh batteries are loaded in your trail cameras after the rut winds down allows you to take inventory on what deer made it through, their late season patterns and when they drop their antlers—all big pieces to the greater whitetail puzzle. By having cameras deployed, you can determine when many of the bucks on your property have shed their antlers. Not only does this give you hard evidence on when you should wander through the woods, but multiple cameras help you get a general idea of where a buck may have left his headgear.

  • South-facing slopes: A topic that is really harped on in the West, but holds equal truth in the Midwest and Northeast. In the short days of winter, deer like to soak up as much sun and warmth as possible; good cover on a south-facing slope makes for ideal winter bedding conditions. These terrain features are very easy to distinguish using the onX Web Map.

  • Standing crops: If you have the ability to manage a property specifically for hunting, leaving large swaths of standing corn or standing beans will pay dividends all year. Not only will it increase the number of deer you have frequenting your property through November and December, but as food becomes ever more scarce, deer will key in on these food sources until winter’s grasp starts to slip. The more deer you can keep on your property as winter rolls on, the more sheds you’re going to pick up. Standing corn also helps knock those loose antlers off as bucks pry through the remaining ears of corn.

  • Thermal Cover: If your property has thick stands of pines, cedars and other conifer trees, these act as excellent wind blocks and provide cover during the cold winter months to help your deer population survive. All these factors make thermal cover a great place to poke around for sheds. However, it’s best to avoid checking these areas if you are out looking for sheds and weather conditions are harsh, as it is important to let the deer use these refuges undisturbed until signs of spring start to show.

We talked with a few of our ambassadors from these regions to give us some expert insight on the subject:

If you could only shed hunt for one week this year, which week would you choose?

Mark Kenyon of Wired to Hunt: When looking for deer antlers, I’ll take the second week of March. At this point the vast majority of antlers are on the ground and snow is usually melted across most of the whitetail range. This week might be a little late if you’re shed hunting in areas that a bunch of other people walk but if it’s a secret spot or private land, it’s better to wait just a little bit longer than to walk around before antlers have dropped and push all the deer (and their antlers) out of the area.

Shawn Luchtel of Heartland Bowhunter: If I could only shed hunt one week this year it would be the first week of March. Often in our home state of Missouri the snow has melted and the majority of the bucks have dropped their racks. I’ve found it’s better to wait until most of the bucks have dropped their antlers (based on trail camera photos) before walking the woods in search of antlers.

Two men shed hunting in the springtime.

What types of areas are you looking for when shed hunting?

Mark Kenyon of Wired to Hunt: I am an advocate for very strategic shed hunting. Rather than trying to walk every square inch of a property or area, I’d rather spend a longer period of time very thoroughly searching high-potential sections, and in those sections I like to focus on bedding areas and food sources, ideally in locations where those two areas are positioned tight together. The first step is identifying the best late-season food source, and usually this can be determined by actually seeing the food or by observing high amounts of sign (tracks, droppings, etc.). Once I’ve found the best winter food, I’ll search the edges, buffer strips and transition areas alongside the food sources thoroughly. After that I’ll focus on the nearest bedding areas: CRP fields, brush ridge lines, cedar patches, etc. I’d much rather strategically scour a bunch of different hot-spots like this than blindly grid-search every single property for which I have access.

Nick Ventura of Become 1: After the late season has passed, I have found bucks like to stay closer to food. Finding what the main food source is that time of year and focusing a lot of my attention in and around the food source has been most productive for me. Also note anywhere deer have to jump or cross like a creek or a fence crossing; sometimes you may get lucky picking one up in one of these spots.

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What is one tip that has helped you be successful when shed hunting?

Shawn Luchtel of Heartland Bowhunter: Make sure you have covered every inch of ground. As soon as you think a shed won’t be in a certain area, you’re wrong. We have found sheds in many places we would have never thought the buck would have been. When searching, it’s easy to get ahead of yourself to get to the next spot—don’t forget, slow and steady wins this race.

Mark Kenyon of Wired to Hunt: If you glimpse an odd shape, a flash of white or anything that catches your eye, investigate it with your optics—it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Change up your perspective: stop and scan the path behind you, or hop on top of a log to see the area from above. These new angles can sometimes unveil a hidden shed that you never otherwise would have seen.

After finding a shed, how much time and what tactics and do you spend looking for the other side?

Michael Hunsucker of Heartland Bowhunter: After picking up one side to a shed, we’ll often grid-search the area looking for the other side. From my experience however, if it’s not lying within 100 yards of the original side, it could be anywhere. It’s interesting to monitor deer over the years and see how some cast their antlers side by side while others will hold onto the opposite side for days or even weeks. Imagine how much ground a deer covers in one day. It could be anywhere!

Mark Kenyon of Wired to Hunt: I will spend maybe 10-15 minutes searching an ever-growing concentric circle around the first antler, maxing out about 70-100 yards away. If I haven’t found the match by then, I’ll continue on with my original trajectory and plan.

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Southeast

Given the more mild winter temps, strategies to find sheds in the Southeast differ slightly from the regions to the north.

  • Trail camera deployment: The same tactics from the Northeast and Midwest section apply in the Southeast. Ensure trail camera batteries are fresh after the rut ends, and watch for deer patterns throughout the property.

  • Staging Areas: As the archery seasons wind down in January and even into February, deer become wary and stage in the safety of cover before venturing out into green fields as last light fades into darkness. Scour these green fields and then move into the areas that deer consistently pour out of at last light.

We talked with Steve Tittsworth of Greenback Tactical to give us some expert insight on the shed hunting in the Southeast:

If you could only shed hunt for one week this year, which week would you choose?

The first week of March. I’ve actually got pictures of bucks holding that late here in Tennessee but for the most part, that has given them enough time to drop. We’re past the stresses of what little bad weather we may have and stand no chances of bothering the animals in any way.

What types of areas are you looking for when shed hunting?

The particular areas we hunt are 90% wooded and considerably thicker than most. With that being said, we still seek out the thickest parts of those areas because the trail systems are confined and the deer are forced to use the very few that pass through them. Some are more like tunnels than trails, but we have more in those type areas than any other.

What is one tip that has helped you be successful when shed hunting?

Slow down. It’s still a bit like hunting. Again, our areas are so thick here in eastern Tennessee and our deer densities are so low that just leisurely strolling through the woods won’t work. Take a few steps and scan, then repeat. Glassing isn’t of much use either in the thickets, but the same techniques apply. Just a few steps to change your perspective can reveal something that was right in front of you.

After finding a shed, how much time and what tactics and do you spend looking for the other side?

We don’t really do anything special to try and find the other side. We already spend a lot of time to find what few are available in our part of the world, so it’s either close to the other one or it’s not. Shed hunting here is more about getting out and spending time with family and killing time in anticipation for turkey season.

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Southwest

This diverse region spans Texas ranches that are home to giant whitetails to some of the country’s most coveted elk tags in Arizona. The strategies to find sheds in the Southwest are going to vary depending on location, but to some extent the most effective game plan is unwavering.

  • Glassing: The landscape in the Southwest in daunting. Start your shed search no differently than you would on opening day. Find a high point, set up your tripod and start scouring south-facing slopes. Just as when when glassing for animals, look for pieces of a shed—the “V” shape of a tine coming off the main beam or an inconsistent color in a brushy patch. Some of the most effective times to glass for sheds is during or after rain; when wet, antlers tend to almost shine and stick out far more than when dry.

  • Open water: The Southwest is one of the driest portion of the country, especially in the winter months. Critters will be forced to drink at some point, and will concentrate at watering holes, so open water is an asset to shed hunters. After locating water, walk the game trails leading away from the water. You’ll likely discover bedding areas within reasonable proximity to these water sources.

Eric Chesser, videographer and hunter with Hushin, gets plenty of time in the field during shed season. Here are his top tips:

If you can only shed hunt for one week this year, which week would you choose?

The first week in April. In my favorite areas, most of the bucks and bulls have shed their antlers by April 1st. Plus, it’s my birthday week and I’ve gone shed hunting every year that week for a really long time.

What is one tip that has helped you find success when shed hunting?

Scout. If you’re not where the animals are shedding their antlers you’re not going to find many. Maybe a straggler here and there, but not the honey hole. Scout for the bucks and bulls through the winter months and keep tabs on where they travel and feed, especially during February and March.

What type of terrain do you focus on when shed hunting?

That really depends on the snow levels year-to-year, but my personal favorites are south-facing slopes with good cover and feed.

After finding a shed, how much time and what tactics and do you spend looking for the other side?

Honestly, the first thing I do when I find a big single is guess which direction the buck or bull came from and which way he went. I’ll start in one direction guessing which trail or area he headed to, and if I can’t find it quickly I’ll switch back and head the other way. After that it really comes down to a grid system. Cover the main trails and easy options first, and after that grid everything you can.

West

  • Glassing: Just like the desert Southwest, the mountainous West can be daunting. Tactics for the Rocky Mountain West are much the same as in the Southwest. Start your search for finding sheds no differently than you would approach opening day: find a high point, set up your tripod and scour south-facing slopes. Look for the odd shapes of a shed, and don’t be afraid to go out after a rainstorm, when the shine of antlers may make them easier to spot.

  • Locating bucks and bulls: As the mountains begin to get covered in snow in November, gradually the critters that inhabit these areas are forced to lower elevations and often start forming bachelor groups. Given the open country, if you put the time in and keep tabs on a herd throughout December and January, the animals will generally stick in that area until predators or more snow pushes them elsewhere. If you are finding groups of does or cows, typically bucks and bulls will be at slightly higher elevations, so continue your climb.

Steven Drake shed hunting in the snow with a backpack full of sheds.

Montana-based hunting photographer Steven Drake puts as many miles on during shed season as anyone we know, so here’s some tips from a guy who picks up more bone than most.

Why do you shed hunt?

Shed hunting brings hunting 365. It allows me to continue the pursuit through the winter and spring months and learn about the game that frequent certain areas. I learn so much through shed hunting that transfers over to fall hunting season. In fact, my oldest buck to date was a result of finding his sheds in an area I would have never thought to hunt.

If you could only shed hunt for one week this year, which week would you choose?

Second week of April. Most of the sheds have dropped by then and most of the shed hunters have ended their search which means the woods are empty and many of the bulls whose antlers held on late are there for the finding!

What is one tip that has helped you be successful when shed hunting?

Search where others won’t. Instead of walking a ridge line, which is where most people walk, drop off the ridge 30 yards. Your chances of finding an antler in this zone will greatly increase.

What type of terrain do you focus on when shed hunting?

Every mountain range is different and I can’t say I’ve found commonalities between any of them. In one range, bulls will winter at 10,000 feet. In others, they will drop down to the valley floor. Spending time learning each area and how the weather, elevation and predation affect those animals will be your best shot at finding antlers. When I started shed hunting I averaged 10 miles of hiking per shed. Spending time on the ground will result in success.

Elk shed found in snow in the mountains.

Using the Hunt App to pick up more sheds:

There are numerous ways the Hunt App can help you have your most successful shed season yet.

Using Web Map to scout locations:

  • Lay out your trail camera placement strategy to identify the best areas to catch movement and therefore determine when sheds start to drop
  • Locate potential thermal cover
  • Identify south-facing slopes with scattered cover
  • Pinpoint property lines to identify fence crossings
  • Add Waypoints in areas you feel confident
  • Use the Shape Tool to outline reasonable sized areas to search
  • Think small, laying down a solid grid inside 20 acres will be more successful than a sloppy search of 40 acres.

Using the onX Hunt App in the field:

  • Turn on Tracker to establish where you have and have not been
  • Add a Waypoint where you pick up sheds
  • Drop Waypoints as you find valuable sign such as bedding areas, well used trails, and other points of interest

Shed hunting is a great excuse to log some miles in the offseason, keeping fit and ready for the hunting seasons to come The spring shed season can also be the most productive time of year for scouting an area; in late winter deer and elk group up. Even more so than other times of the year, these animals are creatures of habit, so finding well-used trails, bedding areas and well-used food sources will be easier than ever to find. So while you’re out searching for antlers, be cognizant and take note of what you find… it’ll pay off in the season to come.

Header Image: Heartland Bowhunter