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Shed Hunting Tips: Regional Tactics and Strategies From the Pros

In this article, we provide a brief introduction to shed hunting for those who may be new to it and then dive into region-specific tactics you can use to find more antlers, whether you’re picking up your first bone or can’t even count how many sets you’ve spotted.

What Is Shed Hunting?

If you’re unfamiliar with the term shed hunting, it is simply the act of searching for antlers that certain ungulates naturally drop each year. Some shed hunters search for sheds to sell them, while others use sheds to help inform their hunting plans for the following year. Some others simply enjoy an excuse to walk in the woods.

Which Species Lose Their Antlers?

If you’re shed hunting in North America, you’re on the lookout for antlers from the Cervidae family, which includes deer, elk, moose, and caribou (also called reindeer). These animals naturally drop their antlers each year. In deer, elk, and moose, barring any rare genetic anomalies, only males grow and shed antlers. In caribou, males and females grow and shed antlers.

Antelope (also called pronghorn), who belong to the Bovidae family, also shed their headgear. However, instead of antlers, antelope have sheathed horns; they shed the sheath annually between November and December.

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When Is Shed Hunting Season?

To understand when to start your search for sheds, it is important to understand the factors that cause antlers to drop. The largest factor is hormone levels—most specifically, testosterone. Once the rut winds down, testosterone levels drop. Osteoclasts, the cells responsible for antler growth, begin to break down the antlers near their bases, or pedicles. When this happens, the antlers naturally fall off. Depending on several factors, including geography and daylight hours, antlers can drop from November through April.

Another key factor influencing when antlers drop is the animal’s stress level, which can be heightened by a lack of food, harsh winters, predators, and poor health. Generally, the more stress, the sooner an animal sheds its antlers. With that in mind, mature bucks and bulls who have expended immense energy defending their breeding rights during the rut may be the first to drop the head weight.

So, when is shed hunting season? While it’s true that sheds may be lying there for the taking as early as November or December, it is important to understand that shed hunting season really doesn’t start until winter has run its course. Why? Deer and elk are the most vulnerable during the winter months and need to conserve energy to survive the harsh, food-scare months. Ethical shed hunters should be mindful of not intentionally contributing to stress levels.

In fact, many states have laws in place specifying where and when you can shed hunt, so be sure to do your research. Also, from a private property standpoint, if you poke around your property for sheds too early, you may bump bucks or bulls onto neighboring property. And, if you don’t have access, you just gave your neighbor a nice shed or two.

Infographic of American broken out by region showing the best shed hunting dates.
When an antler-bearing animal sheds its headgear depends on several factors, including geography.

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

Northeast and Midwest Shed Hunting Tips

Because the Northeast and Midwest have similar climates, sheds start to fall around the same time, and the strategies used to find them are also consistent, including:

  • Trail camera deployment: Load fresh batteries in your trail cameras after the rut winds down so you can take inventory of which deer made it through hunting season, their late season patterns, and when they dropped their antlers. Trail cams can give you direction on when to wander through the woods, and, if you have multiple trail cams, the footage can give you a general idea of where a buck may have left his headgear.
  • South-facing slopes: While this strategy really shines in the West, it 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. South-facing terrain features are easy to distinguish using the onX Web Map, especially if you’re an Elite Member and have access to Terrain-X.
  • Standing crops: If you 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.
  • Fencelines: Sometimes, all it takes is a nice landing for a shed to drop. Check out fencelines or other obstacles a buck may have needed to navigate. The jostling and impact of a hopping maneuver can sometimes shake loose a shed.
A deer shed lies in brown fall leaves on the ground.

We talked with a few of our ambassadors from the Midwest and Northeast to give us some expert insight:

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 where 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 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.

A whitetail shed in leaves.

Southeast Shed Hunting Tips

Given its milder winter temps, Southeast shed hunting strategies differ slightly from the regions to the north.

  • 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.
  • Trail camera deployment: The same trail camera 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.

We talked with Steve Tittsworth of Greenback Tactical to give us some expert insight into 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 chance 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 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 types of 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 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 much use 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 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.

A whitetail shed on shale rocks.

Southwest Shed Hunting Tips

The Southwest region includes Texas ranches that are home to giant whitetails and some of the country’s most coveted elk tags in Arizona. With such a diverse region, shed hunting strategies vary depending on location, but some pointers apply almost anywhere in the Southwest, including:

  • Glassing: The landscape in the Southwest is 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 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 are during or after rain; when wet, antlers almost shine and stick out far more than when dry.
  • Open water: The Southwest is one of the driest portions of the country, especially in the winter months. Critters will be forced to drink at some point and will funnel toward 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 for shed hunting success in the Southwest:

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 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 Shed Hunting Tips

Shed hunting strategies in the West share some commonalities with the Southwest, such as:

  • Glassing: Just like the desert Southwest, the mountainous West can be daunting. Start your search for 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.
  • Understanding how snowpack impacts bulls and bucks: As the mountains begin to get covered in snow in November, 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.
  • Deadfall, ditches, and other obstacles: Whenever you pass through an area full of obstacles, whether a network of downed trees or fencing, keep your eyes peeled. An antler can be forced loose as a buck or bull jumps over things in its way, which can also include tight ditches or cricks.
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. Here are 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 the 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 ridgeline, 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

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 to mark areas where you feel confident you’ll find a shed, or that would make good glassing knobs.
  • Use the Shape Tool to outline reasonably 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.

And, if you’re an Elite Member, Terrain-X makes quick work of e-scouting for shed hunting areas. Watch Steven Drake explain how he uses Terrain-X to drill into slope aspects, slope angles, and elevation bands likely to hold dropped antlers.

Shed hunting is a good excuse to log some miles in the offseason, keeping fit and ready for hunting seasons to come. Shed hunting season can also be a productive time for scouting. Even more so than other times of the year, ungulates are creatures of habit; finding well-used game trails, bedding areas, and food sources will be easier than ever. While you’re out searching for antlers, take note of what you find—it’ll pay off in the season to come.

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Jared Larsen

Hailing from Wisconsin, Jared grew up sitting in tree stands and duck hunting marshes across the Midwest. In high school he joined his dad, uncles, brother and cousins on yearly elk trips across the West. Upon graduation he attended Iowa State purely to obtain resident deer tags in order to hunt the family farm in pursuit of trophy whitetails. Now at onX as a Marketing Specialist you can find him chasing elk and mule deer most weekends, but he ensures an annual trip back to the Midwest to spend a week twenty feet up waiting for a mature buck.