Shed antler hunting is as intoxicating to me as estrus is to a rutting bull elk. At the moment I didn’t have time to think about the addiction, future hunts for owners of the found antlers or decorative antler ambiance. Instead I was focused on staying upright as I delicately inched my way down a vertical, ice-covered chute. Loaded down with elk antlers with the weight bearing down on my knees, the descent had become treacherous at best.
Although I had about as much weight as my joints could stand, my antler addiction spurred me to grab several more muley sheds on the way down. By the time I reached my four-wheeler I was physically exhausted.
Looking for shed elk antlers is a surefire way to enjoy Western topography up close and personal. Shed elk antler hunting also gives you a jumpstart on scouting a particular unit. Sure elk migrate miles to winter, but they leave clues along the way and oftentimes migratory elk are closer to their homelands than you think. Finally, you may even make a buck if you market the antlers
I hunt sheds for fun and hunting information since it delivers clues on the density of mature bulls in an area. As you put on miles, you’ll see rubs and wallows, indicating that elk may well be rutting at lower and mid-altitude ranges in addition to commonplace cool, alpine retreats.
Last spring I happened across a hidden rutting zone I would never known existed had I not been out on the hunt for sheds. Most of the elk in this particular region spend summer and fall above 9,000 feet, but by pushing beyond a traditional wintering zone I ascended to a hidden shelf a mile or so long by a half mile wide. It was characterized by dark timber and small springs, many turned into makeshift wallows. Rubs were everywhere, and I also found a handful of shed antlers.
In some Western zones elk spend their entire life in a nonmigratory zone where snow doesn’t hinder survival. If you shed hunt these areas, be on the lookout for similar sign as the whitetail hunter. Keep an eye out for elk wallows dished out more than those found in a farmer’s muddy hog pen. Bulls and bucks alike leave rubs around food or dense bedding cover indicating a high rate of occupation. You may also stumble across the carcasses of unfortunate big game giving you solid information on what animal densities to expect in the fall.
The Easy Way
You don’t have to take rock climbing lessons or purchase crampons to find elk sheds. One of the easiest ways to get into shed elk antlers quickly and conveniently is to research state game and fish department websites for elk wintering grounds. Many of these areas have been allotted refuge status with no access until spring arrives. Most have a posted opening date, and locals plus a few travelers line up at the gate to reserve a spot for a run at the antlers.
It pays to scout ahead of time and note where bull elk have been biding their time prior to dropping antlers, which generally occurs in late March through mid-April. It also pays to know the rules whether ATVs are allowed or if the area has “walk-in” status only. You’ll find these refuges in most Western states and in areas with large grassy slopes. Elk, muleys, pronghorn and whitetails crowd many areas, but keep your eyes open for bears and mountain lions as well since they follow the food source of congregating wildlife.
The Hard Way
Mature bulls are like mature whitetails. They tend to avoid the herd, look for out-of-the-way locations to winter and will disappear in a veil of snow if disturbed. Knowing this I look for steep canyons with no motorized access and little in the way of hiking access. Most of these locations have near-vertical slopes, rock-strewn terrain and grazing that requires multi-level maneuvering to fill a hungry elk belly.
I characterize many of the target areas as sheep country. The bulls meander out onto narrow ledges to soak up sunshine, graze for nutrition and look for danger. Elevation differs on where elk winter depending on the climate and latitude, but 6,000 feet seems to be a fair range in many areas. As a side note, if you enjoy picking up any shed antlers as I do, keep a watch out for muley sheds. They’re usually one level below where the majority of elk winter.
To find elk sheds you have to find elk. Tap into the resource of local biologists who know the traditional pathways of migrating big game. They can offer helpful insight when you’re trying to locate masses of wintering elk.
Next, make sure you’re in shape. My average day is a 12-mile roundtrip of which half is straight up and most is side-slope hiking. Sturdy, leather hiking boots and one or two hiking staffs is a must. You must also have a durable and comfortable pack.
You can find many antlers by looking down slopes or across canyons with good optics. Focus on white objects looking for partial tips or beams protruding from brush or grass. My favorite optic to carry is the Nikon EDG 10×42 with enough power to pick apart the landscape.
Finally, always leave word of where you are going and when you’ll be back. Elk country is big and unforgiving.
Shed antler hunting doesn’t include the reward of adrenaline, but it does offer the reward of an antler trophy and insight for your next hunt.
A trip to elk country for shed antlers may not be in the cards soon, but everyone has whitetails in their backyard. Try these tips for finding whitetail sheds:
- Always carry a binocular. You can look over an entire hayfield by scanning it from a ridge, plus you can scan the woods to confirm or reject any strange looking white objects in the forest duff.
- Walk fence lines. Deer jump fences throughout their range and in the spring that jarring landing can jar loose an antler.
- Walk deer trails. Trails leading to feed and from bedding cover are where whitetails travel the most. Antlers often fall off while deer follow these routes.
- Search smart. Grid the area either on a map or mentally, and crisscross it with swaths wide enough where you can see your last track. Biodegradable fluorescent tape can aid in searching an area systematically and keeping you on a straight-line path.
- Lastly, look where deer spend the most time such as near food, bedding cover and micro environments for warmth. Southern slopes attract deer looking for protection from brisk north winds, plus they offer the best location to soak up warm winter rays.
For more information on shed hunting, contact the North American Shed Antlers Club, www.shedantlers.org.
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