Over the last decade, shed hunting has become one of the most popular post-season activities for deer hunters, but not as much so in mountain country that is open to the public. Shed hunters in the big woods don’t have the advantage of being able to search through wide open crop fields, or smaller parcels of land that concentrate deer. A big woods shed hunter can easily spend a week shed hunting without finding a shed. On the flip side a guy on prime ag ground can score piles like the video below.
Living in the northern woods of Pennsylvania, I know no other place for shed hunting than the big woods. My backyard is home to endless miles of rugged, mountainous, public land. And there’s sheds to be found, but you have to know where to look for them.
Understanding The Winter Pattern
Winter is the most harsh time for whitetails, and bucks often have it harder than does. It’s all about survival and post-rut recovery. In order for a buck to make it through winter in the northern big woods, he needs thermal cover and a good food source. If you don’t have the right winter habitat located, you won’t likely find sheds. The biggest key to locating bucks in the winter is food. Find the food first. That will get you on bucks. Southern slopes with leftover acorns are buck magnets in the wintertime. But you can’t rely on a heavy acorn crop every year. When oaks don’t produce, the number one food source becomes browse. Young clear-cuts are shed hunting hot spots. With snow on the ground, a buck will use very little energy eating browse vs. digging up acorns through heavy snow.Even though food is the number one key for a big woods shed hunter, if thermal cover is not relatively close to the food source then you may have to look elsewhere. When temperatures consistently remain below freezing during day and night, bucks seek pine or hemlock for bedding. The thick evergreens shield the wind from penetrating their winter coats. Since bucks spend more time bedding than feeding this time of year, the bedding cover is crucial for survival.
Over the years, I’ve found most of my bigger sheds in bedding areas. I believe mature bucks spend a ton of time resting after the rut and through out the winter. So if buck’s are spending most of their winter in the bedroom, that makes it the most likely place for those antlers to drop.
The biggest set of sheds I’ve ever found were from a buck I named Goliath. I bumped him out of his primary winter bed the day after Christmas while post-season scouting. I knew if I played it right and didn’t go back into that area until spring, there was a good chance his sheds would be inside that bedding area. As luck would have it, I found both antlers in his primary bed my first hunt that following spring. Both of those antlers measured well over seventy inches!
Goliath’s bedding area was on a west facing point, loaded with hemlock and beech brush. His primary bed was at the tip of the point right near the edge of a drop off.
Mountain TerrainAnywhere you have hill country and cold weather, you’ll find that elevation plays a huge role in where deer spend the winter. I find most of my bedding around 1500 feet of elevation, but that often changes once winter arrives. During the mid winter months, I find most bedding to shift below the 1500 foot mark. Sometimes even below 1000 feet. Higher elevations often hold more snow, colder temps and stronger winds. These are a buck’s worst enemies after hunting season other than predators. Typically, the harsher the winter, the lower you have to go to find sheds. During bad winters, focus more on southern and western facing slopes. These places get more sunlight which causes more snow to melt and provides warmer temperatures.
Shed Hunting Pressure
Yes, there’s such thing as shed hunting pressure. In fact, you have to pay attention to how you are pressuring your shed hunting spots and also keep an eye out for other shed hunters. Bucks are still in high alert mode from gun season, they will shift easily if you pressure them. If I think I’m going to be shed hunting an area where I will have competition from other shed hunters, I really focus heavily on food sources early during shed hunting season. Most shed hunters don’t get real serious until spring. I’ve noticed that February is the month where I see most antlers drop. By starting a little early in late January through February, you can often get a head start from other shed hunters.
I mentioned my January and February shed hunting is mainly in food sources. The reason why is I do not want to pressure bucks and push them out of their winter homes. Staying out of bedding areas is a must until March or April. The majority of time spent in feeding areas is at night, so that’s why you can hunt food sources heavily without putting pressure on bucks.
Trail cameras are highly overlooked for shed hunting. But not for me. Some of the best sheds I’ve ever found were only because I ran cameras monitoring particular bucks. In 2020, I was able to get intel that my number one buck actually dropped during December of 2019. I was fortunate to go in his bedding area the first day of searching and find one of his antlers. It was another seventy inch hunk of antler!
Not only do trail cameras help you determine when the buck’s are dropping in your areas, it’s also a great way of finding out what deer made it through hunting season. I mainly place my cameras on food sources and trails entering and exiting bedding. Sometimes I’ll check certain cameras every 3-5 days during February to try and get on a buck’s antlers as soon as he drops. I’ve found that by avoiding placing cameras close to bedding or in bedding areas, I cause no harm or pressure even by checking cameras as often as every three days.
If snow is deep, you can actually enhance the amount of activity on your cameras by walking up and down deer trails, packing the snow. Bucks are certainly looking for the route of least resistance during the rough months of winter. A paved trail going from his bedroom to his food source is a path he will take often. A great spot for a camera!
Shed hunting the big woods is not usually in realm with the term “miles for piles”. I often go 5-10 miles without finding one. So you have to be patient.
But surely, they are out there! And if you can become successful in finding sheds in the big woods, you’ll be able to find sheds anywhere!
Author: Exodus Black Hat Team Member Steve Sherk of Sherk's Guide Service