Use shed antlers to piece together the whitetail mystery.
By: Jeff Sturgis
What’s in a Shed?
The new year rings in a bittersweet end to most deer seasons across the country. As many hunters pack their gear away for the cold winter months, some devoted whitetail nuts are already focused on the next chapter of the pursuit.
Shed season is just around the corner, and some bucks have already begun dropping the rewards. Some think of each shed antler as an incentive or bonus for the miles hiked, while others consider them a clue or piece to the puzzle in the big picture of whitetail scouting and management.
The what’s, where’s, when’s and why’s of the sheds you find can offer evidence to your property’s overall health, and can even suggest improvements that will impact your efforts and success throughout the fall. It is easy to become mislead or discouraged based on the sheds your property holds, but it is important to consider the timing and relevance of this phase of the whitetail’s cycle.
What Sheds Are You Finding?
There are many properties that can hold great bucks throughout the fall but then few, if any bucks, during the late winter months. So if you are finding sheds, are they from mature deer? Are they from bucks you’re familiar with? These questions can yield countless explanations that can tell you a lot about your property. Whether bucks are coming or going from your property, something local has influenced them to do so. Are they coming in from neighboring properties because your parcel offers the last remaining food sources? Maybe you have the area’s best thermal bedding cover and high stem counts of hardwood regeneration. Or, are the local bucks leaving for neighboring properties because you don’t have food or adequate bedding areas to get them through the cold winter months?
Where are you finding sheds?
The most common areas that shed hunters find antlers are in bedding areas and food sources. But, the valuable information about these areas relies on the specifics. Food sources and bedding areas that hold deer through shed season do so for a reason. If your property’s food plots peaked during the early fall, they are likely worn out and overgrazed by November. These plots will likely be untouched through the winter. If you enjoy picking up sheds and prefer to focus your hunting efforts throughout the entirety of deer season, you may want to consider plantings that are built to last. Brassicas, rye, oats, corn, and soybeans are all great winter forage, but only if there is enough to go around. Preferred bedding areas can shift as well during the winter months. Thermal cover is critical. Conifers, cedar swamps, and pockets of high stem count woody regeneration can offer great bedding areas during those winter months when the sheds are falling.
When Does your Property Peak
Deer, more specifically mature bucks, can experience large shifts in their preferred habitat between the Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter months. Various factors play roles in determining when a property is attractive to local bucks. For example, summer bucks tend to prefer high hardwood over-stories, with ample warm season food sources nearby. During the winter, bucks may prefer habitats with high stem counts of hardwood regeneration, briars, shrubs, and heavy conifer growth adjacent to remaining food sources like corn, beans, brassicas, and natural regeneration. The presence or lack of shed antlers can offer clues to determine when your property may appeal most to bucks. If your property does not produce piles of sheds in the late winter and spring, it does not mean that you can’t experience great buck activity during the actual hunting season. Some properties are lucky to hold bucks throughout the fall and even into shed season. It all depends on when your parcel “Peaks.” If you’re curious to learn more about when and why parcels are attractive at different times of the year, here is a great article on Critical Deer Population Timing for Small Parcels.
Why does it matter?
Why are you finding heaps of antlers or few if any during the winter and spring months? In the grand scheme of whitetail management, why does it matter? This is where the puzzle gets pieced together. The trail camera photos collected throughout the year and in person encounters from the fall, paired with the findings of your miles hiked in search of antlers can help you draw many conclusions. When were bucks present on your property, what brought them in, or pushed them away? Depending on what your goals are, you can change the way your property influences the local herd’s preferred habitat. If your management goals including picking up sheds when they hit the ground, you can enhance your bedding areas and food sources to appeal to deer in the winter months.
Jeff Sturgis is a whitetail deer habitat consultant and writer of the whitetail series "Whitetail Success by Design". For more information on Jeff and to read more of his posts, visit www.whitetailhabitatsolutions.com!
featured image via CS Outdoors