With deer season over, the hunt for trophy sheds is on

Antlers are the “Crowns of Glory” of an adult whitetail buck, and the search for shed antlers in the spring gives more opportunity for deer hunters to be in the field.

While it’s not quite the same as harvesting an adult buck during the open season, finding the shed antlers from the buck once the season is over can be rewarding. 

At least the hunter knows that, for now, the buck is alive and well and hopefully will be around next season for the hunter to match his wits against. Searching for shed antlers has become quite popular these days with deer hunters. Keeping hunters connected with the land is a good thing. Some hunters have amassed quite a collection and it’s great fun for younger hunters.

With the season having just ended, now is the time to be making plans and getting the habitat ready for the upcoming deer season. On the Moreland/Guidry Estate, I have been spending my time thus far thinning out the three year old Cow Oak plantings and replanting trees in areas damaged by Hurricane Ida. Perhaps you see the need to put in a new food plot or perhaps move a stand to a new location. Now is the time to be doing the work rather than sitting by the fire waiting for warmer spring weather.

I find it interesting that finally, near the end of winter and with the season well over, we are finally getting the cold weather we were looking for last November and December. Our God does indeed work in mysterious ways! 

But back to those shed antlers. 

While you are out and about getting ready for next season it is always good to keep your eyes open for shed antlers. You certainly do not want the tractor tire to find them! And it’s a great time to learn more about deer and their antlers as well.

This picture with four sheds shows the difference between new sheds and old sheds. The old ones are bleached white and have been gnawed on by rodents.

The antler cycle

As I go about in the off season doing a few deer management programs, it never fails to find someone who is not aware of the fact that deer lose their antlers every year. By now, one would think everyone knows that members of the Cervid Family grow a set of antlers over the course of a few months and then once winter is over, they fall off the head. Then at some point they grow a new set of antlers for the next season.

Antlers are very rapidly growing bones. Antlers are true solid bone composed of calcium and phosphorous without bone marrow. They grow from the pedicels, the base on which the antlers will grow. A 6-month-old buck, generally referred to as a nubby buck, will have these pedicels covered with skin, and usually will not have antlers at this age. A nubby buck is often called a button buck. The buck will begin to grow its first set of antlers in the spring and summer. Nutrition and age are the factors that determine the size of the antlers and genetics does have a part in the growth and configuration of the rack.

Nutrition is the key. If nutrition is poor, even a mature buck will have a mediocre set of antlers and not develop to its full potential had there been sufficient nutrition during the growing season. 

A wily old buck left a calling card in the woods right beside the deer hunter’s stand.

Today in Louisiana, most yearling bucks (1 ½ year olds) on native habitat probably are spikes. If nutrition is good, bucks of this age should have small branched antlers. As they grow older and nutrition is adequate the racks will grow larger as the deer grows older. High deer populations generally will not have adequate nutrition for quality antler growth so it is important to keep the deer numbers in balance with the habitat.

New antler growth begins in the spring a few weeks after the previous set of antlers have been shed. The growing antlers are covered with a soft material called velvet and blood vessels bring the nutrients to the growing bone cells. Antlers are soft and fragile during this stage and damage to the antlers can happen. In the fall as daylight begins to decrease, the testosterone levels in the buck begin to increase and this signals an end to antler growth. The burr at the base of the antler grows and cuts off the blood vessels. The velvet begins to dry up and the mineralization process occurs, creating the solid bony antler.

At the end of winter, daylight begins to increase once again, and the bucks testosterone levels begin to decline. Breeding season is over and a separation layer or abcission layer develops between the antler and the pedicel and the antler will eventually fall off. This is sometimes referred to as casting. This process is similar to a leaf falling off a branch. Thus, the search for shed antlers begins.

Sheds can be hard to find in tall green fields and that is where a dog comes in handy.

When to look for sheds

As just discussed, testosterone levels decline in bucks at the end of the breeding season and the antlers fall off. Louisiana has several different breeding seasons due to the genetic make-up of our deer. These breeding seasons are posted on the LDWF website and that is a good place to start looking. The deer areas in southwest Louisiana have herds with deer that breed early and antlers will fall in December and January. Big Area 2 has November for the peak breeding month and at the end of December antlers will start to fall. 

Hunters in this area know that shooting a buck in late January may result in getting a shed antler in your hand when you go to pick it up! In Area 4 and 9 antlers begin to fall in February and in the late rut areas, late February and March are the months when they fall. But it is not uncommon to see an antlered buck in these late breeding areas in April during the turkey season. The spring turkey season is a good time to keep an eye open for sheds. There were many bucks running around on our property in mid February with antlers on their heads based on trail camera photos.

A huge rack like this one is what hunter’s dream of. Even though the season is over, this big buck will shed those antlers somewhere in the woods.

Where to look for sheds

The post-rut period begins at the end of the breeding season and deer go back to feeding. At this time of the year, food sources are generally limited due to winter freezes and the fact that most native vegetation is now dormant. Acorns generally are gone, but if there was a bumper acorn crop there may be some mast still on the ground. On lands where supplemental feeding takes place, deer will still be coming to the feeders. I have participated in some post season deer counts using feeding and trail cameras and have found several shed antlers at these feeding sites. Of course food plots and fields are always a place to look for shed antlers. Antlers that lie in the sun for several months will become bleached white in color.

Some hunters use dogs to help in the search for shed antlers. Hunters will specifically train their dogs to find sheds. I have two yellow labs and if there is a bone on the ground somewhere, they are pretty good at finding them. Looking for sheds is a great way to get kids out in the field and away from the video games.

Pine plantations provide thermal cover for deer and deer will lay up in this habitat. These plantations are generally open with good visibility and one can cover a lot a ground in these sites. Deer trails going to and from bedding areas to feeding areas are a good place to look. If you saw a good buck in a specific habitat site during the season that would be a place to go look for those sheds. At the end of deer season one year, I left a small ladder stand on the ground by a creek where deer would travel along. When I went back before the start of the next season a buck had dropped an antler between two rungs of the ladder. The buck may have been leaving me a subtle message that it was still around!

I have to warn you so that you will not be disappointed if your efforts to find sheds come up empty. It is just not easy finding shed antlers in the field. There are a lot of rats, mice and squirrels in the woods and fields and once an antler hits the ground these rodents are on it, gnawing away on the boney material. 

Nothing is wasted in nature and these animals know the value of these antlers to their nutritional intake. Nail a rack on a tree and just watch how fast it can disappear. Happy shed hunting this spring and enjoy your time in the field. This would be a good activity to acquaint a novice with our beautiful Louisiana outdoors.

About David Moreland 246 Articles
David Moreland is a retired wildlife biologist with LDWF, having served as the State Deer Biologist for 13 years and as Chief of the Wildlife Division for three years. He and his wife Prudy live in rural East Feliciana Parish.