Confessions of an Unsuccessful Shed Hunter
Category : Scouting
Over the years, my ambition level has been pretty hot and cold when it comes to shed season. The first year I ever decided to look for sheds, I remember the article I read (that inspired me to start shed hunting) made it sound incredibly easy. All you had to do was walk along a late season food source, or better yet, check a fence crossing or two, and there would undoubtedly be some white gold lying there for the taking. Over the years, between Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan, I have managed to find 3 sheds. That’s right, 3. Even though these numbers seem pretty dismal, I’m not too worried about it. And here’s why.
Its About Scouting
Shed hunting is a great reason to get into the woods during a prime time of year. Even though deer season seems far off, these late winter months are absolutely the most important months on the whitetail calendar. Even if I’m not finding antlers, next to hunting, this is the most valuable time for me to be in the timber. For deer, these months can be the most critical in terms of nutrition. Many of the Winter food sources are depleted, forbs and browse are chewed down, and Spring green-up has not yet occured. Because of the lack of vegetation, the whitetail woods is laid out like a map. Trails, rubs & scrapes are all highly visible. Most importantly, beds are more evident during late winter when the deer begin to shed their long winter hair because of the longer daylight hours. Hair, fresh tracks or droppings in a worn in bed is indicative of a bed receiving regular use, and recently, to boot. Late season is about the only time of year when bumping a target deer will have little-to-no effect on your chances of harvesting that animal come fall. Once you locate a bedding area in the post season, you can take the time to thoroughly scout the general vicinity to find the trails leading into and out of that location. You can also that that opportunity to locate an ambush site where you can set up just outside of the deer’s range of scent, sight or sound. Sheds or no sheds, this is absolutely invaluable information to gain.
It’s About Math
The second reason I’m not getting exercised about shed hunting success is that I stay realistic in my understanding of what is actually out there to find. I hunt in pressured states that experience high percentages of buck exploitation each year. Even in Pennsylvania, where there is a mandatory antler point restriction, I know that the shed hunting opportunities will pale to those available in midwestern states. While a 100 acre property with a winter food source in Iowa may likely hold a half dozen 2.5 year old, or older, bucks. The same piece in NY may have one survivor over 2 years old, and he may, or may not have dropped his antlers on that property. I’m looking for a much lower number of antlers because of the reality of how many bucks get harvested each gun season. That’s not even to mention that I am looking for a much smaller percentage of antler. A 70″ side laying in the middleof a picked bean field is a lot easier to spot than a 20″ fork horn. The odds are never in your favor when shed hunting, but if you plan to shed hunt in high hunter density states, you better have a quick meeting with reality before you head out or you are in for a dissapointing day.
Its About Habits
Deer are creatures of habit. Even in areas where movements are hard to predict, deer have some semblance of a routine. Typically it revolves around security and food and that’s why you hear a lot of people simplify the Whitetail’s needs into categories of food/water and cover. The thing that amazes me about myself is that when I scouted a property in the past I was so keyed in on the perennial use of primary trails, yet failed to consider the use of individual beds year after year. I believe a lot of hunters fail to realize that a buck bed is likely in a location for a specific reason, whether that is wind/thermal advantage, topography, cover or for lack of human activity. If these elements remain consistent, it is extremely likely that another deer will take over that bedding area if the deer who had been using it is killed. I believe that too many hunters’ mental approach to buck bedding is that it is random and therefore they overlook a specific bed in favor of hunting over a well used primary trail along a food source. Years ago, I bumped a large buck from a bed at the end of a brushy point between two ag fields. I assumed that the deer just happened to be bedded there that day and would probably never return again. I never thought much more about it until this year when I decided to scout that point more thoroughly. Within 30 seconds I located a worn bed that had been there long enough to create a slight divot into the mound of ground it sat on top of. I have little doubt that this is the exact location that buck was laying in so many years ago. He has long since been killed, but the bed is advantageous for a reason, and over the years, subsequent generations of deer have utilized to their advantage the terrain and cover features that this spot provides and have kept the bed open. This concept alone makes scouting and locating beds during the off season so much more valuable to me than specifically shed hunting. A shed can tell you where a buck was, while a bed can tell you where he lives; and likely where another buck will live after your target deer is harvested. These beds, and the stand locations you select to hunt them, can be fruitful for years to come. Conversely, you probably won’t find an antler on the same trail year in and year out.
Admittedly, it might sound like I am making excuses and looking for the silver lining of a unsuccessful shed hunting season. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll be the first to tell you that I would love to be picking up a thousand inches of antler per year, but it is just not realistic in the areas I hunt. I have walked nearly 20 miles already this year and have yet to find a shed. I did however find several dozen beds, of which a handful were buck bedding. Because of this, I have 5-6 promising brand new stand locations for next year and was able to tweak a few existing stands to hopefully be more effective during the upcoming season. If a buck comes by that meets my standards, I will harvest that animal, regardless of whether or not I have his sheds sitting on my bookshelf at home. Don’t be thrown off by a lack of shed hunting success, instead, use this time to establish your movements for next Fall, when it really counts.