Antler HuntingAntler Hunting - When, Where, How and What?
Each summer, big game animals such as Elk, Deer and Moose grow new antlers prior to the breeding season (autumn). These antlers are shed (or fall off) during late winter or early spring.
Mule deer shed usually shed their antlers in January and February. Elk usually shed their antlers in February or March, and they usually shed at higher elevation, but both species can retain antlers into April.
Antler shed hunting can be fun for the whole family, a good way to get some exercise, a way to spend a day in the field with your dog in the off season, it can be an opportunity to find a record breaking shed and it can be profitable.
Where to Search for Antler Sheds?
So where is the best place for antler hunting? Well where do the deer, elk and moose spend the most time during the Late Winter/Early Spring when they would be shedding their antlers?
What to look for when antler hunting, here's a slide show of antlers and what they looked like on the ground as found (mute the music if you wish, NOT my choice!):
Mule Deer usually use open sagebrush areas where the snow is not very deep. Elk usually use South-facing slopes and feeding areas. Moose usually stay in riparian areas.
When antler hunting, you should also concentrate along areas where animals cross fences, creeks, ditches and gullies, because many antlers are jarred loose when the animals jump over these obstacles.
Antler Hunting Ethics
Finding the best (or most) antlers can become competitive. The early bird gets the worm and finder's keepers. In addition, antler shed will quickly start to dry and crack in the sun and rodents chew on them to get calcium and other minerals, so the sooner a shed is found, it is likely to be in better condition. But the best time to find antlers may be the absolute worse time to disturb the animals.
Some people actually chase animals or even entire herds with snowmobiles or 4-wheelers in an effort to "shake" some antlers loose. Obviously, no true sportsperson would do such a thing, but there are people that either don't know or don't care that this kind of stress can actually threaten the animal's lives, all just for antler hunting.
Animals are in their lowest condition, with the lowest fat reserves just prior to green-up in the spring. In addition, the females are heavy with calves or fawns, and stress can cause them to loose calves, or produce calves that have lower chances of survival.
Animals in good condition can probably stand another stress or two, but for animals on the edge, one more disturbance could be the final straw.
This is obviously more of an issue in Western States than other areas.
You could walk into a woodlot in the South, East or Midwest, and maybe chase a few deer out of that woodlot across a field into another woodlot. But if you stick your head over a ridge in the mountains of the West, you may cause an entire herd to run over the next ridge miles away.
So, here is how you can help reduce winter mortality and increase calf survival while antler hunting:
- Give animals plenty of space when you see them.
- Stay away from known feeding and resting areas.
- Do not intentionally cause animals to move.
- Remember that the cows and does are heavy with calves and fawns.
- Stay on approved trails when riding 4WDs, ATVs and OHVs.
State Regulations for Antler Hunting
In the past, there has been no regulation of antler shed hunting and no permits were needed to keep the antlers you found, but it has recently come to our attention that some Western States are starting to regulate shed hunting.
Harassing wildlife has been illegal in most if not all states for many years, but read your state's regulations to understand exactly what is considered as harassment.
There are many new rules about where 4-wheelers, snowmobiles and other Off Highway Vehicles (OHV) can be ridden.
Utah requires that individuals complete an online ethics course for antler hunting between Feb. 1 and April 15. You can print the certificate, but must carry it with you when shed hunting. No certificate is needed after April 15.
Arizona asks Shed Hunters to "Ride responsibly when Shed Hunting" and reminds people that harassing wildlife is illegal.
Colorado - apparently have been considering a season for shed hunting, but no information at the website about regulations.
Montana - found articles about shed hunting that mentions "increasing concern about disturbance", but no regulation.
Nevada - article "hunt shed antlers responsibly" in Regulation book.
Washington - article found about regulating human disturbance in Wintering areas, but no regulation found about shed hunting.
Wyoming – regulations are being considered.
Idaho, New Mexico and California - no information found.
Oregon - no information found, but license ($11.50) is required to buy, sell or produce crafts made from antler sheds.
Using Antler Dogs to Hunt Antler Sheds
Many people are using dogs to help find sheds. No pedigree is required, just a dog that has learned to identify the smell and/or sight of antlers. As autumn approaches, check the local regulations, because dogs can not be released in many areas or all seasons.
Best way to teach a dog is to let him find an antler that you have already spotted, and reward the dog. I have heard of people that use bones to help train, but I have some doubts that an antler and bone smell the same to a dog.
Other Antler Hunting Information
Antlers that are still attached to the skull are not legal to possess, regardless if fresh road-kill or an old sun-bleached skull. Some states (Wyoming) may issue a permit to allow you keep antlers attached to a skull if you contact them "as soon as possible".
Many hunters and landowners like to recover all the shed antlers from a particular animal, to watch how the antlers grow over the years. I have seen mounts of harvested animals that included all the previous shed antlers. Very cool.
There is a National Shed Antler Hunters club that keeps records of large individual antlers and complete sets:
North American Shed Hunters Club (NASHC)
NASHC Shed Antler Records of North American Big Game book.
So get outdoors and go antler hunting with your family, but remember that the animals' welfare comes first. Do not chase, harass or endanger any animal in order to get an antler shed. Be an example to your children and to other antler shed hunters.