I grew up in the hardwood forests of the southeastern U.S. hunting whitetail deer with my grandfather. Much of what I consider valuable I learned from him, about life and about hunting. As a boy he told me stories of traveling left on the map to chase mule deer and elk in the American West. I’ve long dreamt of moving West, and when presented with a job opportunity in Washington state a few months ago, I knew I’d be within striking distance of the critters I’d so long thought about.
Now, I don’t know the first thing about hunting big Western country, but I do know that serious Western hunting folks spend much of the spring looking for shed antlers. Shed hunting, for the uninitiated, means to go look for the antlers that ungulates like elk and deer shed every spring. These sheds are desirable for a number of reasons, but for me, they meant a chance for fresh air, away from the city. A recent motorcycle crash had left me sidelined for much of the winter months, and I was in dire need of some outdoor therapy. I called a few guys I’d “met” on Instagram and we hit the hills of northeast Oregon to burn some boot leather.
To be clear, what follows are not pro-tips, just a few anecdotes and lessons. However, if you’ve never done it, here are some things I took away from my first shed hunting trip that might set you on the right track.
Snowshoeing is serious work. Growing up in South Carolina, snowshoes were not on my hunting-gear checklist. Snowshoeing isn’t technically difficult, but adding even just a few pounds to each foot has a way of taxing your hip flexors (or at least mine) over the course of a long hiking day. Maybe a fourteen-mile jaunt on my first time ever using snowshoes was a bit aggressive?
Shed hunting is a fitness opportunity. I’ve often heard guys say that shed hunting is the preferred way to get in hiking shape for the fall hunting season. Now having partaken, my follow-up question would be, “OK, that’s great, but what gets you in shape for shed hunting?” I could list any number of excuses, but the bottom line is my fitness was lacking and that got exposed. I got my ass handed to me by elk country. Be ready to chew up the miles, including a lot of vertical gain and loss.
Have good glass. A solid pair of binoculars will let you see clearly across valleys and pick out sheds at a distance, “letting the glass do the walking,” as the adage goes. I own a really nice set of 8x binos that are excellent for peeking through forests back East, but they left me wanting in Oregon. My friends running 12x binos atop a tripod were picking up sheds at distances I just couldn’t manage. I’ve now added a “Western bino” line item to my gear wish list.
Invest in your feet. Ask any serious outdoors person what the most important piece of gear is, and they’ll tell you “footwear” ten times out of ten. I don’t care what you’re doing outside, if your feet aren’t happy, you’re going to have a rough go. Buy boots that keep your feet dry, warm, and well-supported, and “the suck” will visit you less often. Thankfully, I’d learned this lesson a long time ago, and my feet were good to go on this trip.
Have realistic expectations. We found four sheds in two and a half days, a ratio we all felt pretty good about. I was prepared to find none as it was early in the season for bulls to be dropping antlers in the area where we were. Instagram bone collectors might have you believing it is easier to find them than it actually is. History with a herd and many boot miles of familiarity in an area are the keys to success.
Check state/area regulations. This is very important as the laws can vary widely in different wildlife areas from state to state. Some places allow you to take antlers and dead-heads (antlers still attached to skulls), some places only antlers, and some places you can only take photographs. Read up on the specifics of the area you’ll be and make sure you’re staying on the up and up.
Hopefully these thoughts might encourage you find a few buddies and go hit the hills in search of antlers soon. The time is right now: April is the prime time to be finding freshly dropped sheds, and a right fine month to be outside.
Story by Craig Francis
Photography by David Frame