Learning From Sheds

Studying cast antlers can unlock the secrets to big bucks

Whitetail sheds are a treasure, which may explain why I was sprinting to reach a recently cast antler even though I was alone in the woods. Feeling a little bit sheepish, I bent down to pick the antler off the ground, hoping no one had seen me.

The shed obviously had been cast by a sizable whitetail buck. In addition to the main beam, it had four long primary tines and five "kicker" points between the burr and brow tine -- each of which was slightly longer than one inch. I quickly noted where the cast antler had been found on a hand-drawn map. Then I punched the location into my GPS. Later I transferred the way point where I found the shed to a more precise map. Continuing along the trail I found the buck's right antler less than a hundred yards away. It was a perfect match, including the kicker points just above the burr.

Before the day was over I picked up six more sizable shed antlers and nearly as many belonging to younger bucks. They would provide valuable insight into where to hunt the following season, which was only about seven months away.

Antler Clues
Sheds provide a wealth of information for hunters. A fresh shed, for example, indicates the buck that cast it survived the previous hunting season and winter. It also pinpoints the exact location where the buck was when he dropped his antlers.

The size of the antler can give you a good idea of the age of the buck that dropped it. Simply compare the diameter or circumference of the main beam just above the burr to the pedicel-attachment area where the antler was attached to the skull (see sidebar). Small antlers are cast by young deer, medium-sized antlers are usually cast by bucks coming of age and big antlers are generally produced by mature or possibly over-the-hill bucks. There are certainly exceptions, but the general trend holds true.

Antlers that have been shed fairly recently and show considerable signs of being chewed by something other than rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits or porcupines generally indicate a mineral deficiency in the area. Hungry for minerals, livestock and deer will chew on antlers and other bones. If the sheds you find reflect this and your state game laws allow it, establishing a man-made "natural" mineral or salt lick as part of your management program may be a good way to attract and hold deer on the land you're trying to manage.

As a wildlife biologist, manager, guide and hunter, I have often taken bucks whose shed antlers I found the previous winter. These bucks were frequently taken less than 100 yards from where a buck's antlers were dropped. However, these successes occurred on properties where the deer were not migratory. If you hunt a migratory whitetail herd, the buck that dropped the antlers you found might be in the next county during hunting season. Thankfully most whitetails are not migratory.

Antlers as Locators
I recall a particularly good 10-point whose sheds I found on a South Texas ranch. Assuming the antlers had an 18-inch inside spread, the buck easily would have made Boone and Crockett record-book minimums. I hunted hard but could not find him. The next winter we again found his shed antlers. This time they were only slightly smaller than the year before, which is typical of an over-the-hill buck and a good example of the pedicel/beam relationship described in the sidebar on page 38.

That fall I returned to the immediate area. With just a week remaining in the season I shot the big 10-point, which fell less than 100 yards from where we found his shed antlers. The same thing happened with a former B&C; contender in Iowa. Unfortunately, the year I shot him (fewer than 75 yards from where we found his previous year's cast antlers), the old monarch had regressed from the huge typical 12-point he had once been to a basic 8-point. Still, I couldn't have been more pleased.

Guiding on seeveral South Texas ranches, I often have seen clients take mature bucks within 200 yards of where we found a buck's cast antlers. Hunt sheds? Yes! Hunt close to where sheds are found? Most definitely!

The next time you find an antler cast by a whitetail buck, learn all you can about the individual deer by carefully examining his antler and note the discovery site in your "buck journal." Come fall, hunt close to where you found his sheds. It just might give you the edge you need to take the buck of a lifetime.

Shedding Light on Antlers
Yearling bucks (1) **have relatively small antlers and neither their pedicel-attachment area nor their main beams are very large. Bucks that are two and three years of age (coming-of-age) generally have a pedicel-attachment area **(2) **that is nearly the same size as their beam circumference. In bucks that are in their prime (four to six or seven years of age), the circumference of the beam just above the burr is generally larger than the pedicel **(3). Bucks that are over-the-hill -- eight years old or older -- often have large pedicel-attachment sites (4), but the main beam just above the burr is generally smaller in size by comparison.