We know that deer change their patterns throughout the year based on all kinds of factors: caloric needs are a big one, and so is breeding during the rut. During antler casting—when available food is scarce and temperatures drop—deer stick to a strict late-season bedding and feeding routine that you can take advantage of when hunting for sheds.
An efficient bed-to-feed regimen saves deer precious energy that will help get them through the cold winter months. To conserve energy, deer will shift their bedding areas closer to the best late-season food sources.
If you use what we already know about deer’s winter behavior, you’ll find more shed antlers. Focus on bedding areas, high-traffic spots, and food plots (or anywhere else deer may feed or congregate). I hunt in places where I know bucks spend a lot of time, and I’ve found more sheds in these locations than anywhere else. Sure, you can stumble around the woods and luck into a few antlers, but if you’re more calculated in your approach, you’ll have better shed-hunting success.
Focus on the Does
Since deer are in a stricter bed-to-feed routine later in the season, you can guarantee they’ll be eating close to their bedding areas. In fact, it’s not uncommon for deer, especially does, to periodically bed right in a food source. When you see does and fawns feeding, you can bet bucks are close by, and you should search in and around these areas for sheds. These are a good starting point for finding dropped antlers.
Big Bucks, Mean Big Sheds
Mature bucks, although more reclusive than does, fawns, and young bucks, will also avoid walking further than necessary at this time of year to save energy. This means bucks are generally in bachelor groups this time of year and, because they are so condensed, you’ve got more opportunities to find sheds.
Although bucks will bed closer to food sources, they still prefer security. In the colder months, this usually means south-facing ridges and points with evergreen thickets, swamps with adequate high ground, and sometimes blowdowns within swamps that have a dense, grassy layer. These all provide thermal protection from the cold, and all of these places are prime habitat for big deer.
Look for Fewer Tracks
When searching for bedding areas, you will see a lot of doe and small buck tracks. Big bucks are more solitary, and often bed away from other deer in dense cover. So if you come upon an area that has few tracks, stay on them, because they likely belong to an older deer (hopefully one with a big rack).
Follow the tracks throughout the thick cover. You should see beds periodically. Check under evergreen boughs or in scrubby vegetation, where a buck may have dropped an antler. This is where shed hunting dogs are especially valuable, if you have one.
Also, places where deer need to jump to access their bedding areas, such as streams and fences, are good places to look for sheds. The impact of a big leap may help rattle an antler loose.
Don’t Kill Your Deer
Deer that must endure frigid temperatures, typically in northern states and Canadian provinces, will congregate in wintering areas often referred to as “deer yards.” Deer will migrate, sometimes for miles, to a specific habitat that has been used for generations in order to survive harsh winters. These areas are comprised of tall evergreen trees that block a lot of snow from reaching the ground, creating a shelter. There will also be browse at deer-height in the understory.
Mature bucks, young bucks, and does can all be found feeding and bedding in these areas, which vary in size. Because deer rarely leave these areas all winter, this is where bucks will drop their antlers. That said, I don’t recommended disturbing deer that are in these areas in the middle of winter. Bumping deer from these areas forces them to expend needed energy and creates stress. If you bump deer out of cover on the coldest most brutal days of winter, you make them more susceptible to freezing, starvation, and predators. Instead, wait until conditions start to thaw in the early spring to look for sheds in deer yards.