Why do bucks spend so much dang time and energy growing antlers over the summer only to shed them five or six months later?
“Scientists have pondered it for years and we still don’t know,” says noted whitetail biologist Dr. Mick Hellickson, who points to a couple of solid theories. Some scientists believe bucks shed annually so they’ll have the potential to replace damaged antlers. If a buck had to live his entire life with snapped tines or a broken beam he couldn’t fight his rivals or posture for does. A second theory suggests that bucks shed and grow new racks 10 to even 30 inches larger the following year to keep pace with their increasing weight and girth as they mature to 3 ½ years of age, 4 ½ and so on.
Here are some more interesting shed facts, along with tips to help you find more antlers when you hunt them in late winter and spring.
• After the rut, bucks’ decreasing testosterone levels cause an “abscission layer” to form between antlers and their pedicles. As the connective tissue dissolves, antlers get loose and fall off.
• Bucks cast their racks from late December in northern states through March and April farther south. It varies widely across North America.
• Weather, snow depth, altitude and especially food availability/ nutrition can influence when bucks lose their antlers from region to region.
• If your area has an early rut, bucks’ testosterone will decrease earlier and some of them will cast their racks two to four weeks earlier than normal. A severe winter may also cause stressed deer to shed earlier than usual.
• Some people once believed that bucks withdrew to secluded places to shed their antlers away from does and rival bucks, thus avoiding loss of virility in public. Today’s top biologists pooh-pooh that, saying deer are likely unaware of when and where they’ll lose their headgear.
• Most older-aged bucks shed antlers earlier than younger bucks.
• According to Hellickson, the specific time when a buck will shed his antlers may be determined heavily by his individual antler cycle. This cycle is independent of other bucks and is probably centered on each animal’s birth date.
• A study in Mississippi found that individual penned bucks usually shed their antlers during the same time week each year. Other studies of captured deer show that bucks usually shed both antlers within three days of each other.
• It’s a sick feeling to go into a woodlot or thicket and jump a one-antlered monster. He probably won’t come back before he loses his other side, and that blows your goal of finding both sheds. So don’t hunt too early. Try to glass winter feeding areas where deer congregate (corn, soybeans, hay lots, etc.) every few days until you see few if any bucks with antlers. Then start looking hard.
• Another option is to leave digital trail cameras running around feeding areas or even bait piles if they are legal in you area. Once bucks go antler-less in your images, start hunting.
• Check all trails that enter and leave a feed field. Bucks often walk only 100 to 300 yards and lie down out of the wind on the first east- or south-facing hillside. You might find sheds on or just off a trail, or on the bedding slope.
• A rainy day is great—sheds shine and catch your eye. Bones can be tough to see in brown grass lit with harsh sunlight.
• The biggest mistake people make is to wander around, looking too far out front and all around. Mark off small grids of land, walk slowly over each grid and look straight down at the ground for sheds.
• Wear soft-soled boots. One April day Iowa shed expert Don Kisky stepped on a stick, or so he thought. He dug through the leaves and uncovered a five-point 75-inch shed. With the other antler and an 18-inch spread, that giant would have pushed 170. With his new rack, he would go Boone and Crockett that fall.
• Kansas hunter Joey Rott wrote to me at the blog and told me about a pair of matching sheds he found in 15 minutes one day last spring—they scored close to 200 inches! Joey had glassed hard and smart like we talked about, and he stayed out of that patch of woods till just the right time. Even more amazing, his dad went into the same timber that same day and found the same buck’s sheds from the previous year. Joey found spot where that monster was spending a lot of time in winter. And since the older a dominant buck gets the more his core area shrinks, he found a hotspot to bow hunt in the coming years. That’s how shed-hunting can help you.