SAMUEL: Hunting shed antlers is a passion for some

I know people who literally enjoy hunting shed antlers as much as they do hunting deer. A married couple who are bowhunting friends of mine live near Rochester, Minn., and travel six hours every fall to bowhunt big Saskatchewan bucks. Of course, they didn’t get to go this past fall because the Canadian border was closed, but most years they make that trip.

The hunting attraction is the huge bucks that one can find in Saskatchewan. But their trips to Saskatchewan don’t end there. In a few weeks, they’ll normally pack up and make that same trip to look for deer sheds. I’m not sure they will be able to make that trip this spring because of the border closing. It was scheduled to open on Feb. 21, but that has now been extended until March 21. Seems like a long way to go to look for bones, but my friends are like a lot of hunters. They love hunting sheds.

A few friends purchased trained dogs that can find shed antlers. With or without dogs, shed hunting is a big deal for many. Hunters search for antlers of bigger bucks they unsuccessfully hunted the previous fall because that tells them that buck is still alive. Finding other larger antlers that they don’t recognize as ones from bucks they saw the previous fall also stirs their emotions because those bucks may be in their area come September.

Every hunter has a theory on when bucks shed their antlers. In fact, it would be hard to find two hunters that would agree on that topic. Antlers grow from the pedicel, a bony projection that is part of the frontal bone. That growth, via velvet, ceases in August. Bucks will shed their antlers anytime from late December to late March and occasionally as late as April (for example, in Nebraska a buck that mated a female fawn in April, dropped his antlers much later than other bucks in the area). We do know that antlers drop due to changes in the level of testosterone in the buck. After the rut, decreasing day length triggers testosterone to also decrease and when it drops to a certain level, the antlers fall off. Sounds pretty straightforward, but it isn’t. Decreasing day length is a major fact here, but a number of things can also affect testosterone levels.

If does are in estrus, bucks will have high testosterone, and we know that some female fawns will come into estrus and breed after mature does do. That means we can have hot does in the woods in December, January and even February. So, if a female fawn comes into estrus in January or even later, buck testosterone remains high and they’ll attempt to breed her. Of course, this means that her fawns will drop later than normal (normal being around the first week of June) so you can have a few fawns born in July or even August. It’s unusual, but it happens.

Estrus does also means that those bucks will still have antlers. Some say cold weather triggers antlers to drop. Others say that a hot spell and hot weather cause antlers to drop. Hmmm. Some say the older bucks lose their antlers first. Some say that injured bucks lose their antlers first. Some say that bucks that have poor nutrition drop antlers first. Others say the most dominant big bucks do. One researcher in Mississippi suggested that bucks in poor nutritional condition, or those that are diseased, shed their antlers earlier than they would if they were on good nutrition. Poor nutrition causes testosterone to drop, and as mentioned earlier, when testosterone drops, so do antlers.

Other researchers have found that big and/or older bucks often shed earlier, and suggest that this is due to the fact that their high social rank during the rut takes a physical toll on their body. Chasing does, not eating, fighting other bucks, all reduce their body condition, and thus when the rut ends, if they are really run down, their testosterone levels drop faster than normal, and this leads to the casting of antlers. Poor habitat leads to poor body condition. Since we know that testosterone levels drop when the bucks are in poor body condition, or undernourished, then a poor habitat may also cause them to drop antlers earlier. One New York study showed that 62% of bucks three-years-old and older dropped their antlers by mid-December, while only 23% of younger bucks did.

I mentioned last week that I recently used Zoom to attend the Southeast Deer Study Group meeting. There was one antler shed paper. Researchers collected shed antlers in the Platte River Valley from 2009-20, genetically analyzed each shed and found that the distance between matched sets of antlers from bucks 2 1/2 years old or older was twice as far apart as matched antler sets of 1 1/2-year-old bucks. This simply means that if you find one small antler the chances are that the other antler from that buck is probably close by, but if you find a large antler you may have to search further away to find the matching antler.

Here’s something shed hunters might find interesting. Cast (shed) antlers from the same individual bucks 2 1/2 years of age and older were found on average 0.3 miles apart (517 yards) in subsequent years. That suggests that at least in Nebraska, along rivers, older bucks winter in the same areas each year.

I’m sure that individual bucks don’t always read the books, so we might see bucks with antlers late or see some with no antlers very early. The question of why some bucks drop early, some late, is not an easy one to answer, but poor body condition appears to be a major factor. Yes, there is a lot going on out there that will impact when a buck drops his antlers. Just makes shed hunting more of a challenge.