SILVER CREEK TOWNSHIP — Joe Shead cringed when a visitor asked what he might do with some of the 1,000 deer antler sheds he’s collected over the years. Maybe make them into a chandelier, or cribbage boards or candle holders?
“No way! I couldn't drill or saw into any of these. They're like my babies ... I think they are works of art just the way they are,” Shead said while holding a few of his babies in his kitchen. “Some people you meet show you photos of their kids. I’ll show you photos of my antlers.”
For that matter, Shead doesn’t even sell any sheds he finds, even as shed sales have become big business nationally. Large, matched elk antlers can begin at $1,000 for the pair. A single trophy whitetail shed can fetch $275 or more. A 22-inch "wreath'' made of several real deer antlers sells for $350 on Etsy and a real antler chandelier goes for $2,798 online.
But Shead still has the first shed he ever found, back in 2001, and boxes and boxes full of others hunted and collected in eight states and Canada ever since.
Shead (yes, it’s pronounced "shed") literally wrote the book on shed hunting, in 2006, “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers.” Since then he’s become somewhat of a national star in the growing community of shed hunters, people who comb the woods and fields of deer country looking for antlers dropped by bucks over the winter.
“It’s still selling pretty well. It’s basically a guide book so, for newcomers to shed hunting, it really hasn’t changed much. It’s still relevant,’’ Shead said.
A central Wisconsin native and former managing editor of Deer & Deer Hunting magazine, the book has helped him make a living in the outdoors — as a fishing guide, outdoor writer, shed hunting expert and author. But it’s also brought the curse of competition.
“Every time I go into the woods now, I see new boot prints in places I hadn’t seen them before. I find more footprints from other people than I do sheds these days,’’ Shead said.
Still, Shead, 41, who lives just up the North Shore from Two Harbors, is trying to keep up his image as a shed hunting guru. He’s taken to Facebook and YouTube to “keep his name out there, to stay relevant’’ in the shed hunting world. He also writes regular shed hunting articles for local outdoor publications.
Shead says there’s increased interest in retriever owners training their dogs to find sheds. But, so far, he hasn’t made that move.
“I’m not really a dog person,’’ he said.
And yes, he still gets pumped whenever he finds a shed. The antler doesn’t even need to be from a big buck. He likens the sport to an addiction: Each antler he finds provides a quick shot of adrenaline. But then he needs another quick fix.
And this is the perfect time of year to get it.
It’s go time
March, as the snow begins to recede and expose bare ground, is prime time for shed hunting in the Northland. This is when last year’s antler gold — shed by most deer between December and March — begins to reveal itself. Go too early and the antlers are still covered by snow. Go too late and someone else will be holding your shed.
Shed hunting has become a popular way to get back outdoors, to get some fresh air and exercise, after a long winter.
“Especially when I lived in Duluth, I used to spend a lot of time walking in the snow down deer trails where I saw big bucks ... But you have time it perfectly and that’s almost impossible to do. The one day that I didn't go would be the day he (the big buck) would drop (his antlers) and someone else would find it,’’ Shead said. “Now, I usually wait until the snow has melted back. So it’s getting to be time to go.”
The best place to look, Shead notes, is where the snow has just melted away exposing bare ground. And antlers.
While 15 years ago he hunted hard along Duluth hillsides for sheds, he’s now more focused on wilder areas where there’s less competition. He’s also moved beyond hunting only in Minnesota and Wisconsin. His antler addiction took him to eastern Montana in January, where a low-snow winter left heavily-traveled deer areas ripe for the picking. Compared to the dense woods of the Northland, shed hunting can be easier and more productive in areas with more deer per square mile and in open areas where it’s easy to see antlers on the ground and easier to see potential hotspots — like deer trails, bedding areas and feeding areas.
“Actually a lot of bucks still hadn't shed their antlers yet so we were probably a couple weeks too early,’’ Shead said of the Montana trip. “But we still found more than 30, each of us. We can find more in a few days out there than in a whole year back home.”
Shead has hunted elk antlers in Idaho and Saskatchewan, moose sheds in Alaska and Minnesota and even caribou sheds above the Arctic Circle. Although he started out looking for whitetail sheds, these days he spends much of his time looking for moose antlers in Minnesota.
“I started looking for moose shed about 2015, seriously, and now it’s really what I like to do best. I still get a thrill out of’’ deer antlers, Shead said. “But what really gets me going now are moose.”
Shead and a few close shed hunting friends place trail cameras in the moose range north of Two Harbors in the fall looking for big moose with big racks. Then they go back as soon as the snow recedes enough to allow access. With a couple feet of snow still on the ground across much of moose territory in Minnesota, it’s going to be a few more weeks until the shed hunting gets good.
Shead laments that Minnesota’s moose population is just a fraction of what it once was. But there are still enough bulls around to make shed hunting fun.
“I wish I would have been doing this when there were four times as many moose,’’ he said.
“There are so few of them that it makes it much harder (than deer shed hunting.) But when you find one, wow, it’s just incredible. It’s a real trophy.”
Last year Shead found a real trophy trophy, half of a moose shed that was nearly record book-worthy. It’s one of several moose antlers that now dominate his living room decor. The best part is he has a trail camera photo of the same bull before it dropped its antlers, one of two bulls that showed up in one image.
“I don’t know what it is, really,’’ Shead conceded. “But there’s something about these big antlers, these big bulls, that's just magical to me.”
Buy the book
To order Joe Shead's book, "Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers" or his DVD, "Go Shed Hunting with Joe Shead," go to goshedhunting.com/shop. The book is $16. The DVD is $15. Order both for $28. A $3 shipping and handling fee applies to all orders. You can also learn a lot by following Shead online at goshedhunting.com, at Facebook.com/joe.shead and on YouTube.
Did you know?
Members of the deer family, cervidae, are the only animals that grow and discard body parts — antlers — on an annual basis. All types of male deer, elk, moose and both male and female caribou grow antlers beginning in the spring. By summer the antlers are fully grown. In fall, bucks and bulls use their antlers to fight rival males and attract mates. In winter or early spring, the antlers are shed and new antlers begin to grow.
Joe Shead’s shed hunting tips:
Look for three basic areas: Places where deer bed down, places where they feed and the trails between the two. Follow enough deer trails long enough this time of year and you’ll find sheds.
In early spring, concentrate on southern exposures. They receive the most late-winter sun, and snow recedes here first. Plus, deer like to live here, soaking up radiant heat from the sun. “Follow the snow line. Or drive south until you run out of snow and run into open ground, and look right in transition," he said.
Don't expect a matched set every time. Bucks can lose each side of their antlers weeks and miles apart. “As far as getting both, I’m probably like a National League (baseball) pitcher, batting about .150,’’ Shead said. But don’t give up. There’s also the chance both sides dropped close together.
Walk slowly. While you may think covering more ground is best, covering less ground very thoroughly actually finds more antlers.
Look close to you. You don't have to look far ahead. You'll get there eventually, so focus on where you are. Shead said most of his sheds he sees first within about 10 feet.
Look for unnatural shapes. If an antler falls tines-down, all you'll see is the curve of the main beam. If it falls tines-up, you might just see three or four tines protruding from the snow. In the snow, you don't usually see a complete antler.
Check out the lone evergreens. Bucks like to rest under these lone spruces or jackpines or balsam firs. Sometimes, that's where they lose their antlers.
In heavily shed-hunted areas, such as Duluth, you'll have to hunt before the snow melts. Many bucks drop antlers on the snow, but if you wait until the snow melts, someone else probably will have found the antlers.
Responsible shed hunting rules
Know where to go. It's illegal to shed hunt in all national parks, Minnesota state parks and state Scientific and Natural Areas. Most other public lands are open to shed hunting, such as national forests, state forest and county lands. Several other states do have restrictions, rules and seasonal limits when shed hunting is allowed: Check before you go.
Don’t disturb animals: Don’t approach animals or follow the same ones on a daily basis, especially in late winter/early spring when they are already stressed.
Respect private property. You always need permission to be on private land. Antlers that are shed on private land below belong to the landowner
Don’t take vehicles off-roading. The ground is water-logged at this time of year and off-roading in the wrong place can damage critical wildlife and fish habitat. Travel by foot only.
Try not to be in the same spot every day. Deer and moose might need to be in that spot for food or cover, and your presence will keep them from it.
Keep dogs under your control. Don’t let dogs approach or follow wildlife. State laws prohibit dogs (and people) from harassing wildlife.
Source: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Minnesota DNR