Every spring thousands of outdoor enthusiasts head into the mountains in search of bull elk antler sheds. Most folks pick up 2 or 3 every season after spending hours combing the forest and mountains for sheds. I have lived in the eastern White Mountains of Arizona since the early 1990’s and have been hunting antler sheds every spring. I generally pick up 30-50 sheds a season and average one about every 2 1/2 hours. Here are some tips on how you can increase your odds of finding bull elk antler sheds.
Mountain weather can be inclimate and change with very little notice. You will need to prepare yourself in advance by wearing the proper outerwear. First off, you need to be wearing a really good pair of boots. The terrain is steep and the footing is loose. Hiking shoes just won’t do the job. Hiking boots are better, but your best bet is a good leather Gore-Tex hunting boot. I prefer Danner Boots, they are comfortable and sturdy. Next is a regular pair of denim blue jeans. You are constantly going through brush, butt sliding, kneeling and occasionally slipping and falling. Nylon pants get tore up pretty fast. For a top layer, a wick dry tee-shirt along with a technical nylon or fleece top will work very well. You want to stay warm, but allow the sweat to be wicked away. It’s also a good idea to wear a bright color on top especially if you’re shed hunting with a partner, you need to be able to see each other from a distance. Camo is generally not a good idea. A good baseball style hat is also essential to keep the sun out of your eyes. I wear a long bill hat from my wife’s fly fishing guide business. This is mainly because you will not be wearing sunglasses, sunglasses tint the natural surrounding and you will not see the antlers laying on the ground unless they’re old white chalks. Sunglasses also make it difficult to use binoculars effectively.
There are three essential items that you should carry with you at all times when you’re shed hunting. The first is a good pair of binoculars. I use a pair of 12×50’s that can be purchased for around $100-150. You also want to purchase the over the shoulder straps for the bino’s ($15). These will hold the glasses close to your chest and keep them from banging on rocks and hanging up in the brush. Next is a sidearm, if allowed in your state. You will be hiking into prime mountain lion country. I carry a.45 titanium revolver and it has saved my life twice by firing warning shots above charging lions. I have never killed one. (Perhaps a future story?) I simply will not go deep into the mountains without a sidearm and will not allow hunting companions to do so either. Finally you will need a 2000-3000 cu.in. backpack with straps that will clip and unclip the antlers onto the back of the pack. Preferably, also a bladder reservoir with a bite tube for hydration.
Remember, the points always are packed away from you and depending on the size of the antler, the button may point up or down….try not to let the points dig into your butt, or bang against your head. I can carry (3-4) antlers in this manner, then one in each hand if I find a real honey hole. Your pack should include: extra hardshell, in case of inclimate weather, radios, if traveling with more than one person (essential), headlamp, matches, map, GPS (optional) first aid kit, utility tool like a Leatherman, sunscreen, toilet paper, extra liter of water and your lunch. In some areas, such as the Blue Wilderness, I carry a lightweight climbing harness, a couple of carabiners, rappel device and a 100′ length of static rappelling rope for getting myself out of tricky situations.
RESEARCH THE FOUR ESSENTIALS
Now that you’ve assembled all of your outerwear and gear, it’s almost time to go elk antler shed hunting. However, to prevent you from wandering from mountain to canyon without purpose, you will need a good map of the area. The best are USGS topo maps available online – we like to laminate ours. I also like to utilize Google Maps and Google Earth. National Forest maps are also handy for finding roads for access into remote areas, but most the side roads are unmarked. The main thing is to have a “search plan” and stick with the plan. Your plan should reflect the four essentials mentioned below. Always let someone else know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. A note on the kitchen counter to my wife usually works for me. You also may want to carry a GPS and mark the location of your vehicle before you go trotting into a remote area.
As you plan your elk antler shed hunting adventure you should be thinking about four essential items: Security, Access, Conditions and Terrain. Any successful shed hunting trip will require all four of these items to be present. If only one essential element is missing, you will have very little luck finding sheds and likely be skunked. All we are doing is increasing the probability of finding an elk antler shed in a given area.
I believe that elk antlers are painful before they fall off. There is no scientific evidence that I am aware of to support my belief, but nonetheless I firmly believe this to be a true fact. The level of pain may be different for each bull elk, from a minor toothache to an abscessed tooth. The level of pain may also vary with age. So, take a minute and consider how you personally feel when you’re sick with a toothache, say maybe a root canal. Generally, you want to relax as much as possible, stay warm and comfortable, very little social contact, have water and food close-by, maybe sleep a little more than usual. Most of all, you really don’t want to be bothered. You just want to get this over with and get on with your life. My contention is that is exactly how a bull elk feels when those big antlers start to loosen up. They want to be safe and secure.
So, where would a bull elk feel safe and secure? The question is probably better asked where they wouldn’t feel safe and secure. Well, to be honest, definitely not around their girl friends, the cow elk. If I see loads and loads of fresh cow elk scat, I’m probably not in a good area for finding sheds. The bulls sometimes gather into smaller groups of 4-8 when they are about to drop, but most of the time this is a solitary event when it actually happens. They also do not want to be cold, they generally like to be as warm and comfortable as possible. I generally do not find elk sheds on north facing slopes unless I’m working a large mountain with deep backbone type ridges…even then, odds are far greater on the sunny sided slopes. This next one is very important, they also tend to avoid deep thick brushy areas, which are prevalent on north facing mountains. Remember, if you buy into my belief, these antlers hurt. They do not want them to be knocking against trees and bushes…kinda like stubbing a toe that you’ve already stubbed. However, the areas may be short and brushy, like a live oak forest with the height of the oak around 5′. This allows them to move around and carry the antlers above the brush, but have the ability to lie down in between them to seek protection.
The astute shed hunter would probably say, “Yea okay, but I’ve found a few sheds in wide open meadows”. My answer would be, “Sure, they are traveling to and from their water source and feeding area from a secure area”. Elk do not get delivered pizza when they are sick. In addition, you will typically find only one side in a meadow…they’ve already dropped the other one in their secure area. Finally, there is one last important point to be made about security – mountain lions. When a bull elk beds down, it’s usually not in a place where it can be easily attacked. They like to have good field of vision, which means quite often they like it higher up on the mountain. Overhanging rock ledges that they can tuck under are also places that always need to be searched. Think about when you were young and about to go to bed, but you have a tooth coming lose, you can’t sleep. Your parents would come into your bedroom and pull the loose tooth out – I always howled after the doorknob and the string trick! If a bull elk is bedding down and those antlers are hurting just enough that they cannot sleep, they will knock both of them off where they are bedding down. A matched bull elk antler set is almost the best possible find…next to a winterkill.
Good examples of secure areas are drainages and just below ridgelines. Please keep in mind, these areas can be quite large, sometimes a square mile.
This is the easiest of the essential elements and the one in which I see the most mistakes. Environmental conditions have a tremendous effect on where a bull elk may drop an antler shed. The main condition is weather and the other is the time of the year. I am going to make another bold assumption that is not based on scientific fact, but I know this to be true. A bull elk will not drop antlers in snow. However, they actually like being close to snow, specifically the snow line on a mountain. If you can determine where the snow line is on a mountain at the time of year when the antler dropped, you have saved yourself a tremendous amount of hunting in the wrong places (most common error). Typically, when I find a fresh brown antler shed the first thing I look at is my wristwatch altimeter and determine the elevation in which I picked up the shed. (A good reason to carry a GPS as well) Most of the time, there is no snow where I picked up the shed. I am attempting to determine the snow line on the mountain at the time of the drop. From that point forward, the highest probability of finding another shed is either 150′ above or below where you found the first shed. This means you are zig-zagging up and down the mountain. However, when you find your second shed on the same mountain, you are now adding to your database of knowledge to further refine your elevation search area. In the eastern White Mountains of Arizona and west Central New Mexico almost all of my sheds are found between 8300-9500.’ You will need to determine the average in your area in accordance with the snow line.
The other half of the equation is time of year. Bull elk generally drop their antlers over a 6-8 week period. In our region this is early March to late April. However, there is always a 10 day or so period when the majority drop their antlers. Large elk drop their antlers first. I consider a large elk anything over a 50″ main beam – usually a 6X. The medium-sized ones are next, around 36″ main beam and then the small 3X are last. Many shed hunters make the mistake of going out too early. Our area is packed with shed hunters early in the season, few are found. My early season adventures are usually on a sunny ridge line with 12×50 binoculars and a lunch. I’m watching the migration patterns and by the way, picking out the biggest racks.
Try to limit your search to areas a couple hundred feet below the snowline, using a zig-zag pattern during the time of year when they are actually shedding their antlers.
I have to include access as an essential element since this is a somewhat competitive adventure. If there are a lot of folks in the area in which you intend to hunt for sheds, you will likely not be successful. This is a major violation of the essential security element. However, it is important enough to warrant its own category. You may see bull elk in areas populated by humans, but they really do not like to shed their antlers unless they are traveling to and from a secure area. Think about it this way…if an ATV can get into your area, it’s not a good place to hunt for sheds. Bull elk do not like roaring ATV engines or diesel trucks for that matter. They like it secure, comfortable and quiet.
I sometimes utilize an ATV to get close to an area that I’ll be hunting sheds. But that ATV is typically parked at least a mile away from my target area. You do not want to spook them away if they haven’t dropped yet. You really do need to go in on foot, disturb as little of the area as possible and leave with your bounty. I have witnessed prime areas ruined by careless individuals.
This is a competitive adventure. If there are a lot of folks going into your area. It may be picked clean every year. If the access is easy, the masses will show up to hunt antlers. If the access is difficult, you probably have your own private hunting ground. Here’s another general rule of thumb, if a rancher is grazing cattle in your area, it’s probably not a good place to hunt sheds. Cowboys ride fence lines every spring once the snow is gone, they know their cattle allotment section like the back of their hand. Basically, you’ve had experts in your area for years picking up sheds.
The more remote and inaccessible by any type of vehicle including horses, the higher the probability of finding elk antler sheds.
Elk can drop their antlers almost anywhere, we are only interested in the areas in which there is the highest probability of a “drop zone”. Quite often, this is where a bull elk will bed down. It also may be where they travel too and from a secure area. However, it is always an area in which they are familiar. When I go into a new area to “develop” I am looking for a specific type of terrain to match my other essential elements. I’m also looking for bull elk scat and tree rubs. Hey, wait a minute!! Bull elk rub the velvet off their antlers well after they shed. I agree, but they also tend to gravitate towards areas of familiarity. So, as I look at the ground and the rubbings on the trees, I’m also scanning the horizons with my binoculars…because I’m always looking for a specific type of terrain.
The best possible terrain is directional and prioritized in this order, south, southwest, west, southeast and east facing slopes. North facing slopes as mentioned earlier are almost always a no go, unless it is a large mountain with steep ridgelines that have sun-washed side canyons. As yet another general rule of thumb, grassy slopes are better than rocky slopes. If the slope is all rock, it’s probably not a good area. It has to have some grass with the rock…all grass with a few rocks is best.
Some of my friends kid me about have legs like a T-Rex. This is probably due to the fact that most of the sheds that I find are located on slopes between 30 and 50 degrees. If you’re unfamiliar with degrees of slope angle, a 12/12 pitch roof is 45 degrees. A lot of churches have steep roof lines similar to the terrain in which elk antler sheds are found. Obviously it takes a lot of determination to work your way up a steep slope hunting an antler shed. However, this is generally a secure area, with lots of visibility and often near a water source below in a canyon. The good news is, you get to stop every 50′ or so, take a break and scan the area with your binoculars.
A typical search pattern on a steep south-facing grassy slope would go something like this…First pass is the ridgeline itself, taking your time to look down into the slope and then back just off the ridgeline. The next pass may be 20-40′ below the ridgeline and usually at least one or two more passes even lower. However, if you’re just going to make one pass, you need to utilize a zig-zag pattern to cover as much area as possible. The whole time, your thinking about security issues for the elk, environmental conditions in the area during the time the snow line was present and access in regards to the remoteness of the area.
Please do not get discouraged if you read all of this information and do not immediately find an elk antler shed although all four essential elements are present. This is meant to be a fun guide to increase your chances of finding shed antlers. From the outset, you should consider your mission to develop areas where you know that they will be dropping. I have found hundreds and hundreds of elk sheds, 70% of them come from a dozen areas that took me years to explore and develop. I go into those areas three times each – early, mid and late season.
I do not sell any of my antler sheds. They are either gifts to family and friends or they end up in my workshop becoming lamps, end tables or candle holders. A hundred or so adorn the gateway to our mountain home.
The eastern White Mountains of Arizona include the communities of Alpine, Nutrioso and Greer. The 538,000 acre Wallow Fire (Summer 2010) burned over 850 square miles of this beautiful area. We lost our home for 15 years along with two businesses due to the irresponsibility and negligence of the Apache National Forest Management Team. We presently reside 300 miles away at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.