Wanna see a fistfight in the woods? Find a place on public land where a lot of people are looking for shed antlers. You might get your money's worth if you're at the right spot at the right time.
Why is antler hunting so competitive? First, understand that it's an annual event. Each year, a new crop of antlers are cast off by members of the deer family. Those antlers are worth money as buyers around the country are looking for "bone," the modern word for antlers. There are other reasons besides money. Many folks simply are collectors and use them as landscape ornaments around the house. Others make chandeliers, lamp posts, and furniture. Some cultures believe antlers have unique medicinal value, which has never been proven by modern medicine, but nonetheless the belief prevails.
Many non hunters are blissfully unaware that the antlers of deer, elk, moose, and caribou are cast off each year. Pronghorn antelope, incidentally, also discard their horns annually, but in a different way.
Shedding of antlers occurs in the winter, depending on the region of the country. In whitetail country, especially in the east and south, deer begin casting their antlers in December, continuing into February or beyond. In the west, mule deer bucks typically begin shedding later, usually in late February and March. Bull elk shed their antlers last, usually from mid-March to April.
Because antler collecting is done in winter or early spring, there are often big game stress issues because this is the time of year that most animals are weakest. The winter takes a toll because of limited food, and during some years, long periods of severe cold. This is especially true with elk. In Montana, for example, antler collecting is illegal on many state lands until a specific date, usually in May or June.
In much whitetail country, collectors scurry to lease properties that are known to have shed antlers. This was practically unheard of 20 years ago, but now there's a huge interest. Many outfitters collect antlers on their hunting lands and display pictures of them on their websites. These photos indicate the quality of animals on their land, and better yet, those animals may still be alive with bigger antlers when you show up to hunt in the fall.
Some hunters use the location of big sheds as a clue to where the animals live during hunting season. That may or may not be true, especially in areas where deer move considerable distances in the winter. In many northern states, whitetails may "yard up" in cedar swamps during the winter months where there's more forage. In the spring they travel back to their normal home range. Mule deer are known to migrate upwards of 100 miles or more to their winter ranges. In these cases, antlers are shed far from where the animals live during hunting season.
The popularity of antler collecting has given rise to groups and national organizations that cater to the interests of shed hunters. Dogs are now being trained to sniff out antlers and fetch them to their owners.
When dealing in the sale of antlers, buyers will grade them according to their condition. Sheds that have laid in the sun for more than a year will turn white, and are far less valuable than recent sheds that still retain their normal darker color. The value of antlers varies from year to year, but seem to remain at $8 to $10 a pound. To put that in perspective, one antler from a mature 6 point bull elk will weigh around 10 pounds, give or take a couple. Quick math indicates that a hefty find of elk antlers is cause for great joy.
It's not uncommon to find a matching pair of sheds in the same spot, or within a few yards of each other. That's because the animal's head is suddenly off balance when an antler falls off, and the animal knocks the other off on a tree or log.
Some folks have devised "traps" that are supposed to encourage antlers to be shed. People, being people, will come up with all sorts of techniques to take advantage of an opportunity.
If you haven't searched for sheds and want to try it, be sure to first have permission if you want to hunt them on private land. Then, be certain that animals are present in the winter when sheds are cast. You can look for weeks on summer ranges and never find a shed. This is serious business for some folks, but it's a great recreational activity for families, especially since hunting seasons are often closed and not much else is going on.