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Searching for shed antlers soars in popularity

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 8:07 p.m.
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The Olympics are just about over. A new kind of winter game is just beginning.

It's shed hunting season.

Across Pennsylvania and much of the nation, hunters — and their non-hunting spouses, children and friends — are combing field edges, woodlots and forests looking for “sheds,” the antlers dropped by deer and elk. It's a phenomenon soaring in popularity.

“In the 1980s, nobody stopped to pick up a shed antler unless they were going to trip over it. In the '90s, shed hunting saw some real continuous growth. Now everybody who hunts does it, thinks about it or at least knows about it,” said Mark Miller of Lynden Station, Wis., co-owner of the North American Shed Hunters Club.

Proof of that is everywhere.

The club publishes a record book based on the thousands of shed antlers Miller said get scored according to Boone & Crockett Club standards every year. Books, magazines, websites and videos offer tips on hunting strategies and building “antler traps.”

Jarrad McCarthy, a North Huntingdon native living in Byrnedale, Elk County, and a registered Pennsylvania elk hunting guide, even has started offering guided elk shed hunts. Big Bull Outfitters has booked clients from York to Pittsburgh already this winter.

If his business is the first of its kind in Pennsylvania, it won't be the last, he said.

“Actually, it's very competitive up here,” McCarthy said. “We've been pretty successful over the last five years, finding some giant sheds. I'm talking 400-inch-class bulls, animals that would rank in the top 10 in the world.

“But there are a lot of people looking. You've got to be in the woods every day, every day.”

Whitetail Properties Real Estate, an Illinois-based company that buys and sells hunting land, is sponsoring #ShedRally, an event billed as the “world's largest shed hunt.” It's going to give antler addicts who upload photos of their finds to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts March 1 the chance to win prizes.

“It's a way to stay top of mind and share what some of us have long been experiencing with others,” company owner Wes McConnell said.

Those “others” are where the sport really has grown, said Jim Kreuger, founder of antleritis.com, which got its start four years ago selling the “shed bed,” a wall mount display for found antlers.

While hunters always have been interested in shed hunting, the hobby has expanded to include entire families and groups of friends, he said. It doesn't require sitting quietly for long hours on a stand, there's no killing involved and you can be successful many times in a single year, so it's a great social activity, he said.

“A lot of people, even hunters, are coming to see sheds as trophies in and of themselves,” Kreuger said.

This is the time shed hunting peaks.

Antlers — “the fastest-growing tissue known to man” — begin sprouting in late April or early May, said Jeannine Tardiff Fleegle, a biologist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission. They're already fully developed and starting to harden as early as mid-July. Whitetail bucks will carry them for months, throughout the breeding season.

A combination of factors — from hours of daylight to falling testosterone levels — prompts them to fall off anywhere between December and late March, she said.

When they drop, they go quickly, she said.

“You may see a buck walking around, and those antlers are solidly attached. They're not going anywhere,” Tardiff Fleegle said. “Then, the next day, boom, they're gone. As soon as that layer of cells on the pedicle that cements them to their head weakens, they're gone.”

Joe Shead of Superior, Wis., author of the book “Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Antlers,” said he finds most of his antlers by focusing on feeding and beddings areas, the trails between the two and south-facing slopes, where deer lie in winter to soak up the radiant heat of the sun “like a cat on a windowsill.”

He hunts sheds on the same properties he hunts deer. But it also pays to spend time in places like city parks, he said.

“The suburbs, places where deer can eat at bird feeders, from flower gardens, where there's no hunting or bowhunting only, where the deer have a chance to get old and grow, they produce some real whoppers,” Miller agreed.

Wherever he is, Shead looks for hints of an antler — the curve of a main beam, the white golf-ball look of a base, the tip of an antler tine — rather than an entire one.

“Your first shed is always the hardest to find,” Shead said. “Once you see that first one, it kind of clicks for you.”

You have to be dedicated, though.

A lot of creatures, from squirrels to porcupines, chew on antlers for the calcium they provide. If you don't find a shed before it's been on the ground awhile, chances are something will have gnawed on it, McCarthy said.

But that kind of competition always has been around.

Now there are more people to contend with than ever, too. To bring home bones, you've got to “be sneaky,” Shead said, parking far away from your best spots and walking in, covering your tracks and carrying a backpack to conceal your finds.

“You've got to be pretty tight-lipped about your shed hunting these days,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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