Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
The first of the 2023 Iowa deer seasons is up and running. Differing from all other deer seasons, the current hunt has no beginning or closing dates, no shooting hours, and doesn’t involve the use of bows or guns. The activity is known as Shed Hunting. Simply defined, shed hunting is the art of seeking and collecting cast off deer antlers. During recent years, the search for discarded antlers has become one of our fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation.
Getting rid of what they no longer need, Iowa white-tails begin dropping their antlers at the end of the annual breeding season. Shedding may begin as early as late December and most bucks will have become antler free by mid-February. For outdoor enthusiasts, the antler drop is an annual Call to Arms; inspiring energized legions of shed hunters to scour the Iowa woodlands in search of lost treasure.
Traditionally, shed hunting was largely the domain of deer hunting males. But the demographics are shifting. A surprising number of New Age antler hunters do not participate in any of Iowa’s archery or shotgun deer seasons. Some are nonhunters and a growing number are female. For an increasing number of outdoor-minded households, spring shed hunting is becoming a traditional kid-friendly family event.
All sports seem to have their extremists, of course, and shed hunting is no exception. For a select group of dedicated hard cores, the search for antlers becomes an obsession; an ongoing endeavor involving intensive grid searches of multiple woodlands. Some schedule annual vacation time around shed hunting; logging in hundreds of miles — by foot and by vehicle — in hopes of finding antlers that are bigger, better, or more unique than last year’s. Some aficionados go so far as to keep and train highly specialized, antler hunting canines – most often Labrador retrievers – to aid in the task.
The early birds get the worm, and competition intensifies as woodland snow cover recedes. But not all competitors wear stocking caps and travel on two legs. Squirrels, white-footed mice, and other small mammals are also looking to cash in on their fair share of the bounty. But local squirrel populations aren’t collecting sheds for their trophy value. Instead, the bushy-tails covet cast off antlers for their rich deposits of calcium and other minerals. Nothing goes to waste in the great out-of-doors. Woodland rodents had already been efficiently recycling used antlers for hundreds of years before we humans invented the word.