Introduction: Shed Hunting
From decorations to survival tools, there are many uses for shed deer and elk antlers. You can always buy them online or you can usually find places around that sell them, but it's more fun to find them yourself. Although many people live in urban places where elk and deer are nowhere to be found, most people are still fairly close to areas where shed antlers may be found.
Step 1: Find a Place to Hunt
First things first, you need to find a place to go. Mountains are best, but there are plenty of herds that will winter in lower places like farm land. If you are unsure where to start you can contact the DNR, they track herd movement and they can also tell you what land is public access. If you have friends or relatives who own or work on a ranch that is usually a good place to go as well. If you don't know any ranchers you can usually contact them and get permission. But please don't trespass; it's rude and can be pretty dangerous (you never know when the ranchers are hunting cayotes and you don't want to find yourself in the middle of that).
Step 2: Plan a Trip
In our area, deer shed in mid to late February and the elk shed in mid to late April, but it depends on how harsh the winter was. If you can go during or shortly after shedding time then you will be more likely to find some good antlers, but really you can go any time of year if you don't mind looking harder and finding old ones.
Even if you are able to hunt for sheds in your own back yard you should still plan on walking quite a bit, between 4 and 10 miles each day you go out. You should dress and pack accordingly; wear clothing that fits the terrain and weather (remember too that the weather can change quickly) and be sure you have a way to carry the antlers you find (they are awkward and get heavy after a while), a backpack with buckle straps on the back works well.
Some other things to bring include snacks and water, binoculars, sunscreen/bug spray, map and compass if you are not familiar with the area, and any other gear you would take on a hike of that length (ie first aid kit, overnight pack, etc).
As far as actually planning where you will walk withing an area, it's usually best to do that once you get there and can assess the lay of the land. If you can, start in a spot where you can survey the entire area and plan out a basic route(although you should expect to stray from that route a bit as you find deer trails, etc.)
Step 3: Start Hunting
When you get to the place you would like to hunt in it's a good idea to start out by looking over as much of the area as you can through a pair of binoculars, paying attention to anything that stands out a little. The most obvious things to look for are the rounded, knurly, base of the antlers(sometimes called a button), and the points of the prongs. Any "sticks" that are a different color are also worth investigating with the binoculars as well. Even though they are all unique, antlers have a certain shape to them; if you see something that has that shape then check it out-of course it might just be a sick, but it might not.
If you find some with the binoculars then great! You just spared yourself some guesswork, but if not don't be discouraged because they are often in thickets of trees or right next to bushes where they are only visible once you are right next to them.
The next thing to do is think like a deer; do you see any berry bushes? Ravines that might shelter from winter winds? Trees that will offer shelter and tasty bark? Plan a route that will go past any places like this, and don't forget to walk ridge lines(the peak of a hill/mountain) and scope it out from another angle.
Step 4: Read the "Signs"
As you are walking along the route you have chosen be sure to pay attention to your surroundings; namely because you will probably walk right past an antler or two if you don't, but also because when you are up close you will see more clues to where the deer or elk like to hang out (and drop antlers).
The first things you want to look for are hoof prints and droppings, these will give you an idea of how many animals come through there and how frequently(higher deer/elk traffic means higher likelihood of finding antlers). But aside from these obvious signs also look for trees and bushes with "rubs" on them; these will be spots where the bark, cambium, and sometimes even the sapwood have been scraped away from a portion of the tree from a deer or elk rubbing against it with its antler. Also look for spots where the foliage has been mated down from them sleeping there since sometimes bedding down causes them to fall off. They also sometimes fall of when jumping fences so if you come across any be sure to check around them(but don't trespass into someone else's property).
Step 5: Finding an Antler
Don't be discouraged if you don't find anything for a mile or two, or even a day or two. They are well camouflaged so finding them isn't always easy, but when you do find one make some mental notes before picking it up. Notice how it is oriented; this can give you clues about where the other antler might be if it fell off close by. It's not exact science because the ground is bumpy and they will not land perfectly; but if an antler is in the middle of a deer trail then there is a good chance that it's match is also on the trail, whereas if it's right on the edge of a thicket of bushes then it probably got knocked off while the animal entered the bushes looking for berries. Either way, when you find one you should scout around for the other. A good way to do this is to spiral outwards with the spot where you found it in the middle of your spiral. It can be just a few feet away or sometimes the other won't fall of for a day or two and you may not find it. But it's worth a try and if you do find it you can do some cool things with matching pairs.
You will notice that some antlers are a nice brown with white tips and some are white allover, some of which will be cracked and even a bit crumbly. The brown ones are fresh, and as they get older they bleach white and begin to crack and deteriorate. If they aren't too old you can dye them to look newer, but sometimes it's cool to have a mix of old and new.
Step 6: Final Thoughts
I should have made better notes of where we had been and where we were when we found some to get a better idea of what places are and aren't good for next year.
If I had thought far enough in advance, I would have sprinkled food in a few areas back in January to attract a higher concentration of animals in one area. I have heard this gets good results by I haven't tried it yet.
Also, I live in an area where there aren't very many laws, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are places where shed hunting is illegal. Before trying this activity out for yourself you should check local laws; going to jail or getting a big fine would not be worth it.
And that's it, I hope you enjoyed reading this and I hope it is helpful for anyone trying to get into this fun hobby!