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By Jace Bauserman
Gunnison, Colorado native and outdoorsman Connor Clark is a shed-finding machine. He paid for most of his college locating cast bone, and his father owns and operates one of the world’s premier shed-antler and taxidermy locations, Trader's Rendezvous. He has the knack, so I hit Clark up for some tried-and-true advice. If you're hoping to haul some heavy elk horns off a sage-dappled hillside or strap muley sheds to your backpack, heed his four tips.
I'm perhaps the world's worst shed antler hunter, and Clark, who I've hunted with, can attest to the fact. I figured I'd hit him up about using aerial imagery and digital mapping apps to locate likely shed haunts, and all I got was a laugh.
"I've never had any luck using digital scouting apps to find horns," he says. "Where mule deer and elk drop depends greatly on the terrain and severity of the winter. The best way to know where elk and deer are going to cast horns is to keep an eye on them as much as possible during the winter months."
Heavy snows push deer and elk to south-facing hillsides where food is accessible. However, big bulls and some monster bucks will hold out and winter in a no-name hole in the bottom of some gnarly canyon where they have access to food, water and cover.
"Where animals drop their horns," Clark says, "greatly depends on the winter. "If the winter is mild and the spring snow-melt begins early, sheds will be at higher elevations. Elk, especially, tend to follow the snow line. Find the animals and track the weather."
Clark notes that an essential part of any shed-hunting trip is proper planning. You don't want to be wandering around before antlers drop, and you don't want to miss out when there's lots of candy on the ground.
"Elk are different creatures," he says. "Of course, in many areas, there are shed seasons; however, elk start dropping during the middle part of January, especially the big bulls."
Clark credits the weight of a mature bull's antlers and their weakened state and stress to why they drop before raghorn bulls and spikes. He stresses that most big bulls shed both sides by the end of February.
"Raghorns will hold their horns a little longer," Clark notes. "Spikes can hold onto theirs for a good grip of time. If you have many rag bulls in your area, chase the snowline. These elk can hold antlers into March and April. You'll typically find big bull sheds at lower elevations and rag sheds around the snow line later in the spring."
Elk don't carry one side very far, meaning if you find a shed, especially if the shed has some size to it, the other is likely within 400 yards. Lesser bulls will carry one horn a tad further, but not much, and deer can take a single side for miles. If you find a big elk side, start circling until you find the other.
"Mule deer are different," Clark continues. "Like elk, mule deer start dropping in mid-January. Testosterone levels drop rapidly, especially in older bucks, and cells break down bone tissues. Deer will shed one antler in one location and another, sometimes, miles away. I've found matching sets separated by miles of terrain. Keep this in mind. Also, vegetation hides horns well. You can miss a muley horn that's six feet away on the backside of a big sage bush."
Clark is fit, and he likes to walk, trust me, but during our recent sheep hunt, he turned up three shed horns with his 12-power glass. He wants to get elevation when he glasses but still see to the bottom of a canyon or drainage.
"The sparser the terrain, the better," he says. "I don't mind sage and even a few trees, but don't plan on glassing up too much antler in dense areas. Get your optics on a tripod, get still, and start letting your glass do the walking. Be systematic about your glassing approach. Scan and area, rest your eyes and then repeat. Look for white circles, something sticking above the landscape, and anything that looks out of place. If you find an elk antler, stop glassing and go. Shedding hunting for elk is feast or famine, and if you find one new, brown shed, you will likely find several."
Deer are different, and Clark recommends covering more ground on your feet, keeping the eyes focused ahead and side-hilling so you can see uphill and down. Deer drop where they drop, and you might have days where you find some chalk and a brown (fresh) shed or two, then a day full of brown, and then there are those where you don't turn up anything. The key is to keep searching.
"You may go walk 20 miles and not find an elk shed," Clark says. "You may find a mule deer shed or two, but then you'll return the next day, take a new line that leads you to the bottom of some drainage a half-mile away, and you're in the browns."
The more you hunt, the more you learn, and over time, you'll develop some memorable spots. Clark recommends marking these areas and going back to them year after year. His best shed spots are shared by him and his father—no one else.
"Shed spots are like hunting spots. They’re sacred," he says. "If you find a good one, it will be good year after year. Mark your best spots, and the first time you head back in the next year, after finding a pile of brown the year before, take the same walking line that you did the year before. Don't change lines until the next time you come to hit the spot later in the year."
Shed hunting is fun, promotes great exercise and is a solid way to decorate the house or boost the bank account. Sheds go for good money. Most importantly, though, it's an excellent activity for the entire family.