A winter stroll through the woods and fields of Minnesota is always rewarding. It clears the mind and renews one's spirit. And if you are lucky, you might come home with a keepsake of some sort.
Like an antler shed by a whitetail buck.
If finding a shed antler intrigues you, the next few months are prime time to be afield. In Minnesota, most bucks shed their antlers about mid-January. In nature, there are no hard and fast rules, but the physical condition of a buck roughly determines when the animal will shed its antlers. Therefore, the largest bucks usually drop their antlers first because the rigors of the rut have them worn down.
This winter, many bucks dropped their antlers during December because of stress incurred by the early snow and severe cold. A friend of mine found three shed antlers very early this year, during the first few days of January.
In my experience, the best places to find shed antlers are the north edges of fields in which the deer were feeding during the peak antler-shedding period. At night deer often bed in or close to these fields, especially along the north side. In such locations, you'll often find an abundance of tracks and beds, and with a bit of luck, a shed antler.
Daytime bedding areas are also good locations to find sheds. Concentrate your efforts in areas with a southern exposure. Deer seek these locations because the temperature can be several degrees warmer than surrounding spots.
You might find an occasional shed antler by following deer trails that connect feeding areas with daytime bedding locations. But, over the years, I've found relatively few sheds along deer trails. Think about it: Deer spend most of their days bedded or feeding. They spend less time traveling to and from those areas.
That said, I've found shed antlers in some strange spots. Once I discovered a dropped antler lying in the middle of a country road only a short time after a snowplow had passed.
One early spring day, I found two shed antlers as I was carrying a photography blind to a remote pond where I hoped to photograph ducks. The blind was a burdensome contraption. Once it was strapped to my back, I was forced to walk in a hunched position, which left me staring at the ground. I would not have found either shed had I not been encumbered by the heavy load.
Finding a shed antler is usually not that easy. Because of the current deer management system in Minnesota, heavy hunting pressure is put on bucks, and the majority of animals that carry antlers are killed each fall. Also, antlers don't last long once on the ground because squirrels and other critters consume them.
For whatever reason, antlers have enthralled man since the beginning of time. Though I can't explain the magnetism, I can attest to the thrill of discovering a shed. I find myself examining the antler from end to end while wondering where the buck is now and if I'll see him next year when he is wearing his new headgear.
Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.