Hunting for shed antlers in Central Oregon

Finding deer and elk antlers on the winter range

Gary Lewis /

If the question is, “Where can I find shed antlers?” nothing I can tell you is going to be the right answer.

I tried a couple of weeks ago when a lady asked that one. My answer: on the winter range. Her response: “I knew I wouldn’t get an answer.”

Deer drop their antlers on their winter range. They don’t drop them up where they spend their summers. Beyond that, if I knew where to find a shed antler right now, I’d go there and pick it up. Then it wouldn’t be there anymore.

A month ago, I went out to pick up the morning paper and saw two bucks, one with a full set of headgear and one that had dropped one side. I walked around our little chunk of rim rock and snapped a photo of both bucks looking at me.

There was a bit of snow on the ground and I backtracked them through the neighborhood and didn’t find the prize. The deer were in my yard for the next few days but didn’t drop their antlers on my property. Two weeks later they showed up again. The tall-racked four-by-four still carried both sides and the other one had lost the other side of his crown — somewhere on the winter range.

Brian Davis is one of the most enthusiastic shed hunters I know. So far this year, he has picked up two mule deer antlers. Timing is everything.

“I found my first deer shed horn of the season the first week of March,” he said. “It weighed 1½ pounds; it was a left-side three-point, with a heavy beam.”

That in a four-hour hike.

His second find of the season was a small three-point at the same spot a cougar killed another cougar in a story told in these pages two years ago.

Now we are in the fourth week of March, and a few deer are still carrying last year’s antlers. Elk tend to drop a bit later; that’s why it can pay to wait a couple of weeks. In Brian’s experience, he says, he expects the elk to drop their antlers anywhere from the first of April to the middle of the month.

Let’s say there are 215,000 mule deer in the state. Of those, maybe 32,000 are bucks. That equates to 64,000 fresh antler sheds this year. Add to that the number of blacktails and whitetail bucks, Rocky Mountain and Roosevelt bulls and a few moose (yes, there are moose in Oregon). That is a lot of bone on the ground — somewhere on the winter range.

To the shed hunter, antlers are like gold. Some are sold, some given away, some kept as trophies. The price per pound fluctuates; often deer is worth more per pound. Fresh, all-brown antlers can bring between $7 for elk all the way up to $20 per pound for whitetail.

Folks speculate on the best places. Some say fence lines are good and to look in heavy brush and below low-hanging branches. Looking back, I’ve found them on rocky slides, out in the open, in trees, in bushes, beneath junipers. Think about the conditions in March and April. Feed is scarce in late winter and early spring. Wherever the animals can eke out a living, they may shed their antlers.

“I’ve found them on rock croppings, sandy soft areas, under trees, in buck brush, in canyons,” Davis said. “Deer and elk take different routes in the late winter and early spring because the feed is in different places than it was in the fall.”

Davis enjoys these days walking forest and ranch lands. He puts on the miles while he fills his packboard. But he says the best way to find dropped antlers is to sit and glass from a long way off, to let the optics cover more ground. Wear the binos on a shoulder rig rather than carrying them in a backpack. Sit down and glass far hillsides and look for white tips of bone above the tops of the grass.

Sometimes, out on winter range, antler hunters can jump herds of deer and elk. Sightings offer clues to the places where sheds may be found, but it’s important to give the animals a wide berth. Get too close to a bachelor group of bulls and it is possible to stress them at this critical period of the season when they should be recovering from winter.

We are looking for antlers, not animals. We want to know where they have been, not where they are going.

— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “A Bear Hunter’s Guide to the Universe,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.