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Hunting for shed antlers and answers: Finding a skull and skillful hints/tips

A skull of a white-tailed buck was the best find in March, 2019 while hunting shed antlers.
Dale Bowman

If you know Chicago history, you can guess where Barb Pilles lives. There are lots of cemeteries.

Her Australian shepherd (I had to look it up, too) loves to chew deer antlers. One cemetery has lots of deer, but she hasn’t found sheds, so she asked, ‘‘Can you tell me when deer shed their antlers in this area?’’

White-tailed deer bucks shed their antlers annually. The definitive quantitative assessment in Illinois remains a Southern Illinois University study in 1968. Robert Hawkins found that 71 percent of bucks drop their antlers between Feb. 1 and March 15.

‘‘I believe it would be accurate to say that, for white-tailed deer in Illinois, antler drop peaks in late February, and by early March most bucks have shed their antlers,’’ emailed Dan Skinner, the forest wildlife program manager for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources.

March is prime time for shed hunting, literally wandering around looking for shed antlers.

Tim Baker, who helps with the sprawling raw-file Midwest Fishing Report, added a bonus last week about shed hunting. The weekend before, his brother had found pair of freshly dropped sheds less than 100 feet apart.

Shed antlers found around the Chicago area in 2019 (the dark one was from 2018 and charred in house fire).<br>Provided by Tim Baker
Shed antlers found around the Chicago area in 2019 (the dark one was from 2018 and charred in house fire).
Provided by Tim Baker

‘‘Interestingly enough, the sheds were found in the same exact area where he had found one this same time last year,’’ Baker emailed.

That inspired me. Between storms Thursday, I pulled on high rubber boots (essential for late-winter/spring wandering), then hunted where I found sheds last year. It’s within the city limits and loaded with deer.

That reminded me of Tom Dokken’s seminar ‘‘Training Your Dog to Hunt Sheds’’ at Pheasant Fest, where he said: ‘‘[Shed hunting] is probably the fastest-growing canine sport out there.’’

Shed hunting in general is a good way to get outside at the end of winter.

‘‘Best shed hunting?’’ Dokken asked rhetorically. ‘‘Suburbia has some of the best of shed hunting.’’

Looking for sheds is generally legal on public land. Keeping sheds depends on having permission on private land or knowing regulations for public areas. I suggested Pilles ask for permission from the cemetery before taking sheds.

Dokken also said that farmers generally are willing to allow shed hunting because big antlers do bad things to tractor tires.

A hint: I was looking on farmland within the city limits. A young Tina Turner rocking ‘‘Nutbush City Limits’’ came to mind. OK, I like Turner rocking anything.

When storms weren’t threatening to blow me into some south-suburban environs (another hint), I savored a glorious break in winter with temperatures briefly in the 60s. Everything had come alive. Blue jays squawked, cardinals called, red-winged blackbirds trilled and a lone turkey vulture coasted repeatedly overhead (that morbid bastard could wait his turn at me).

A deer trail crossing a stream, ditch or fence–anywhere that forces a jump–are good spots to start looking for shed antlers.<br>Dale Bowman/Sun-Times
A deer trail crossing a stream, ditch or fence–anywhere that forces a jump–are good spots to start looking for shed antlers.
Dale Bowman/Sun-Times

I checked deer trails, especially around streams, ditches and fences, where jumps can help jar antlers loose. Lots of scat and tracks are good signs. I also found two bedding or winter herd areas and really searched there. In one of those areas, I found a skull — my only find, other than golf balls (another hint).

‘‘If you look closely, you can make out the pedicles on the top of the skull from which the antlers grow; it was a buck,’’ Skinner emailed.

Another storm darkened rapidly to the southwest.

It was time.

I reached my car ahead of more wind-driven rain.

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