Every summer, white-tailed deer grow antlers and every winter they fall off.
With the explosive growth of the deer population in recent years comes a similar spike on “shed hunting” — a pastime surrounding the discarded head bones.
Looking for “sheds,” as the dropped antlers are known, combines the thrill of finding something special with a day outdoors traipsing through woods, fields, swamps and even brier patches. For hunters, it’s a chance to better get acquainted with local deer herds. For everyone else, it’s a day of exercise, family fun and a chance to bring a spectacular piece of nature home to reside on a mantle, shelf or coffee table.
ABOUT THE HOBBY
Shed hunting has increased in popularity the past few years, says Tim Ryan, 41, of Holbrook. “It was a lot easier to find antlers a few years ago when fewer people were looking for them, but I still do OK.”
Last season Ryan, a heating and air conditioning mechanic who also administers a Long Island shed hunting Facebook page, found 15 sheds.
“Antlers are unique — each one is different — and you never know what you’ll find next.” he says. “You might stumble across a really large shed, find a matched set, or completely strike out.”
Maxwell Anderson of Smithtown, 21, a bow mechanic at Smith Point Archery in Patchogue, combines postseason deer scouting with looking for shed antlers.
“I start in February soon after the hunting season ends and keep looking right through April. I like to hike through the woods to find where the deer bed. That’s where the most sheds seem to turn up.”
A SEASON TO GROW
On Long Island, deer typically begin to sprout new antlers in May. As the summer progresses, antlers may grow as much as an inch per day until hitting full size by September. Eventually, they dry up and drop off by February or early March. If not picked up by passers-by, most will be nibbled away by squirrels, field mice and other small woodlot animals that chew them for calcium and other minerals.
“When you shed hunt, you learn so much about the animals. You discover their habits, figure out where they feed and sleep,” says Joe Whitecavage, 41, a hunter from Greenport who owns a plumbing and heating business. Offseason, he takes his 8-year-old daughter, Riley, out to search for sheds. She found her first one last year. This year, she’s up to three more.
“Shed hunting really brings us together,” Whitecavage says, and sometimes they’ll come across a tree stand that his father or grandfather built, so there’s a larger family connection too.
“What we discover together in the woods and fields is something she can’t learn in school. For me, that’s priceless.”
WHERE TO LOOK
Parklands are logical choices — you’ll find acres to cover in Heckscher State Park, Rocky Point Preserve, Ridge Conservation Area, Brookhaven State Park, David A. Sarnoff Pine Barrens Preserve, Otis Pike Preserve, Wildwood State Park and Hither Hills State Park — but don’t overlook woodlots and fields close to home if deer reside there. You may need access permits to enter some parklands. Check with Long Island State Parks (631-667-5055), Suffolk County Parks (631-854-4949) or the state Department of Environmental Conservation (866-933-2257) for details.
FOR MORE INFO
Long Island Shed Hunting
New York Shed Hunters
TIPS FOR SHED HUNTERS
•Concentrate where you see the most deer signs. Trails with a lot of tracks and rub lines where bucks brush their antlers against trees are good starting points.
•Field edges always have potential, but check early because most people look there first.
•Get out in the early morning, late afternoon and on cloudy days. Antlers appear to give off a soft white or yellow glow during low-light periods, making them easier to spot.
•Rain flattens leaves on the ground allowing shed antlers to better stand out. Try looking in the early morning after a late-night shower.
•Any structure deer can jump over, like a split-rail fence, fallen tree or rock wall is worth a look. Antlers often drop when deer leap or land. They also fall off as bucks poke in and out of thick brush and sticker bushes.
•Figure out where deer are bedding or eating. That’s where they spend the most time and will likely drop sheds nearby.
•Look for corridors of woods between two fields. Any place that constricts deer movement and forces them onto a single primary path is worth exploring.
•The best Long Island shed hunters typically check several spots a day, covering five to 10 miles. The more you hike, the better your odds.