Spring is the time to hunt for shed antlers
To the casual passerby, it would appear that Joe Shead might be disoriented. Or, perhaps that he has lost his car keys and is trying to track them down.
He moves deliberately across the snowy Duluth hillside, head down, eyes searching.
Shead, who lives in Superior, is looking for antlers. Like a growing number of Northland residents, he's a "shed" antler hunter. He's a collector of antlers that whitetail bucks shed naturally this time of year.
"After you find that first one, you're hooked," Shead said. "It's kind of like an addiction. I'll find one, and it's a huge rush for a minute. Then it wears off, and you want another one."
Shead -- yes, it's pronounced "shed" -- has come to the aid of other shed-hunting addicts. He's written a book on the subject called "Shed Hunting: A Guide to Finding White-Tailed Deer Antlers," and he's produced a DVD titled "Go Shed Hunting with Joe Shead."
On this March afternoon, Shead scans a hillside well-traveled by deer within Duluth's city limits.
"I can come here some days and see two dozen deer," Shead says.
Hoof-pocked trails intertwine in the snow. They're punctuated by deer droppings and the occasional melted oval of snow where a deer has bedded. Several times in the two-hour walk, Shead spies deer moving through the woods in the distance.
This is prime shed-hunting territory: A south-facing slope where deer love to be in the spring. Shead moves slowly, looking, looking.
Because this is public land, Shead knows other shed hunters work this area, too.
"I come to this area probably three to four times a week because there are a lot of people in this area," he says.
He comes to know some of the bucks that live here. He has nicknames for them based on the way their antlers grow.
In northern Minnesota, most deer breeding takes place in November, and whitetail bucks begin shedding their antlers in January and February.
"I got my first shed of the year under that little jackpine there," Shead says.
He points at the lone pine among the scrubby deciduous trees. Shead looks under all lone evergreen trees like the jackpine. He knows bucks like to rest under those isolated conifers, and there's always a chance one might leave an antler behind.
So far, Shead has found eight antlers this spring. He estimates he has "a few hundred" antlers after finding his first one eight years ago. Although some shed hunters sell their antlers, Shead keeps all of his. He finds about 25 a year. He keeps the current season's antlers and a few favorites on display.
"It's very dangerous to walk across my living room floor," he says.
Toward hunting success
Unlike Shead, Rick Lennartson of Duluth doesn't look for shed antlers just because he likes antlers.
"I'm a trophy [deer] hunter," Lennartson says. "It's a tool to help me gauge the age of a deer and the size of his rack. That's why I do it."
A bow hunter, Lennartson looks for sheds outside of Duluth's city limits. He looks for them where he hunts in the fall and also in places where the deer he hunts spend their winters. He often hunts for sheds with friends.
"I have a friend who found both sides to a deer I harvested in 2007," Lennartson says. "It grossed 164 points [on the Pope and Young scoring system]. It had 10 points."
When his friend had found the buck's antlers two years before, it was a modest 10-pointer. Lennartson figured it was 4½ years old then. He saw the buck in the fall of 2006, too, but he passed up a shot at it.
Last winter, Lennartson found 24 antlers, of which only two were from mature bucks, he says.
Lennartson doesn't particularly enjoy looking for sheds.
"I'm going to say 'no,' " he says. "Do I want to go do it? No. But I need to because I'm a trophy hunter."