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Shed Antler Hunting

Where to look for big elk sheds

A.gif (918 bytes)n elk antler has got to be one of the most impressive things produced in the animal kingdom. The fact that these oversized deer can grow, and then discard, such a stunning mass of bone every year isPacking out a nice 6-point elk shed nothing short of miraculous, and I have never seen anyone who wasn’t fascinated by these appendages, whether they hunt or not. Visions of trophy antlers drive thousands of Montana hunters to expend no small amount of time, energy, and money each fall in pursuit of elk, but there’s no reason to limit your search to just the fall hunting season. Each spring, there’s a new crop of shed antlers lying out there, and looking for them is a great springtime activity.

If anything, it might be easier to find shed antlers than it is to find a big bull still wearing his during the fall hunting season (although based on my experience I’d say that’s an arguable point!). The elk are fairly concentrated while on their winter range, and normally the antlers will be dropped either on the winter range, or shortly after they leave on their migration back to their summering areas. Of course, an elk antler lying in the sagebrush isn’t as obvious to see as a thousand pound bull elk, and finding a good antler, much less a matching set of trophy ones is still kind of a low-probability exercise. If they were easy to come by, I suppose they wouldn’t hold the same allure, though, and as is they are considered by most elk devotees to be like diamonds in the rough.

So let’s say it’s getting to be late March and you’re anxious to get back out into the mountains and get some fresh air and exercise, and maybe find some big shed antlers in the process. Where to start? First off, I suppose ICodysantler.jpg (34919 bytes) should point out that a number of the most obvious places are off limits, at least for the time being. There are a number of official Game Management Areas administered by the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. A few of the more well-known ones are the Sun River WMA on the Rocky Mountain Front west of Augusta, the Clearwater WMA south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness near Ovando, the Dome Mountain WMA north of Gardiner, and the Bear Creek and Wall Creek WMAs south of Ennis. These areas are closed to human use from the end of hunting season, usually December 1, until May 15. This is largely to provide security for the wintering wildlife. Particularly during and after a hard winter, the animal’s energy reserves are very low, and it doesn’t take much human activity to stress them to the point where their survival is jeopardized. There is a lot of good winter range outside the official Game Management Areas that is open to humans, at least those on foot or horseback, year around, though. Common sense and concern for the welfare of wildlife still precludes bothering them on their winter range, but by late March and into April most will already be migrating back up toward their summering areas, and it’s possible to search for sheds without putting undue stress on the animals.

In order to find these wintering spots where your odds of finding antlers are best, look for places that share the characteristics of the Game Management Areas. In a nutshell, that means areas of relatively open,Getting ready to load up a nice pile of antlers southeast to southwest facing slopes where the sun tends to melt the snow off, and/or areas where the winds keep the ridgetops free of snow. Look for areas that fit these criteria in the lower elevations of mountain ranges known to support good populations of elk (that part is easy, just about all mountain ranges in Montana fit that description). Searching for big antlers, whether they are still attached to elk or not, is not an exact science and exceptions abound; but generally speaking you’ll find the cows and calves wintering together in larger groups in the lower reaches of the winter range, while the bulls will tend to be with a small group of buddies up on the highest exposed ridges, or in the more secluded spots away from the roads.

Speaking of roads, many of these wintering areas are visible from the valley bottoms, and you can normally do a good bit of scouting from your vehicle. Besides making for an interesting way to pass a winter afternoon, if you spot a group of bulls in late winter you can normally bet that their antlers will be shed somewhere in the vicinity. Of course, you can bet that you’re not the only person with that knowledge, and won’t be the only one looking, but finding elk sheds often means having looked under just the right sagebrush, and just because someone else has or is planning to search an area, doesn’t mean they’ve found all the antlers there. Still, when hunting for elk antlers, on the hoof or otherwise, I just like to go to the spots where everybody else isn’t going, and that’s where map study can pay off.

Once you’ve identified a wintering area, it’s time to get out the topographical maps and do some study. As always, I recommend the USGS 1:24000 topographical maps, available from http://mapping.usgs.gov/mac/findmaps.html.   If you’re unsure which ones you need for a particular area, the Forest Service map for that National Forest will have an index of the topo maps for that area. Now, take the map and identify the areas of southern exposure. Quite often, these will be fairly large areas, but I wouldn’t rule out and in fact especially look for, relatively small pockets of only an acre or two. Big bull elk are reclusive creatures, and if you can identify a spot like that, that’s out of sight of any roads, it’s worth checking out. Take a hike in there and look for elk sign. Normally if you find a concentration of tracks and droppings in these open areas, especially if there’s old droppings from years past, it indicates a wintering area. The elk just don’t usually hang out in these open areas during hunting season, as that would tend to be suicidal and they’re not stupid. Another thing to look for are rubs on saplings or small trees. While elk mainly rub during August when they’re stripping the velvet off their antlers, I’ve often found evidence of rubbing in late winter/early spring and believe they may be trying to knock their antlers loose (although as yet I’ve not found conclusive evidence to support this theory). If your possible hotspot shows this kind of sign, it’s time to start looking in earnest. If it’s a relatively open, grassy area you can often use your binoculars to good advantage. It seems many of the best wintering areas contain a lot of sagebrush, though, and three foot tall sage can most effectively hide a lot of stuff. So, if that’s the case you’re going to have to search in some sort of grid pattern, crisscrossing the slope. Depending on the area, and the time and energy you’ve got, it might be necessary to break it down into grids as small as twenty or thirty yards square, in which case a buddy or two certainly makes the job easier. If it’s one of the secluded little southwest facing sagebrush pockets, be aware those can be good spots to hit during hunting season also, and I’d advise being careful who you tip off about them. Most serious elk hunters I know are extremely possessive and secretive about their spots, and tend to be quite tight-lipped. If you’ve put the work into finding one of these spots, I’d keep it to yourself.

But, since you shelled out for a subscription to read this, I’ll tip you off about a few good spots. I generally look in the vicinity of the WildlifeKurt Rued and Appy with an impressive load; 13 big sheds Management areas, on National Forest land. In the Gardiner area, Cedar Creek, which lies just south of the Dome Mountain WMA is a good spot. Another in that vicinity is the open slopes north of Rock Creek on the west side of the Yellowstone. Another prime wintering area is literally the entire west face of the Madison Range. Access is somewhat limited, and the Bear Creek WMA is closed until May 15, but the area around Indian Creek is open. If you glass from US 287 south of Ennis, you’ll normally see large herds of wintering elk. Spot a herd, get out your maps and determine if they’re on public land, and if so get ready for some serious hiking. There is also good winter range on both sides of the river in the Gallatin Canyon. With the exception of the Porcupine WMA just south of Big Sky, winter range in the Gallatin tends to consist of scattered pockets of habitat, although there are also fairly extensive open south facing slopes on both sides of Asbestos Creek.

The Wildlife Management Areas are a case in themselves, and get a lot of attention from antler hunting enthusiasts. When they open on May 15, it is usually an Oklahoma land rush type of scenario, with crowds of hopefuls heading out in search of antlers. The Sun River WMA has gone to a noon opening, but the others still open at midnight, and a lot of flashlightSheds3.jpg (37772 bytes) batteries get used up between then and dawn. I haven’t gone on one of these midnight antler hunts, and I’m told they are a dubious venture. There is quite a market for big sheds, and competition for them is fairly intense in the well-known areas. A goodly number of folks disregard the May 15 deadline, and particularly on the Dome Mountain WMA, it is my understanding that perhaps the bulk of the antlers are already gone by midnight on May 14. If you want to hit a WMA for antlers, I think the Sun River WMA would be best. It lies in a more isolated area, where a truck parked along the road is going to attract attention, and I doubt there is much antler poaching goes on. Not only that, you don’t have to stumble around in the dark, since they have the more civilized noon opening. I also understand the Wall Creek WMA is pretty well picked over by the opening date. Rumor has it the ranchers who have cattle grazing allotments in that area are allowed in before May 15, and aren’t averse to picking up antlers, and neither are the biologists and other management people who work there.

Just like when I am hunting elk with bow or rifle, I prefer to get away from the crowds and recommend map study as previously mentioned to identify isolated pockets where you might be the only person looking. Be warned, going about it that way can result in a lot of time and energy expended per antler found, but can also result in finding little honey holes where you have a good chance to find a big bull on the hoof during the fall hunting season. For example, during the late winter of 2000 I heard some fairly well-substantiated rumors (second-hand reports of some guys who were commuting from Gardiner to Bozeman by helicopter) of regular sightings of a giant 9 X 8 in the Gallatin Canyon. He was in one of those isolated pockets on the east side of the river, and I made several hikes in search of his sheds. Unsuccessfully, I might add, except that in my searches I learned a lot about where the elk winter in that vicinity, and identified several possible honey holes that I plan to re-visit with rifle in hand one of these years when winter hits during hunting season. That kind of knowledge is hard to place a value on, and if I had been so fortunate as to find that big guy’s sheds, I think I would have viewed it as just a nice bonus.

So, if you’re looking to get out and do some spring hiking in Montana, you might as well throw on a pack frame and go where you might come across some antlers. Use them to decorate your den, build a lamp or chandelier out of them, or just sell them for some extra cash. If nothing else, you’ll burn off some winter pounds in gorgeous country, likely see a good bit of wildlife, and learn something in the process.

Good luck.

 

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