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Paul Smith: Shed antler hunting time is here [Milwaukee Journal Sentinel :: BC-OTD-SMITH-COLUMN:MW]

If you're human, you're a hunter.

It's just a matter of how it manifests.

Is it mushrooms you seek? Or free-range protein that wears a tawny coat? Or a sale at the grocery store?

It's also true that hunting desires change over time.

Even those of us who start out as ardent pursuers of wild game eventually place a higher value on harvesting activities that don't require a gut-and-drag.

All of which speaks to the nearly universal appeal of shed antler hunting.

Hunter or anti, vegan or carnivore, youngster or nonagenarian, most humans have a natural attraction to antlers.

Searching for sheds is part treasure hunt, part hike.

You can do it alone or with a group. Dogs make great shed hunting partners, too.

And it doesn't require a license, training or experience.

There is no way to accurately measure the number of shed hunters in the United States. But most observers believe it is much more popular today than it was 25 years ago and participation continues on an upward trajectory.

I've experienced more than 40 Wisconsin deer hunting seasons and put tags on my share of bucks.

But with each passing year, I more eagerly anticipate finding a hefty antler in the field than shooting a trophy

This year I found my first shed by accident. It was late December and I was participating in the Holiday Hunt in Richland County.

The 2016 regulations allowed only antlerless deer to be hunted during the late season. But as I walked across a ridgetop to a stand, I nearly tripped over a thick-beamed, five-pointed antler.

I found another, smaller shed as I exited the field later that afternoon.

The next day, Mike Purnell and Jim Smukowski, and I found two more in the same spot.

We didn't need to shoot a buck to gather a bounty of antlers.

In our experience, late December was early for the bucks to drop in that area. It turns out others in Wisconsin had the same observation this year.

Randy Crawford has been photographing deer in southeastern Wisconsin for 15 years. His images, many taken of bucks on public land in Milwaukee County, have appeared in national publications.

His efforts to photograph deer in all seasons and all stages of life requires Crawford to keep tabs on the animals.

"All the local deer shed early this year," Crawford said. "It was the earliest I've ever seen it."

Crawford said he is in contact with 80 people on a shed hunting website. The consensus of the group agreed with his view.

Male members of the deer family, including white-tailed and mule deer, elk and moose, grow and shed antlers each year.

The bony structures are primarily used as the animals fight to establish dominance before the breeding season. Later in the year, in response to changes in photoperiod and testosterone, the animals drop the antlers.

In Wisconsin, whitetails typically shed between December and April.

Early shedding in a herd or region is typically caused by nutritional stress or severe weather conditions, according to the Quality Deer Management Association.

If an individual deer is injured or sick, it will drop earlier.

Crawford said a Milwaukee County buck he calls "King" was poked in the eye by another buck last fall. The big deer dropped its rack in late December, about two months earlier than it had the previous several years.

More than 600,000 Wisconsin residents last year bought a license to pursue white-tailed deer, either with gun or bow.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a single one of them who isn't interested in shed hunting.

Competition for shed antlers is intense in some areas, including public parks. In most areas, it's legal to collect shed antlers. Permission is required, obviously, on private land.

"It adds excitement to the winter and spring," said Lloyd Purnell Jr. "It's always interesting to find clues about which deer made it through the hunting season."

Many deer hunters combine shed hunting with scouting. Much can be learned about deer bedding areas and travel routes on a late-winter antler hunt.

I found my next shed of the season on Jan. 31. Again, it was unintentional.

Lloyd Purnell Jr. and I were squirrel hunting in Richland County. As I traversed a snow-covered field, an unusually dark and wide shape caught my eye amid sparse soybean stalks. It was the base of a stout four-point antler; the pedicle was red with blood.

I was lucky to find it in 10 inches of snow.

The conditions in March are typically much better for shed hunters. The fields and woods are free of snow in most of the state and most bucks have dropped their antlers.

It's time for me to start searching for sheds with purpose. I know you can't eat antlers. But finding them helps feed the hunter's soul.

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