John and I have watched countless seasons of people hunting for “moose sheds”, antlers that are dropped (shed) sometime in January. It’s big business for a lot of people and with the introduction of mountain snowmobiles, many shed hunters can get into moose territory easily, and pick up a shed as soon as they’re dropped. The hardest part about shed hunting is finding a spot that someone else hasn’t already found.
Some shed hunters train their dogs to find antlers. This saves on many hours of walking and possibly walking right by one.
In both cases, we neither have the snowmobile, nor the trained shed dog.
Last fall, we went into an area totally off a well traveled road. The old road we walked in on was heavily overgrown with alders, but the moose path was evident. Once we made it past the alders, the area opened to a giant chopping with a small bog created by a now absent beaver. And moose sign everywhere, including several raked trees that a bull destroyed during the rut. This is important since only bulls have antlers and we wasted a lot of time hunting an area that we decided was wintered by a cow and calf.
We stood on the hill, wind not in our favor, and made a moose call. By the second call we heard a moose answer with his grunt. A bull with a nice set of antlers, grunting and ready for love, emerged from the bog. Had we been hunting, it would have been all over.
Since the river was at levels too high to safely fish, we decided to go where we had seen the moose last fall. As we drove toward our destination, we couldn’t help but notice all of the saplings and new maple growth that had been browsed on during the winter. The broken over branches were evident on nearly every tree. This was definitely a place to start. To our advantage, it’s not a path that a snowmobiler would go down unless they knew there were sheds there, so we were hoping this meant it was unexplored.
Moose winter up in areas with food. Looking in forests of soft maple that are chewed on with abundant tip browsing is the key. Incredibly, there was moose sign, a.k.a. moose poop and bark gone from trees, everywhere we looked.
We followed a skid trail that fingers off from the main clear-cut. The area is very deceiving from the trail, since I initially stumbled my way over slash and acres of raspberry bushes. As soon as we got to the edge of the forest, we entered a maple stand. It was easily walkable and open, and there, we found maple trees literally stripped of their bark. If you find trees like this and they’re softwood, it’s been raked by a bull with its antlers, and is not food.
We decided to grid walk the area. It wasn’t long before John turned and yelled, “I found one!” And there it was, leaning up against a tree as if someone had laid it there! It seemed the further in we ventured, the more sign we found. We never found the match to this beauty.
A few more paces and he found a matched pair from the previous year lying in a small opening. It had some small chews on it, but to us they were still magnificent. By the end of the day, we had found five huge antlers: two different new antlers, a matched pair and another single from the previous year. Actually, John spotted most of them since he is faster and more agile in the woods than me with my cranky knees.
After walking for what seemed hours, we finally made it out to the skid trail. I plunked down and said, “Have at it, I’m done”. So there I sat using one of the antlers for a seat, while he explored. I got to see how big these antlers are; I could barely get my hand around it. Remarkably, we had proof that at least three different mature bulls wintered in this area. We’ll be back for sure!
We went back the following day and hunted another parcel in the same area. I hadn’t actually found one all on my own so I had high hope of spotting a big old antler after the success we had the day before.
We split up again. I headed to the left, John to the right. And then it happened. I finally found an antler. Had I not known for sure that he hadn’t, I would have questioned whether John had planted it right in the middle of the road. It wasn’t huge, but I officially found my first antler!
Toward the end of the day, we went back to look one more time where we had scored the five. Sure enough, John managed to find an almost identical antler to the one I had found earlier. Both antlers were from the same side, so we knew we had two different two year old bulls in the area.
So it doesn’t take anything special to find moose antlers. You just need to know where to start, and then use those clues to help you find them. Remember to bring extra drinking water, a snack, and a manual compass, (that you know how to use) before you begin. It’s easy to lose your way when you’re busy looking for antlers. Note: our Garmin BackTrack units did not work properly and were pointing in the complete opposite direction of where we parked the truck. Had we followed them, we might still be lost in the woods!