There is something different about picking up an elk shed. Maybe it is the sheer size of the antler or the fact that elk and tags are equally elusive. Either way, picking up elk sheds is a great way to kill the lull between elk seasons, while still giving you the opportunity to come home with antlers.
Elk shed hunting can be just as tough as actual elk hunting, but with a few tricks and by taking some fall hunting techniques into shed season, you can up your odds of coming home with a pile of horns.
Find Sheds Before They're Sheds
Since you are only going to find elk sheds where the bulls are living, it can be a lot easier to find a 500 lb animal that moves around than a stagnant antler in the brush. Scouting where the bulls are concentrating in the late winter before they drop can help you key into areas to shed hunt.
Try to time your scouting as closely to the time the elk will drop as you can. Having info on where the bulls live leading up to the time they shed is important. If you decide to scout, it is imperative that you don't impact the elk's movement. The best tactic is to watch from afar. Disturbing the animals can get them to move areas and drop somewhere else.
Watch the Calendar
Just like hunting the peak of the rut, timing is everything with picking up the best elk sheds. Going too early and you risk bumping the elk before they drop. Going too late and you risk tall spring grass that makes it harder to spot antlers. Estimates can be made as to when they will drop based on the animals age, timing of the previous rut, and the geographical area you will be shed hunting.
Most elk shed in March through April, but you can predict whether it will be an early or late year. Shedding happens with a loss of testosterone, so an early rut is a good indicator that antlers may fall off sooner. Older bulls and northern herds tend to shed sooner than younger bulls and southern herds.
For 2016, I predict elk to shed earlier in March based on an early rut in 2015, combined with drought like conditions in many western states last year. However, early drops mean you should scout earlier than most years and hunt a little later. This will give the elk ample recovery time from the winter and still leave you with plenty of time to pick up sheds before the grasses get too high.
Walk with Your Eyes
Glassing for sheds can be an extremely effective tactic to cover a lot of ground efficiently. Just like spotting elk themselves, setting up with binoculars and a spotting scope to glass feeding areas and hillsides can pay huge dividends. Pick an area, get a high vantage, and set up to glass it in a grid. Look closely for the shine of the antler or the tines as they look semi unnatural compared to the surrounding brush.
This method also disturbs the animals the least. The less the elk are pressured, the better it is for the animals and your shed hunting success. It is no different than hunting elk. An elk that feels safe is an elk that's going to put antlers in your hands.
Read the Antlers
Bull elk bachelor up in the winter. By focusing in on areas where you find one shed, there is a good probability more are nearby. Smaller bulls tend to be in larger groups, as bigger bulls are more solitary. The size of the antler may be a good indicator of how many other sheds are around and how much time you should invest there. If you find a couple of smaller rag horn antlers, odds are there could be quite a few more. Bulls of this age class can be found in groups of twenty or more during the winter.
If you find a big shed, keep looking for the match. Large bulls shed their antlers in close proximity due to the unbalance of the heavy antler. It is worth the time to grid search around the area where one big antler is found in hopes of finding the set. Don't forget to check nearby trees or thick brush patches as bulls will try to thrash the remaining antler off to balance out.
The condition of the antler can also tell you a lot about the spot you are looking. White antlers are a good indication where people have not been shed hunting and are a great place to concentrate. Of course, elk choose different areas each year based mainly on winter conditions, but finding an area with old sheds is a great indicator no one has looked there in a while. Elk will often cycle back to these areas, especially when conditions match previous years.