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This brief period of early spring is an interesting time for those with a penchant for exploring beyond the confines of the back yard. The snow is long gone, there are no leaves yet and the grass is not quite green. Cool enough for a jacket or sweater and wet enough to require rubber boots, there’s always a good reason to wander the woods while we wait for the trout to start biting.
Fortunately, any time an excuse is needed to avoid spring cleaning a good outdoorsman can find it, even in that window of time between the end of winter and the beginning of fishing season. There’s always something to do outdoors that beats anything having to do with rakes, shovels and trips to the transfer station.
One of the most popular early spring pastimes for Maine sportsmen is what’s known as “shed hunting.” Not the kind of shed where the garden tools are kept, of course. No one has to hunt very hard to find that! Instead, I’m talking about the joys of wandering the April woods while looking for the shed antlers of deer and moose. Most often found in the areas where bucks and bulls spent the last January and February weathering the storms of winter, shed antlers can be surprisingly easy to find in these last few weeks before grass and brush cover them up.
Generally, antlers are dropped one at a time toward the end of January, although I was seeing antlers on deer as late as mid-February. The lost antlers lie in the snow all winter and gradually drop to the bare ground in early spring. Before long they will become covered with greens and are eaten by rodents or simply disintegrate due to the weather conditions. I have found old antlers that were covered with moss and were quite spongy, but it was still possible to tell that a big 10-point buck once wore them. Exciting stuff for a hunter to ponder as he roams the forest and considers his possibilities for next season.
For many years I spent a day or two in search of sheds with our old neighbor, Yodelin’ Slim Clark of St. Albans. Best known for his country and bluegrass music career (a Hall of Famer for sure!), Slim was also had a great interest in deer. In fact, when I knew him later in his life he rarely talked about yodeling, but he sure lit up when the conversation turned to whitetails.
In particular, Slim enjoyed getting out in spring to look for shed antlers in and around St. Albans Mountain. He liked to walk along the many brooks in the area around his home where deer spent the winters.
Among shed hunters I think Slim ranked among the best. His “shed shed” behind the house was filled to the rafters with antlers he’d found over the years, and then the rafters were stacked to the ceiling with the racks of big bucks he’d shot during the hunting season. One day we spent the better part of an afternoon sorting through the pile looking at the biggest and most unusual specimens he’d found and never even dented the pile! Some of the antlers were typical 8- and 10-pointers, but many of them were the kind that takes your breath away; big, gnarly things that made me wonder where these deer were when I was looking for them last November?
Even those who didn’t remember Slim’s long career in music did know his talent as a wildlife artist. His love for the wild things showed in every painting he created, and as I recall more than one piece subtly included a shed antler somewhere in the scene.
These days, every time I see a shed I’ll stop and look it over, thinking of Slim and our days in muddy boots in the woods below his house. He was a great companion, quiet and unassuming, soft-spoken and knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics. He was a rare character and a great shed-hunting partner. I miss him still, and most of all when it’s time to look for sheds in April. I don’t find as many sheds now as I did when he was with me, and I can still hear him laugh whenever I missed one!
Another friend of mine who keeps the first week of April open for shed hunting is Matt Curry, who specializes in finding shed moose antlers. Matt likes to paint hunting scenes on the sheds he finds and has quite a collection of them that he’s created in the last 50 years and more. Pushing 80 and pushing hard, Matt hunts and fishes year-round and, when he finds the time, makes canvas sails and tents in his little shop near Belfast.
Shed hunting is a great way to spend time in the woods when spring has not quite sprung. Not just a hobby for old men with time on their hands and a love of nature in their hearts, shed hunting is just one more way to connect with the wild world around us. There is so much to learn beyond the dooryard that most folks never discover, and all it takes is a few hours spent wandering in the wild places around us.
A large shed deer or moose antler is not an easy thing to find in the April woods, but if nothing else it tells us that there is one big animal out there that made it through the hunting season and the winter and may well be back in those woods again next fall.
As the saying goes, sheds (and tracks) make pretty poor soup, but they tell a story that won’t be heard till someone finds them. They make you look, they make you think and they make you wonder; what better reason do you need to head out this week and find a shed antler of your own?
Everyone I know who finds a shed builds a story around it, and if the shed is big enough its story will make the rounds of every sportsman in town. And guess where all those eager hunters are going to be next opening day!
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