Stihl Dealer Days

Rural Missouri Magazine

Horn-huntin' hounds
The search for shed antlers has gone to the dogs

by Jason Jenkins
Roger Sigler of Smithville and his antler dog, Ransom, hunt for shed antlers. Shed hunting is an increasingly popular outdoor sport, and trainers like Sigler are teaching dogs to find horns.

Each year, whether in the late summer heat of September or the bone-chilling arctic blasts of January, thousands of Missourians wait and hope for the thrill of a pulse-pounding encounter with a male white-tailed deer, a fabled monster buck. While a successful hunt may put venison in the freezer, it’s the buck’s antlers that many covet. The ultimate trophy atop a magnificent animal, antlers are a treasure that hunters proudly display in their homes and admire for years.

But ironically, man’s treasure is nature’s trash. White-tailed bucks, along with other species of deer, elk and moose across North America, lose their antlers each year, dropping them randomly as they travel from place to place. The headgear is a disposable commodity, cast off in favor of next year’s model.

It seems, however, that antlers are just as prized, whether they are still on the head of a buck or lying hidden among the leaves of the forest floor or the stubble of a cornfield. These shed antlers, or “sheds,” have spawned their own following of hunters.

Dog trainer Carla Long of Denver works with Jet at her home. Carla has trained shed-hunting dogs for about two years.

“It’s probably one of the fastest growing outdoor activities,” says Mark Miller, president of the North American Shed Hunters Club based in Lyndon Station, Wis. “I think it’s growing because you can do it anywhere. There’s no seasons, no bag limits. Even kids can do it.”

Mark estimates that the number of shed hunters nationwide has probably reached the hundreds of thousands. His organization, which maintains a shed antler record book for all North American big-game species, has members in every U.S. state and Canadian province.

Many shed hunters are also deer hunters, and searching for sheds provides an opportunity to learn more about deer and become a better hunter, Mark says. The location of sheds offers a glimpse into a particular deer’s daily routine. They reveal the areas he frequents, and such information can be vital in patterning the deer for the following season’s hunt.

Antlers can be worth money, especially if you find a unique shed or large matched pair, and a few shed hunters are driven by the dollar. Most though are like Mark, who started hunting sheds as a kid.

“The vast majority do it for the enjoyment and really wouldn’t sell any of their sheds, myself included,” he says. “I consider it a trophy just like a deer that I shot, no matter what the size is. It’s just too much work to find one and then just let it go.”

Who let the dogs out?

Like other sports, shed hunting has taken on many variations. Some people hunt on foot, others on horseback or from the seat of an ATV. But the most recent twist has been training dogs to sniff out sheds.

“It’s one of the newest trends, and in terms of the records, it’s an acceptable form of shed hunting,” says Mark. “We actually have a few people entered in the record book listed with their dogs. We try to keep it fun.”

Ransom retrieves a shed antler for owner Roger Sigler.

It’s a trend that has found its way to Missouri, where two dog trainers — Roger Sigler of Smithville and Carla Long of Denver — are both commanding top dollar for their shed-hunting Labrador retrievers.

“People ask all the time, ‘Do these dogs actually smell the horns?’” says Roger, a member of Platte-Clay Electric Cooperative who operates his business, Antler Dogs, from his home with the help of his wife, Sharon, and daughter Amy. “And we say, ‘Yeah, they do.’”

Though he’s retired from working in his family’s dental laboratory business, Roger has trained dogs for 40 years, first as a hobby and then professionally. A casual shed hunter, he says the idea of teaching a canine companion to help came to him about eight years ago while hunting horns with a friend.

“I was ducked down, trying to look down through these trees, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if you had a dog that could go in and find them for you?’” recalls Roger. “That’s when I started thinking about what a candidate dog might look like.”

In 2005, Roger began volunteering with the Safe Harbor Prison Dog program in Lansing, Kan., which allows inmates to train dogs that have been rescued from shelters. In addition to basic pet obedience, Roger planned to teach the inmates to train a specialty dog.

“The warden didn’t think it was a good idea to teach them to train drug dogs or bomb dogs, so the specialty became antler dogs,” he says.

Like Roger, Carla Long is a shed hunter who was training dogs for other purposes before she began teaching them to find shed antlers about two years ago. As with bomb dogs or drug dogs, she says it’s critical that the shed-hunting dogs are trained to pick up the scent of antlers.

Jet retrieves a shed antler for owner Carla Long.

“With their natural ability to hunt, when their nose kicks in on that target scent, it’s unbelievable what the results can be,” says the member of United Electric Cooperative. “They have such a high fire. They’d rather play with an antler than they would a ball or another toy.”

Though they employ different strategies to teach target scent, both trainers use reward-based positive reinforcement to train their dogs. Each also only purchases pups from reputable kennels.

Those who buy shed dogs run the gamut. Many high-fence game operations purchase a dog to find the sheds from their high-dollar trophy deer as a way to confirm genetics and as proof to show potential clients. Carla and Roger mostly sell to the diehard horn hunters all across the country.

“Most of them are just ate up with the sport,” says Roger. “When they find an antler, they mark the time of day they found it, what the weather conditions were, if it rained the day before, which direction it was laying, all that stuff.”

Both trainers agree that hunting with a dog will, on average, double the number of sheds that a hunter finds.

“Hunters have their eyes and their instincts,” says Carla, “but the dog adds scent to the equation. It makes your odds so much better.”

Even with a trained dog, however, it’s still up to the hunter to make the first crucial decision.

“You’ve got to be where the shed are,” explains Roger. “If you’re hunting where they’re not, you can have the greatest dog in the world and it isn’t going to matter.”

As the sun sets on a day of shed hunting, another antler is added to the collection.

With hundreds of hours of training invested in each shed-hunting dog, Carla and Roger both command a premium price. Depending on the level of training, prices range from $1,500 for a pup with two months shed training to $6,500 for a “finished” dog, one that is about a year old and already has had a season of training.

Despite the cost, many shed hunters consider a dog just another tool, one that brings a new level of excitement to their sport.

Adds Roger: “I think anytime you do something with a dog, whether it’s rabbit hunt or pheasant hunt or whatever, it’s going to be a lot more fun.”

For more information about shed antler hunting dogs, contact Carla Long at 660-439-2820 or Roger Sigler at 816-289-1154 or www.antlerdogs.com.

To learn more about the North American Shed Hunting Club, call 608-666-2071.

 

Tips for Hunting Shed Antlers

Suffering from cabin fever? White-tailed bucks in Missouri typically drop their antlers from late December through mid-February, making February and March prime time for shed hunting before new vegetation conceals the antlers and before rodents begin chewing on them for calcium and other minerals.

So get out and give shed hunting a try. Here are a few tips for bringing home horns:

• Go where the deer play — Observe the deer in your area and see where they congregate. This is a good starting point for hunting sheds. Remember to get permission before entering private land.

• Food first — Harvested cornfields and stands of winter wheat are prime spots to look for sheds.

• Sleep second — From the fields, follow trails back to bedding areas. Areas with cedar wind breaks and southern exposures are prime candidates.

• Jump for joy — Walk along fence rows and look closely where deer might cross. An antler can jar loose when the buck lands. The same is true for ditch and creek crossings.

• Get some glass — There’s not a lot of equipment needed for shed hunting, but a pair of quality binoculars for glassing hillsides can help you cover more ground quickly.

Remember, the more miles you cover, the more sheds you’ll find. In Missouri, no permit is required to hunt or possess sheds. However, if you find a dead buck with his antlers still attached, you must report it to a conservation agent for authorization to keep the antlers.

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