I’ve been hunting elk in the backcountry of southwest Colorado’s sky-scraping San Juan Mountains for going on a decade now, and have never given much thought to springtime big-game scouting (which is popular in the northern Minnesota, where I grew up hunting whitetails). But this year, the sparse spring snowpack allowed for a combination San Juans turkey hunt and elk-scouting foray during mid-April.
My goal, after putting a Merriam’s gobbler in the freezer, was only to revisit some elk hunting haunts, pay my respects to elk kills of seasons past, and look for water sources and likely wallows. And given that I was scouting around the 9,000 to 9,500 foot level, I didn’t expect to come across many (if any) elk sheds. In addition to being an unlikely elevation (I thought) to find sheds, antlers are a source of minerals that can be quickly consumed by forest creatures such as squirrels, mice and porcupines, hastening their demise if not found within a couple of seasons.
And during the years I’ve hunted this area, I have never found an elk shed, although focusing on elk hunting in September or October vs. shed hunting in April or May is an entirely different animal. As most big-game hunters know well, elk are from the Cervidae family—ruminant animals that include moose, deer and caribou. They shed their antlers every year, unlike animals that sport “horns,” which include antelope, sheep, cattle, buffalo and rhinoceros. They carry their horns for life. In “A Man Made of Elk,” Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers founder David Petersen details some pertinent antler facts.
“In all deer species, antlers are biological ‘luxuries.’ No matter how genetically blessed a bull or buck may be, only after the animal’s primary nutritional and health needs are satisfied—bone and muscle growth, the healing of injuries and infections—will ‘leftover’ nutritional resources be channeled into exceptional antler growth. Thus are big antlers indicative not only of good genes and longevity, but also of an exceptionally efficient foraging strategy.”
According to American Hunter contributor Bill Buckley (in “The Great Wapiti,” Aug. 2009), “During the summer months, elk antlers can grow an inch per day and can exceed 5 feet in length, reaching optimum size (and weighing up to 40 pounds) when a bull is 6 to 8 years old.” David Petersen adds (in “Racks: A Natural History of Antlers and the Animals that Wear Them”): “An average mature bull will have six points total, a main-beam length around 48 inches, an inside spread of 30 inches or less and a Boone & Crockett total score in the neighborhood of 260 to 290.”
As explained by Denver Post outdoors columnist Scott Willoughby (in “New regulations limit shed antler collection in Colorado,”), late winter and early spring are considered prime time to collect the antlers that naturally fall from the heads of male ungulates a few months after the fall mating season. Shed hunters roam the state in search of fresh antlers used for art, craft, furniture and even dog treats. For some it’s a viable commercial activity, for others simply a way to get out and observe wildlife.
But if you venture out in search of sheds, it’s important to remember that it is both illegal and unethical to harass wildlife, and it’s easy to do so accidentally in early spring when elk are recovering from winter and more accessible at lower elevations. Ron Velarde, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s northwest regional manager, says big-game animals lose as much as 30 percent of their body weight in winter, and the loss is magnified by human pressure, exponentially so when it includes the use of loud, fast off-road vehicles and dogs trained to hunt sheds.
After wrapping up a backcountry turkey hunt with Colorado BHA Habitat Watchman Rick Hooley (we both managed to harvest toms), the next morning was set aside for revisiting some of my fall elk hunting spots, including the locales where two 6x6s were taken the previous two falls. At about 9,500 feet, I came across a 6x shed.
After scouting some new, higher terrain, I decided to pass through the same area on the way down in hopes of locating the matched shed, and found the 6x (matching) antler partly buried in the duff about 100 feet upslope from the first one. Scouting in the same general area Wednesday morning, I picked up a 5x elk shed, but no matching antler.
Shed hunters who stumble onto even a single side of a big animal’s antlers are generally thrilled, as I can attest. And finding both sides—a rarer occurrence—is still more exhilarating. In addition, it’s a convenient excuse (not that we need one) to get outdoors after a long winter and a great way to spend even more time in the field during (or after) turkey hunting season. As David Petersen says, about expending the effort to get out there and experience the backcountry, “There’ll be plenty of time for comfort in our graves.”
And for additional information on elk shed-hunting techniques, see “The Art of Elk Antler Collecting.”
Antler and Horn Collection Regulations:
IMPORTANT: For the latest shed antler and horn collection regulations, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
Story written by David Lien. Lien is a former Air Force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Hunting for Experience: Tales of Hunting & Habitat Conservation” and during 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”