Hunting shed antlers has become a popular activity in Mississippi over the last few years.

Practiced by hunters and non-hunters alike, this newfound sport produces many rewards beyond simply adding another big shed to a growing collection of deer antlers. For many, it has become an annual tradition for the entire family. Still others see it as an excellent way to introduce their children to the wonders of the great outdoors.

In Claiborne County, Jim Cassell has discovered from almost two decades of hunting shed antlers that March 15 is the best day of the year to find sheds on his family's 1,200-acre farm overlooking the mighty Mississippi River. A magnificent deer antler chandelier made from eight pairs of giant sheds and an impressive collection of whitetail antlers of every shape and size located in his barn are proof positive that Cassell knows what he's talking about when it comes to shed antler hunting.

"What started out for me as a fascination with white-tailed deer antlers has turned into a passion for finding trophy sheds," he said. "I get as much pleasure from finding a matching set of big sheds as I would from harvesting the buck that grew them.

"Once I locate one side of a giant shed, I won't stop searching until I find its match. Usually both sides of a matched set of antlers can be found in close proximity to one another. However, there was this one extraordinarily large antler that took me over a month of intense searching to find its match. The matching shed was found almost a quarter of a mile away from the first."

While many shed enthusiasts like Cassell prefer to hunt for antlers using their own two eyes, training dogs to find sheds is rapidly growing in popularity. A wide variety of dog breeds can be easily trained to use their sensitive noses, keen eyesight and strong endurance to find deer sheds that would otherwise never be found by man alone.

According to Dan Hess, marketing director for the North American Shed Hunting Club (www.shedantlers.org), there are dogs that are trained to retrieve shed antlers, and there are dogs that are trained to bark and wait for you to get there. Either type of dog can greatly increase your success rate for finding shed antlers. It all comes down to which type of shed dog you prefer.

While almost any dog can be trained to be a deer shed dog, some are just "naturals" at finding shed antlers. I have a 2-year-old Australian Blue Heeler cattle dog named Lucy that fits into the "natural" category. When Lucy was just a year old, she began retrieving sheds from the woodlots and pastures surrounding my house and depositing them on my back porch.

At first I thought Lucy had found the long-tined 5-point antler by accident. After picking up the shed she had dropped at my feet, I patted her on the head and gave her an appreciative, "Good girl!"

Half jokingly, I commanded my little heeler pup to "Go get me another one!" Looking up at me with a tongue-lolling grin as if to say "O.K., Boss, whatever you say," she bailed off the porch and high-tailed it to the nearby woodlot.

To my amazement, Lucy reappeared with the match to the 5-point antler she had retrieved just moments earlier.

Once again she looked up at me with a sparkle in her dark brown eyes as if to say, "How was that, Boss? You want another one?"

Before the afternoon was over, Lucy had retrieved three more sheds from the small woodlot.

Apparently my little cow dog had discovered a game she really liked. Each afternoon for the next week or so, I would return home from work to find at least one new shed antler lying on my back porch. I can't wait to see how many sheds Lucy can find this spring.

One of the most attractive aspects of a shed dog is that you can train almost any dog in a very short period of time to find deer antlers. According to Gerald Carlson with Specialty Dog Training, most dogs can be fully trained in just a couple of months, regardless of breed.

"If you don't own a dog, get one from the pound or look for a free one," says Carlson. "That's what I do, and they train out as good as any expensive breed. Regardless of whether sheds are hidden under leaves, grass or brush, a well-trained shed dog will scent them and get them. Even 20 men stand little chance against one dog trained to find shed antlers."

The only drawback I have personally found is that to a dog "a bone is a bone is a bone." Dogs trained to hunt sheds will inevitably bring you not just antlers but an assortment of other bones. Since they can't tell the difference, it would be a mistake to punish your shed dog for bringing back a leg bone from a deer carcass rather than an antler shed.

Another thing to keep in mind is that dogs, like people, have varying personalities. While some dogs are subservient and eager to please, others are more of the rebellious, independent type. The latter will typically barrel off to parts unknown and return defiantly with a shed antler. The subservient type is always looking for their owner's approval before venturing off to retrieve what their nose has magically detected.

It really doesn't matter whether you prefer hunting for sheds with your four-legged friend or using your own skills in locating these hidden treasures; both can be very effective and lots of fun. After all, the same basic principles apply for both methods.

Where to look

This is actually the simplest part of antler hunting. Experienced shed hunters will tell you that the best places to consistently find sheds include winter food sources, bedding areas and the trails that connect the two.

"I am a firm believer in checking out green fields first," said Cassell. "Relieved of the pressure of hunting season, the bucks will spend much of their time gorging themselves on the tender young grass to replenish the body fat they lost chasing hot does during the rut.

"My best luck has been in ryegrass fields before they have had time to get the rapid growth that comes with warmer springtime weather. While the grass is still short, I use my ATV to cruise the fields in search of dropped antlers. I can cover more area in a shorter period of time than if I had to search the fields on foot.

"The majority of the shed antlers I find each spring come from these winter food sources, and as an added bonus, I am able to clear my fields of any antlers that might otherwise puncture the tires on my tractor or pickup. With rear tractor tires costing close to $600 each, losing one to a shed antler is an unnecessary expense."

Once the winter food sources have been thoroughly searched, the next place to focus on would be the visible trails connecting feeding areas and bedding cover. Although sheds may be found anywhere along these trails, certain locations tend to be more productive. Cassell said he pays close attention to the thicker sites along the trails that are crowded by brush, limbs and vines. Fencerows that intersect trails are another excellent place to look. Oftentimes the sudden shock of landing after a buck jumps a fence will jar his antlers loose.

"I once witnessed a buck duck his head and jump through a barbed wire fence that offered just enough space for the deer's body, but not his headgear," Cassell recalled. "The tightly strung wires knocked both antlers off right there. It was the first time I had ever observed a buck drop both antlers at the same time."

Bedding areas are normally the last spots to be searched for shed antlers. Most shed hunters wait until they know that most, if not all, the bucks have shed their antlers before they enter bedding areas. Cassell likes to use trail cameras to show him when most of his bucks have shed their antlers. Entering a bedding area too soon could result in spooking a buck onto your neighbor's property, where he could possibly drop his sheds before returning home.

Most bedding areas in Mississippi are found in large areas of dense thickets. However, beds can also be found in the most unexpected and unlikely locations. This is especially true when it comes to mature bucks. They will frequently seek out a small patch of tall grass or an inconspicuous clump of trees to use as bedding cover. So be sure not to overlook the obvious.

Antler hunting techniques

"Being involved in the North American Shed Hunting Club, I hear a lot of people comment that they walked all day and didn't find a single shed," said Hess. "In most cases, it's because they're just stumbling through the woods.

"The biggest mistake people make is they're not looking at the ground. I know that sounds ridiculous, but they get out there and get distracted when they start seeing rubs, trails, scrapes and things they didn't know about. They can still look at the deer sign, but they have to slow down and look at the ground. I have found small antlers in green fields that you couldn't see even when you were within 6 feet of them."

Whether you're hunting sheds in woods or fields, it's important to be conscious of where your eyes are focused. Shed antlers can blend in surprisingly well with all types of vegetation. Although binoculars can be used to successfully scan fields for sheds, the majority of antlers are found within 6 feet of where the shed hunter is standing.

"Bright, sunny days are the worst times to hunt for sheds, especially in wooded areas," said Cassell. "The sunlight reflects off every branch and twig, making it much harder to spot a shed antler.

"I prefer a cloudy day following a light rain. When everything in the woods is wet, it makes the sheds stand out better. It's almost like they're glowing."

One of the biggest problems shed hunters face is ensuring that they thoroughly cover the entire tract of land and don't miss any pockets.

One of the best ways to overcome this problem is by implementing a technique used by foresters on a daily basis. Plot sampling is a method forester's use when "cruising" or appraising timber to ensure equal coverage of a tract of land. This method utilizes evenly spaced cruise lines and an accurate tract map.

Measuring a set number of steps from a fixed landmark, foresters use flagging tape to mark where grid lines enter the woods. They then use a compass to stay on these grid lines. Although using this method will ensure better coverage with fewer missed holes, it will also slow you down somewhat. But that can be a good thing, because the slower you go, the better your chances of finding more antler sheds.

Reasons to hunt sheds

Shed hunters reap a number of rewards in addition to the obvious - collecting shed antlers. Some of these include scouting for deer and turkey sign, gaining a better understanding of their hunting property, aerobic exercise and introducing young children and non-hunters to a hunting-related outdoor activity.

In addition, every shed antler found gives a clue as to the number of bucks by age and antler quality that survived the season, providing insight as to what can be expected next year.

"Finding a big set of sheds tells you two things," said Cassell. "First, it tells you that the big buck those sheds belonged to made it through another hunting season. And secondly, it helps narrow down where a particular buck can most likely be found the following deer season.

"I have taken a number of nice bucks that I wouldn't have known existed if I hadn't found their sheds from the previous year. Finding shed antlers helps me identify the locations I need to focus on when deer season opens."

Shed hunting is not only a great scouting tool, but also a great way to spend time in the outdoors with your children and your dogs. Give shed hunting a try - after all, you have nothing to lose and plenty to find!