What determines when bucks drop their antlers?
Light levels affect when bucks drop their antlers. Bucks drop their antlers when the photoperiod is right. The photoperiod is how many hours' worth of light a buck is exposed to each day. The buck's antlers weaken when the days get longer in the spring.
Nutrition also affects when a buck drops its antlers, as does stress. A very well-fed buck will keep its antlers until later in the year. If a buck is stressed out or hungry, it will lose its antlers earlier.
After a severe winter, bucks will drop their antlers earlier than usual. If the winter was mild, the bucks might drop their antlers later, so you might shed hunt later. While more than a few bucks do not drop their antlers until April, they are not likely to drop their antlers even later than that.
When to shed hunt on your property
Your shed hunting strategy should depend on how large your property is and how much forest cover there is. It also depends on whether or not there are a lot of food sources on your property.
Shed hunt later on smaller properties
If your property is small, you have to be very careful not to scare a buck away. If you only have 50 or 100 acres, that is somewhat little room even for a single buck.
If you are walking around searching for sheds, a buck may notice you, get scared, and leave. If they migrate to someone else's property, they may never shed their antlers on your land. Later is a much better choice.
Shed hunt earlier on properties with more food
The more food you have on your property, the more likely you can find sheds early in the year. A large grain field may have antlers in the early spring or before.
To avoid scaring deer away, shed hunt around noon or a couple of hours before. Shed hunting very early or late in the day can scare deer away. Scaring deer away is still possible if there is a lot of food on your land, though it is less likely than if you have a smaller property with little food.
Shed hunt later on wooded parts of your property
Shed hunting in a wooded area takes longer than shed hunting in the open. Since it takes a long time to search a wooded area, there are many chances for a deer to notice you and run away.
Shed hunt later in the year if you are searching a large, wooded area. Wait until the bucks have shed their antlers before you risk scaring them away. Finding every shed in a forest may take a group of friends, and deer will definitely notice that several people are looking around in their forest.
Shed hunt some parts of your property earlier than others
Your property may have both wooded and open areas. Early in the year, shed hunt near food sources, especially around midday when you are least likely to scare deer away.
Later in the spring, look through the forested areas. A large majority of bucks in most places shed their antlers by the middle of April. It won't matter if you scare deer away in late spring, as they will have shed their antlers by then.
Cameras can help you shed hunt
If you set up trail cameras on your property, you can find out whether or not the bucks on your land have shed their antlers already. If you put bait near one of these cameras, a buck will take the food sooner or later.
Shed hunting on public land
When you are shed hunting on public land, you may have to compete with other shed hunters. You might want to start earlier in the year, as long as it is legal to shed hunt early in the year on public land in your area. Otherwise, other people may find all the antlers first.
Sometimes, you need to push deeper into the wilderness than others. You may walk up hills, cross barriers, or move into thicker forest. Look for antlers in places other shed hunters might not go.
A GPS tool can help you if you are covering a lot of ground. If you cover a lot of ground, it can be hard to tell what areas you have explored already. With a GPS tool, you can keep track of your movements and know what areas you haven't looked at yet.
Shed hunting on public land is not always legal. Many states ban shed hunting for some of the year. For example, Wyoming does not allow shed hunting from January to the end of April west of the continental divide.
Different states have different laws. In Utah, you need a permit to shed hunt between early February and the middle of April, and some other states also use permits. Not every state has any laws; in some states, it is legal on public land for the whole year.
Shed hunting can disturb wildlife
Laws against shed hunting in the winter and early spring are there for a reason. During the winter, deer are under stress, and if people are in the woods looking for antlers, their stress will worsen.
Stress can make it harder for deer to survive the winter. Even if it is legal for you to shed hunt very early in the year, it might be unethical. In the spring, shed hunting is more likely to be harmless.