Picking Up the Off-Season Benefits of Sound Deer Management

This land manager enjoys hunting antlers on the hoof and on the ground.

For most hunters, finding a good shed antler is a pleasant side note to a post-season scouting trip or a spring morning spent in the turkey woods. For David Brannen, shed hunting is an activity in itself. He refers to it as a passion, and it incites in him the same level of enthusiasm as hunting those same antlers when they are attached to a live buck.

“I’m real passionate about it,” David said. “It’s the love of my life… well, it’s one of the loves of my life.”

Last year was a banner season for David in the shed-hunting woods. From mid February through late March he found more than 40 shed antlers walking his hunting property. Ten of those antlers made for matching pairs.

“At this time last year I was thinking I’d have enough to make a lamp,” David said. “But shoot, I’ve got enough to make a chandelier with last year’s alone. I’m going to have to re-evaluate my project.”

Shed hunting may never elicit that kind of excitement from most deer hunters, but it’s a good excuse to get into the woods once deer season ends. And, though it may not be as efficient as a trail camera, it can also give you a sense for which areas and trails bucks on a property use late in the season.

“I love walking the woods this time of year. Everything’s just laid out. All you’ve got to do is read it to figure out how to hunt them next year,” David said. “I’ve worn out two pairs of boots looking for sheds.”

David lives on a 4,500-acre tract of Macon County timberland on the Flint River. It has been in the same family since 1886, and he looks after the estate for its owner, while managing it for timber and wildlife. He also enjoys the hunting rights, along with 26 other paying members. But nobody knows these woods like David does. He lives on the property and does all the planting and tending of the 75 acres worth of 1/2-acre to 5-acre food plots. Those food plots are one of the secrets to his success finding sheds — the food plots and the 24 feeders.

“A tractor tire costs you $300 to fix and $600 to replace, so shed hunting helps you make sure everything stays working right,” David joked.

Also, It’s easier to spot a shed in a food plot than in the woods, and the green fields and feeders on the property are hot-spots for buck activity in late winter when other food sources are scarce and bucks are shedding their antlers. Even if he’s looking for sheds in the woods, David does it on the major trails leading to and from his food plots and feeders.

“Last year was a really good year for finding horns because we had a complete acorn-crop failure. At the time they shed, they were really on the food plots,” he said. “There was a bumper crop of acorns this year; there are still some on the ground. I probably won’t find many this year. They’re harder to find when they’re in the oak bottoms.”

For a good deer hunter, knowing where the bucks were late in the season shouldn’t be too tough. Finding their shed antlers on the ground is another thing all together.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” David said. “It’s all about boot work, and walking, and having an eye for it. I was brought up hunting for arrowheads, and a lot of times with arrowheads you’ll just see the very tip of it, and it’s all about seeing that shape that looks unnatural. I liken that to my shed hunting. You’ve got to recognize that shape, that form. Most times they’re parallel. Even down in the woods where the trees are vertical, it’s an unnatural shape, the symmetry of the points,”

Training your eyes not to look for the antler itself, but to differentiate between the distinct shape of tines against the surroundings is the key. Having hunted objects — first arrowheads, now sheds — all his life, David has developed a knack for finding those unnatural shapes. He has even spotted broken off tips of antler tines in the ground litter.

David’s other secret to finding sheds is a byproduct of one of the other loves of his life — hunting big, mature bucks.

“The deer’s got to be there to drop it, and one that’s big enough to pick up, not just a spike,” David said. “That’s the first thing.”

David and the other hunters on the property take management of the deer herd pretty seriously. Over the last three years, the hunters have taken only five or six bucks a year, and those bucks have averaged a score in the upper 130-inch range. The requirements for a harvestable buck aren’t just “outside the ears” or a minimum number of points, either. There is a minimum harvestable B&C score for each typical main frame a hunter might encounter on the property, and a fine for any buck taken that does not meet those standards. They also harvest about 50 does a year, and David said that’s not really enough. Needless to say, those 27 hunters are very careful about what they shoot, and it has resulted in a deer herd that is almost ridiculously buck heavy in its buck-to-doe ratio. This makes for some fine shed hunting, and it also means there are some ridiculously good bucks walking the property.

“We’re so buck heavy on our herd that, really, there’s a lot of damage to the antlers because of all the fighting. We go way beyond the county regs in our management,” David said. “I have found them (sheds) with a piece of skull or horn in them.”

David and the other members don’t let all the bucks walk, though. Along with all the other fine deer that hunters have taken off the property, David has killed some impressive bucks himself. His “mistakes” are of the caliber some hunters spend a lifetime chasing.

“I have better horns on the wall than I’ve picked up,” he laughed.

David keeps all of his sheds in a giant duffelbag. He keeps his heads on the wall. He has nine bucks hanging on the walls of his home. They measure from the mid 120s up to the 155-inch bruiser that got him into the Truck-Buck Shoot-Out in 2005. This year, he has two more worthy bucks entered in the contest.

Whether it is hunting sheds or hunting bucks that he’s doing, David takes it pretty seriously, and his success at both endeavors has a common theme — management of the deer herd.

“All of the owners past and present share the same commitment to proper timberland and wildlife management, which go hand in hand. Without their commitment, none of what I do and have done would be possible,” David said. “My father (Major Brannen) has also played a large role in what this farm has produced.”

Before quality deer management was the buzz word in hunting circles or an association, David’s dad and others who hunted the property began managing for big bucks.

“Our decision to start quality buck management some 22 years ago has paid dividends,” David said. “When we began, very few people were practicing this new approach to better whitetail management. In the late 80s QDMA put on a seminar at Whitewater Park. It was interesting, but we didn’t join that evening because we were already there with our management. We have since joined.”

Hunting was tough during the early years. In the first year restrictions were in place, David said of all the members that hunted the property only one buck was taken that met the restrictions. He didn’t used to find many sheds either. Since then, the restrictions have become even more strict, and the quality of bucks seen on the property has skyrocketed, especially in the last five years, David said. The shed hunting has gotten a lot better, also.

So, while David and the other members are very happy with the deer hunting on the property, David gets an added bonus during the off season — some fantastic shed hunting.

He said the other hunters love to compare what they have seen in the woods to what he finds, and whether it’s hunting antlers on the hoof or on the ground, the most crucial factors are still hard work and sound management of the deer herd.

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