The hoof prints have churned the soil into a dark ribbon across the drab, grey hillside. It is easy enough to follow scanning side-to-side, looking for the white tip of a tine or the dark curve of a beam. The sun-warmed air pulls the acrid scent of elk urine uphill into my nostrils. A feeling of anticipation sweeps over me as I know there are freshly shed antlers close by. It is a feeling that most die-hard shed hunters have felt at some point and perhaps it’s the reason the activity can be so addicting.
As I traverse the slope, I raise my binocular to scan the slope below. The image of an elk antler fills the lens and the excitement overcomes the fatigue I feel in my legs. As I scramble down the hill, images of the bull living in a far away high alpine basin – rutting and chasing cows – form in my mind. With one side in my hand, I focus on finding the other half, all the while wondering where this bull (and all the others I’ve been watching this spring) live during hunting season.
After a quick ten minute search, the matching antler is spotted in a patch of young Douglas fir. Before strapping them on my pack, I pull a map from my pack and mark the location of the find. Then I trace some routes that connect them to potential high country summer habitat. At some point in the late summer, these high basins will be investigated as potential archery season spots. Some will work out, but many will not.
Spring antler hunting has been a great tool to observe surviving elk numbers in my local area. Over the course of a few years, you can start to spot trends within the local elk herds. Combining information with data gleaned from the local biologist can be fairly useful in selecting potential fall hunting areas.
Shed hunting also lets me see what the trophy potential is for a given drainage or mountain range. At some point in the year while on the lush summer range, those antlers will re-grow and the muscle and fat lost will be replaced. Hopefully, I will be lucky enough to see some of these bulls in their prime, feverously bugling in the chill of a fall morning in the high country. As I hike the sun-warmed hillsides of the spring, these are the dreams that I hope will eventually turn into reality.