What You Should Do When You Find “Dead Heads” | Shed Hunting C.S.I.
Shed hunting provides you with an amazing opportunity to spend some time outdoors during the late winter months and really begin to take inventory of your deer herd. Shed antlers can tell a story about the dynamics of the deer herd on the properties you hunt, and if you are willing to put in the time and put on the miles, there is a high probability that the time you spend shed hunting will often open your eyes to the “big picture” in terms of how and when white-tailed deer utilize different areas of the properties you hunt. Each year it seems every shed hunter comes across the unfortunate find of a dead deer while shed hunting. This encounter can go south in a hurry upon finding a “dead head”, the term used to describe a dead buck body. While this is a negative…there are some positive takeaways you should be aware of.
White Gold | Finding Dead Deer While Shed Hunting “Ep.2”
Shed Hunting 101
Shed hunting can be compared to an Easter egg hunt for deer hunters. We put out best foot forward and hit the woods in search of hidden treasures. We don’t know what or even if we will find anything at all, but we lace up our boots and take to the woods with high hopes. If you love to hunt white-tailed deer, then there is clearly a level of enjoyment had when you put your hands on a shed antler. No matter if it’s big or small, there is really something special about making a game plan and using the best information available to try and a locate a literal needle in a haystack. However, aside from the enjoyment of adding to your antler collection, shed hunting can provide you with a wealth of information that can really help you be more successful in not only hunting white-tailed deer on your properties but managing for those deer as well.
Age and Survival
Probably the most obvious piece of information that you can learn from shed hunting is the age and survival of various bucks on your farm. With the advent of trail cameras, deer hunters can keep a watchful eye on the deer on their farms. This has enabled deer hunters to develop and almost personal connection with the deer on their farms, which allows them to quickly identify the antlers of most of the deer they have on camera.
If you are able to immediately identify the shed antlers as belonging to a buck you have pictures of, you automatically know that the buck in question made it through the deer season. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the deer will make it through the winter (harsh winters can kill) but it will at least give you piece of mind that the buck is still roaming the countryside and not at the taxidermy shop.
Though it is not suggested that you determine the age of a buck just based upon their shed antlers, you can closely estimate the age of the buck with multiple years of sheds supplemented with trail camera photos. This same history with multiple bucks provides you with information that will allow you to help determine the age structure of the bucks on your properties and can help you to compile your hit-list for next year. Occasionally, you can even come across a new buck that has moved in from another area and decided to set up shop on your property. Finding a shed antler that you do not recognize is often very exciting and can suggest immediate intel for next year’s hunting.
Areas of Use and Timing
Aside from some basic information related to age and survival, shed hunting can help to give you a better understand of your property and how deer and other wildlife utilize your farm. Shed hunting can be a great time to evaluate everything from your entrance and exit strategy to the placement of your tree stands.
Shed hunting often requires that you hone in on very specific areas of your property, such as bedding areas, areas of dense cover, sunny south slopes, food sources, and transition areas. Cover for deer can include areas that have had timber stand improvement conducted on them and are providing thermal cover and late winter browse and southwest facing slopes and hillsides. Food sources are always a go to for shed hunters. Food plots, crop field edges, or major trail ways to and from are not only likely places bucks drop their payload but are easy to check. Spending some time out shed hunting in these areas can often give you some insight as to when and how white-tailed deer utilize these areas. This can be especially true if there is a fresh blanket of snow on the ground or if you find yourself shed hunting in wet, muddy conditions. In these conditions, tracks and areas of high deer use are very evident and can often lead you to reconsider your overall hunting strategy and provide you with additional information to help you to be more effective when hunting deer in the fall.
Finding Dead Deer and “Dead Heads”
Finding dead deer, especially a buck, is something none of us ever want to have happen. However, the unfortunate reality is that if you spend enough time out in the field shed hunting, finding dead deer is almost unavoidable. Finding dead deer on your property, especially if it is a hit list buck can really put a knot in your stomach. We would all much rather see those antlers in the back of the truck, than on the ground in a heap of bones and hair. All that being said, if and when you do find yourself in this situation, it often provides a great opportunity to flip the switch from deer hunter to deer biologist!
When it comes to finding dead deer, the first step in “closing the case” is to do your best to determine the cause of death. This is especially true if this happens to be a deer that you have a history with, as most of us start to build a certain relationship with these animals and for our own piece of mind need to know who or what dealt them their final blow.
The first step is to always know or check your state’s regulations regarding dead deer and dead heads. Contact your local conservation officer to determine the next steps. This is in order to help determine the cause of death concerning problems often encountered in these scenarios. The state’s concerns mainly relate to poaching and diseases. They will also often either let you take home the head or give you a permit to do so after coming out to the location.
After this determine if you, in fact, know that animal and begin to nail down the time of death. Now, this may seem a little complicated but in reality, it isn’t. You just need to ask yourself a few questions, such as “when was the last time you saw the animal or had trail camera pictures of the animal on the hoof?” “Have you seen the animal during the hunting season?” These are all great questions to start with to begin to determine the time death. It is important to try to pinpoint whether the animal died as a result of bullet or broadhead or if they died by some other means such as Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease (EHD) or perhaps a collision with an automobile.
Pay close attention to the location where you find the animal. If you find the dead deer near or directly adjacent to a water source, and if the antlers still seem to show signs of velvet or “sharp antlers” then there is a high probability that the deer may have expired from one of several deer diseases such as EHD. If the antlers show no signs of velvet and the animal is found in very thick cover, then it is likely that they sustained an injury of some kind from a human (hunting/vehicle) or predator and were seeking an area of seclusion to rest. Having closure is important and doing your best to determine the cause of death can really help to bring the case to a close and ensure you are not experiencing a bigger problem on the property!
The Positives of Finding Dead Deer
As deer hunters, we have to be willing to look at the bright side when things don’t go our way, and this certainly holds true when it comes to finding dead deer. Believe it or not, there are several positive takeaways that can come from finding dead deer when shed hunting.
It has already been mentioned that closure is important for us deer hunters. This is especially true when it comes to finding dead deer, especially if it is a situation where you have had an encounter with the animal while hunting. No matter how hard we try, if you hunt white-tailed deer long enough you will have a wounding loss. No matter how steady of a rest you have, and no matter how close of a shot, at some point, something will happen and we will make a poor shot on an animal. It is just a fact of life. So, finding a dead deer, especially if it is a deer that you perhaps thought you missed or shot and couldn’t recover can often bring a sense of relief and closure to the situation. Although it may not have turned out exactly how you wanted it to, at the end of the day you can put a bow on the story of that deer and have an interesting story to tell the next time you show off the rack.
It has already been mentioned that finding shed antlers can help paint a clearer picture as to the age structure of the bucks on your properties, however, there is only so much that you can learn from an antler. In the world of aging white-tailed deer, the teeth reign supreme. Though finding dead deer when shed hunting is an unfortunate situation, you have to be willing to take advantage of the circumstances and use the opportunity to collect vital age information. In addition to collecting and scoring the antlers, be sure to collect the jaw bones as well. There is no better way to age a white-tailed deer than by examining their teeth, and by aging the animal you can not only determine if your “on the hoof” estimate was close, but you can also pair this information up with your remaining hit list bucks and determine if they are likely older or younger than you previously thought. This information can help you further refine your hit list for next year.
Shed hunting often requires that we venture into areas that we would otherwise leave unpressured. Many deer hunters will identify these sanctuary areas that provide excellent cover for deer on the properties that they hunt and leave them be until shed hunting season rolls around. An injured white-tailed deer will typically venture into an area of thick cover where they feel safe and secure. If you are shed hunting these areas and happen to stumble upon a dead head, then you can feel confident to know that the area is, in fact, a critical area of cover for the deer on your property, and you can use this information to further refine your property management and hunting strategies in the future.
Often, especially during the summer bachelor group period, you can have pictures of bucks standing side by side where you can directly compare their size. Any guesses you had on rack size and score from trail camera intel and observation periods can now be evaluated. This is a huge piece of information, especially when compared with age from the jawbone.
Finding dead deer is going to happen, but if you are willing to look at the bright side, and spend a little time investigating the circumstances and collecting some basic information, you can really turn a lemon into lemonade. Good luck this shed season, and we hope you find your fair share of white gold this spring!
Quick Note: Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease?
Understanding the deer herd dynamics on your farm is critical for developing your hit list each and every year. Unfortunately, deer diseases can sometimes play a role in determining how your hit list will shake out from year to year. EHD is a disease that originates from insects that live in exposed mud flats along ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. During extensively dry periods, EHD outbreaks can occur and can sometimes greatly reduce the deer population in a localized area.
Though most dead deer are found during the hunting season or while shed hunting, during an outbreak of EHD dead deer is often found throughout the summer months as well. If you live in an area that has experienced weather conditions that would be conducive for an EHD outbreak, it would be beneficial for you to spend some time monitoring the water sources on your properties during and just after summer. If you begin to find dead deer, especially bucks you may need to spend extra time monitoring trail cameras and determining what your hit list for the year may look like. An outbreak of EHD can sometimes take years to recover from, and can certainly change your harvest strategy for the upcoming deer season.