JEFF ELL: Sometimes The Best Way to Find Something Is to Stop Looking For It

Jeff Ell with a newly found “shed.”

Every time I find a shed I do a happy dance. I’m glad no one sees me, because I’m not a very good dancer. But for whatever reason, finding antlers that have fallen off the head of a deer is reason enough to have a secret little party in the woods.

Just in case you didn’t know this, deer lose their antlers every winter. It’s hard to believe, but even those gigantic antlers that look like a radar array in November take less than a year to grow. These fallen antlers are called sheds, and so by this time of year, bucks and does all look the same again. These flat headed herds browsing on buds and twigs put me in mind of unisex Tibetan monks on a wandering pilgrimage.

The biology behind all this is pretty interesting. In late spring the hormones in male deer begin to kick in, and by early summer they’ve stared to grow their headgear that they use to fight for the right to pass their genes onto the next generation. As summer turns to fall, their testosterone levels continue to rise and reach their peak during the brief window of breeding known as the rut.

Deer are crazy during the rut. Hormones are out of control, so the boys fight and the girls will mate with just about any buck that happens along at the right time. Of course this is also the easiest time to kill a big racked buck; even the wiliest buck in the swamp will find himself chasing skirts in the daylight when he ought to be laying low.

But then, almost as quickly as it came, the rut ends. Testosterone levels drop, and all deer experience a change in their metabolism; a torpor sets in that allows them to digest less nutritious browse so they can survive the paucity of winter. This is when their antlers become like a second grader’s tooth, which loosens and eventually falls out.

But the window for finding sheds is brief. Rodents love sheds; it’s a windfall of calcium that mice and other animals love to chew on. Further north, porcupines will chew up sheds almost as fast as they fall off. More often than not, sheds will have some evidence of gnawing on them, and by summer most of the sheds you’ll find will just be a gnarly shadow of their former glory.

I suppose I’m pretty good at finding sheds. They seem to jump out at me and I’ve found them in all kinds of places, and most often when I’m not even looking for them. One time I found a nice shed while taking the garbage down to the street.

A lot of things in life are like sheds. We find what we we’re looking for when we stop looking. I have a number of happily married friends who swore off dating and gave up on ever finding Mr. or Mrs. “Right.” Then presto, the spouse of their dreams suddenly appeared.

Sometimes I think bucks want me to find their sheds. Almost like it’s their way of sticking out their tongues with their fingers in their ears – a taunting reminder of my failure to get their antlers while they were still attached.

I’m not the only outdoorsmen who prizes sheds. Some guys seem to enjoy shed hunting almost as much as hunting the animals they were attached to. I reckon part of the pleasure of shed hunting is being in the woods when not much else is going on. Dreamy late winter days before the onset of spring, a chance to stretch one’s legs before the grass needs to be cut, turkeys have to be killed, or the garden should be getting tilled.

I even know a guy who trained his black lab to hunt sheds by tying one to a string and letting the pup chase it around. Now that dog will look for sheds like a forensic team scouring the woods for evidence, and when that dog finds a shed he brings it back to his master in hopes of playing his favorite puppyhood game.

So now I’m thinking of getting a lab pup myself and tying a $100.00 bill to a string.

Jeff Ell is pretty good at catching, killing, picking, and growing things to eat. He regularly finds bemusement in the outdoors and enjoys telling his stories to anyone who will listen. Jeff’s the author of Ruth Uncensored, blogs at and can be contacted via Facebook or smoke signal.

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