Mike North: Huntin' for a hat rack, err, sheds

It can be hard to find outdoor activities during the offseason that remotely mimic the thrills of deer hunting.

Some folks go on hikes, others scout animals or use the free time to go fishing.

I've found that a productive way to spend the off-season is looking for shed horns, which is rewarding in several ways.

Think of it as an Easter-egg hunt for outdoorsmen.

Every winter, bucks shed their antlers after mating season and grow a new, often larger rack.

Male deer use their antlers for sparring with other bucks, self-defense and as a means to attract a mate. Older bucks usually have bigger horns, and since they have age, they're usually experienced and tend to elude most hunters.

Looking for sheds during the offseason allows outdoorsmen to get an idea of where the big bucks might be living and where they're moving.

The only time I have the opportunity to hunt for deer sheds is in the late spring and early summer, which is a good time to find fresh antlers that haven't been nibbled by rodents and bleached in the sun.

Good places to find sheds include ravines, brush patches, fence lines and water holes. Anywhere deer bed down is a prime spot to find discarded antlers.

On one occasion, I was lucky enough to find both sheds of an enormous 4-by-3 buck. The mature deer had bedded down in a gully leading down into a canyon and dropped his horns within 20 yards of each other.

A couple years later, my hunting camp managed to come across both sheds from a Tule elk, which now grace the inside of our hunting cabin.

But antlers can be used in several other ways besides decorative pieces, including hat racks, coat racks, key organizers or even chandeliers ... assuming you wrangle up enough horns.

Need a back-scratcher? Try a horn.

Something to throw at the kids when they misbehave? Try a horn.

If you don't have the time to hunt for sheds in the offseason, keep an eye out for them when you're hunting, and remember -- whatever buck dropped those sheds, you can bet they're a little bigger now.

And again, pay extra attention to where you find them. If a deer spends enough time in an area to drop one horn if not two, there's a good chance he'll be back.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.