MONROE CITY, Missouri-- If you’re a deer, the shed season is like an annual loose tooth. You have antlers. They need to grow. They hurt. You will do just about anything to lose them. You'll rub up against fences. You'll jump into stuff to knock them loose. You'll rub your head in the wire springs of a bed frame that some considerate soul has left out in the woods.
It feels good.
“Shed season” -- when deer lose their antlers and grow new ones -- runs from December through April. Hunters and those who love deer use the time to go out and “shed hunt,” to find deer antlers to be used for trophies, furniture or just bragging rights.
Kyle Kenison is a bow and rifle hunter. But during shed season, he and his best friend, a 4-year-old yellow lab named Luke, go out looking for horns.
Luke will chase rabbits or squirrels like any other normal dog. But Luke is far from ordinary. He's been trained to track down antlers by their scent then carry them to Kenison for a treat in return.
Dogs have amazing noses and can certainly be trained to find antlers by their scent, said Adam Doerhoff, a Missouri Department of Conservation agent and regular shed hunter.
“The scent that is typically around the base of the antler, the pedicle, where the antler is shed, there is just a little bit of skin and hair where they can find the scent,” Doerhoff said.
Shed hunting is a specialty sport. Searching for antlers can sometimes be like searching for a needle in the haystack. There’s a lot of room in the woods but not a lot of antlers. Searching for sheds requires a lot of time and effort.
Devoted shed hunters will sometimes try to speed that process up by building antler traps. Kenison assembled one of these traps with pile of corn and a metal bed frame, but he says, chicken wire will do the trick too. The point is to lure deer in to eat in the hopes that they will jar their antlers loose on the wire netting.
March is prime season for shed hunting in Missouri. The weather warms up and most deer have already begun dropping their antlers. It brings out the hunters who know the treasure is out there, if only they can find it.
Kenison's a taxidermist. He creates deer mounts for hunters to display in their homes. He also showcases many of his own deer in his home and specifically built his living room wall taller to have enough room for them all.
This day, Kenison fills a camouflage backpack with bottled water and drives his truck down a short gravel road to his grandpa’s farm. Luke's pacing in the bed of the truck anxious to hop out and get hunting. Kenison grabs a few doggie treats from a cup holder and stuffs them in his pocket. He and Luke get out of the truck and head through the woods and into a cornfield.
Professional shed dog trainer Roger Sigler said trained dogs are a huge help to the success of the sport. Without a dog, hunters would be aimlessly walking through the woods. But a shed dog does not guarantee finding more sheds.
"The one thing that I have learned about successful shed hunters is that there are no shortcuts," said Doerhoff. "The guys that find the most sheds put in the most time and effort, plain and simple. While it's good to be aware of some of the concepts we talked about earlier, you are going to have to put in the time, you are going to have to put in the miles, you are going to have to look and perhaps look again because deer shed their antlers at different times."
Kenison and Luke walk through a snow-covered cornfield. Kenison said the thin layer of white snow helps to distinguish between antlers and cornstalks. Some days they walk away empty-handed. Other times, they're successful.
Success looks like this:
Kenison plans to continue the hunt for sheds with Luke until the end of shed hunting season, which can go as late as April. While finding a matching set of sheds is the goal, Kenison said nothing compares to the quality time that he gets to spend with Luke outside on his family farm.