RALPH BARTHOLDT: Shed hunting is about more than tine

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This whole antler hunting thing started with a whitetail deer shed found in the strip of cedars in back of the house one spring years ago.

I was 8 and kept the antler for years on a chest of drawers wondering how exactly I could get another one like it.

In the flat, lake country where I lived, whitetails moved from island to island, lake to lake and kept mostly to the cedar hollers and tamarack bogs in the winter, but I didn’t think to look there.

I found a couple of other shed antlers randomly while hiking through deep overgrowth and some I found years apart along fencerows poking from winter grass that hid them like maiden hair.

I remember a pair of brown whitetail sheds that lay 10 feet apart under a pine, but it’s usually not that easy.

Sometimes you can see an antler for a quarter-mile from a mountain ridge.

I knew a man who spent days hunting the shore of a lake in early winter picking boxes of antlers that were dropped by whitetail deer where the snow was sparse.

That place is over-hunted now, I hear, and I haven’t talked to the man for years.

Backwoods dirt bike riders deride shed tine. They toss them into the trees so knobby tires won’t be punctured.

Sometimes you misstep and have a tine lacerate your leg before you notice it.

Once when I visited this man, my neighbor, a sawyer, lifted a pant leg and showed me a scar. The heavy five-point that made the mark — and its long G3 — lay on the roof of a lambing barn with other antlers he found over the years. He stepped on a part of it while notching a tree, and it jumped dagger-like into his flesh under his pant leg just above the laces of a caulked boot.

Turkey season is a good time to find tine.

On my first turkey hunt I stepped into a small clearing in a pile of fir where the sun cut a hole in the snow. The six-point elk shed — just one side — lay in the warm grass as if religiously set down. It was the color of walnut. I quit hunting gobblers and carried the trophy home.

A moose shed picked from the snow by a pal who didn’t want to come along, but did anyhow, trudging through slush and icy crust in an aspen grove at the edge of a mountain one spring, is now in his house, on top of a shelf.

He thinks it’s that cool, and it is.

Horns, as we call them, are more than bone.

They are the things they carried, so to speak, the weapons of gracious, hooved beings that we sometimes hunt in the fall just to watch, without shooting. We pursue them, sometimes for weeks, just for glimpse.

You can’t eat horns our elders used to say, but you can.

The elders meant a hunter should be after meat, not regalia, or trappings, or odds and ends. But hunters who chase big tine know it rewards you twice. Even if you don’t shoot at all, you’re rewarded once, just for the view.

When Carl Sandburg asked the bluebird, “What do you feed on?” he was really saying that, as a poet, he visually fed on the bird’s sky blue feathers, the magical trill of its song, the yellow fields it flew over, the chirp of the grasshoppers it picked in its beak, the distance it crossed and the wind that carried it.

We feed on antlers in the same, sort of mystical, way.

A trio of brothers from Pinehurst hunt antlers in winter with the same diligence they use to hunt elk and deer in the fall.

They go together to secret spots. They go at night and wait until light. It’s a blood pact and they don’t show their hand because the world is filling up with people, and they want, at least for a while, to live in the North Idaho they knew as kids.

So they use stealth and speak to no one about their antler hunting locales, and if you see them out there, they will chew gum, talk politely about the weather, sip a soda, have engine trouble, but need no help. Then when you’re down the road out of sight, they will haul the many pounds of brown elk and deer sheds to the bed of their pickup truck and drive home to feel them with rough hands and laud the animals that carried them.

By now, mid- to- late January, whitetails for the most part have dropped their headgear. Elk, not yet, but maybe.

A friend says Easter is the best time to hunt sheds.

It doesn’t matter when you go.

You can learn a lot about the woods just by walking it, and there’s always plenty of tine for that.

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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