By Indrek Kongats
As winter winds down and spring is soon to arrive, every child gets excited by the fact that Easter is just around the corner. The Easter Bunny is going to deposit copious amounts of candy and chocolate into Easter baskets and hide dozens of brightly colored eggs around the yard for the traditional Easter Egg hunt. This is truly the time for children, but what do the adults have to look forward to?
Candy and chocolate just add calories and unbeknownst to the children, someone has to stay up all night to help the Easter Bunny color and plant all of those eggs for the Easter morning egg hunt.
There is another kind of hunt that the whole family can annually participate in. Hunting for treasure has always been popular with all ages. Treasure hunting for something that has extreme value has driven many people broke or into the Looney Bin. Searching for a sunken galleon laden with gold is an example of a treasure hunt where the hunter has gone overboard.
Fortunately, there is a treasure hunt that will neither be too childish nor too extreme, one that Mother Nature provides for us each and every year— the hunt for antler sheds!
Time to burn off all of those calories consumed over inactive winter months by getting outdoors and having fun looking for hidden treasure — deer antlers. At this time of year, male deer or bucks, as we call them, shed their antlers. Hunters work hard for these trophies during the regular deer hunting season, but the ones that escape and get to keep their heads for another year will shed their antlers during the late winter months.
Once the snows begin to melt with warmer weather, these hidden gems will start to appear. Looking much like a limb of a tree at first, but on closer examination as the tines take shape your heart begins to race— you have found an antler.
Do the deer care? Of course not. It’s all a part of their life cycle. Deer lose their antlers and grow new ones each year, usually longer and thicker with more tines; the bigger the antler, the older the deer and the greater the treasure.
You won’t always find both antlers together or even on the same outing. Do not look for the antlers in perfect symmetry as you might see on the wall of the hunter’s trophy room. Look for a point and then look for a second one. look for a color that might stand out as either too light or out of place. Look for a curve that a branch might not make. Searching for antlers is a great family sport, taking place in the great outdoors while enhancing everyone’s visual acuteness and awareness of nature.
A great and safe place to go look for antlers in the Ellicottville area is the Finger Lakes Trail (FLT) system. The FLT starts in Allegany State Park and runs north and east through state and private lands, all the way to the Catskills. Fortunately for Ellicottville residents, it passes through Holiday Valley and HoliMont property, crossing Routes 242 and 219.
The trail is accessible year-round, except for some sections closed during the deer hunting season that cross private lands. These countless miles of trails offer exciting opportunities for spotting sheds without the risk of getting lost or trespassing. On the state portions, you can wander off the trail and search a wider path; on private lands, you must stay on the trail.
What a great opportunity and excuse to get the whole family involved in exploring the woods and enjoying the challenge of finding a shed or two! Deer antler sheds don’t last long on the ground. Rodents will gnaw on them, including bunnies, until there is little left, so don’t expect to find many in the summer months. Antlers in good shape have many uses including crafts, jewelry, ornaments, coat racks and even as hardware as drawer handles on cabinets. There are few books available on hunting sheds, but one of the best is written by my good friend Dennis Walrod simply titled “Antlers.”
Walrod’s book covers everything you need to know and much more. The book has chapters on the scientific facts of the whitetail deer, the growth process of their antlers, actual shed hunting practices, scoring your antler finds, carving, art, fabrication and even a chapter on their medical benefits. The book is available on Amazon.com.
Visit the FLT website to find out more on how the trails are organized and maintained and get complete details with the use of their interactive maps on their entire trail system; http://www.fltconference.org/trail/.
Take advantage of the winter melt and get out on the trails to find a treasure of your own. It won’t be hard to excite the kids to tag along on this adventure and it won’t cost more than some bottles of water, a trail snack and a good pack to carry your booty in.