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Combing the woods: For archery hunter Haaby, searching for shed antlers is part of an ongoing process

FNS Photo by Brad Dokken Mitch Haaby of Roseau, Minn., takes advantage of a lingering patch of snow to clean the grime off a shed antler he found this spring.

ROSEAU COUNTY, Minn. -- Mitch Haaby is scouring the woods on this perfect May morning trying to find the equivalent of a needle in a haystack.

The needle, in this case, is an antler -- or better yet, a set of antlers -- left behind by a white-tailed buck during the winter, or perhaps even longer ago than that.

The woods, in this case, are considerably larger than a haystack.

The needles are here, though, or at least close by. A passionate deer hunter, Haaby spends enough time scouting to know that.

"C'mon antler," he says, as if trying to coax an antler to show itself through the carpet of leaves and matted grass that covers the floor of the aging poplar woods. "C'mon."

Youth pastor at the Roseau (Minn.) Covenant Church, Haaby, 30, is hunting for shed antlers, using a GPS app on his iPhone to ensure he's covering the woods as thoroughly and efficiently as he can. Hunting for shed antlers has gained popularity to the point of being competitive in recent years, but for Haaby, it's part of a year-round quest to learn about deer and their habits -- a way to prepare for archery season and, perhaps, up his odds for taking a mature buck.

"This is something I look forward to," Haaby said.

Finding a deer antler might be the ultimate goal, but time in the woods brings other rewards. A male ruffed grouse, wings beating in a rapid "thump, thump, thump," scurries from its "drumming log" but refuses to fly, intent on resuming its frantic effort to attract a mate and propagate the species.

Only a few scattered patches of snow offer reminders of a winter that seemed as if it never would end.

A bleached cow skull stands out amid the brown. A woodcock flushes from its nest on the forest floor, revealing three brownish-tan eggs.

These are the things you notice when you take the time to explore nature up-close-and-personal.

"It's been fun," Haaby said. "I grew up rifle hunting and liked it enough where I took it one step further and one step further."

Ongoing process

Some hunters show up in the woods opening day of deer season and hope for the best.

Haaby's not one of them.

Every time he finds an antler shed from a mature buck or photographs it on a trail camera, Haaby plots the location with a pin on a Google Earth map. He even keeps individual folders, with photos and other information about specific bucks, on his computer hard drive.

He figures he keeps folders on eight to 12 bucks during a given year, spread over several miles. Spend that much time scouting bucks, and a person gets to know them after awhile.

Given the woods he's scouting, Haaby has his sights set on antlers from two of those bucks on this day.

There's "Bullwinkle," a buck that's now 8½ years old with antlers Haaby says might gross 125 inches "if he was lucky." And "Blacknose," a 3½-year-old with antlers Haaby estimates would gross 140.

The two bucks, he says, represent the diversity that exists within the gene pool; older doesn't always mean larger where antlers are concerned.

Haaby says a neighbor found one side of Bullwinkle's rack during the 2012 rifle season, antlers the buck had dropped in 2010.

You know these things when you study bucks as closely as Haaby does.

He's still alive, that buck, but every other year the antlers have disappeared in the "haystack" of a very large tamarack swamp, Haaby says.

Haaby has the full set of antlers from another buck, which he calls "Pencil," from 2009 when the buck was 2½ years old and the left side from 2010; a neighbor picked up the matching antler that year.

This year, Haaby says, Pencil shed his antlers about Dec. 10, which is early.

"He probably suffered some type of injury or stress from the rut," Haaby said. "So he's got four nice antlers from the last two seasons that are just lying out there."

Getting started

For Haaby, collecting antler sheds is something he started doing as an 8- or 9-year-old with his dad, Terry. Nobody was looking for antler sheds in those days.

"We'd come home with three or four antlers because no one else was looking," Haaby said.

Now, he said, many shed hunters view the antlers as commodities.

"For me, that has nothing to do with it," Haaby said. "It's just to learn as much as I can about specific deer; try to put another pin on the map to figure out that deer's home range."

Some bucks, he says, have ranges as small as 40 acres, while others routinely cover two miles or more.

"In a given area, the age structure is very predictable," Haaby said. "You will have the largest percentage of bucks being yearlings, and each year older they get, the fewer of them there are. Between dominance, territorialism, and death, it takes the perfect storm for a buck to reach 5 to 7 years old, which is their peak of antler development."

Locating those mature bucks becomes even more difficult as the deer grow older and wiser, Haaby says.

"By age 6 or 7, survival starts to trump even breeding," he said. "They'd rather stay where they know it's the safest rather than risk being seen or shot at."

Upping the odds

Over the years, Haaby figures he's collected nearly 200 antler sheds. Early spring after the snow melts is a good time to find both new and older antlers, Haaby says, while late January through the winter can be the best time to find antlers that recently were shed if the snow isn't too deep.

No doubt, Haaby says, the time in the woods has helped improve his odds of taking a mature buck.

That's the goal, after all.

"I've never shot a yearling buck in my life, but lots of 2-year-olds," Haaby said. "After high school, I realized I don't want to shoot them anymore."

Being selective is more rewarding, he says, even if it means not filling a tag some years.

"I've shot three bucks in the last five years but they've been more mature," he said. "It's a lot more satisfying. It's like 'high' highs and 'low' lows. You've got to get over that. It's not trophy hunting; it's just being more selective."

This year's prolonged winter kept Haaby out of the woods from Feb. 11 until the end of April, but he still has managed to find 19 antlers -- so far.

"Of all the hours and days I walk, I probably find one every five trips," Haaby said. "I had three days where I found three or more antlers, and that's good."

Even when he comes up empty, Haaby says he learns something:

"The deer didn't spend any time there."