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The casting process for all deer species is very similar. When testosterone levels drop in male deer, it causes a weakening in the tissue and bone at the antler base. The antlers detach from the skull and they fall off. In most deer species this casting process will occur long after all the females have been conceived and their estrus cycles have been completed. Male deer use antlers as weapons for fighting, marking habitat, defending predators and visual display. Stags will typically only seriously use their antlers in an act of aggression to each other when there are cycling hinds to fight over or mature stags are competing for territory. In most deer species once that stage of the year is finished they buddy back up and antlers aren’t of much use.
As we know female sambar across the range in Australia can come into estrus at any time of the year. This will mean that there needs to be stags in any area that are in hard antler and capable of breeding with females. As a result of the spread out mating period there will potentially be stags in all stages of antler growth throughout their range.
It isn’t an even distribution though when sambar stags are in hard antler throughout the year. There is probably a greater percentage of males that cast in October, November, December and January then at any other time of the year. Unlike European or American deer species where the casting period is very congested over a handful of weeks, sambar just like to make things hard for those who try to find their cast antlers. The bottom line is their loose casting cycles will mean they can potentially drop antlers throughout their entire range, from farm fringe paddocks to river valleys to spurs and ridges all the way up to high altitude benches and basins.
One of the reasons a lot of sambar stags cast over spring and summer is that the best feed is at this time of the year and for a stag to grow the largest set of antlers he possibly can he will need to be eating and focusing on food sources when they are at their peak. Casting in spring also helps sambar stags with increasing their body mass after a lean strenuous winter when grass and plant growth is at its slowest and the stags have been travelling many kilometres on the search for cycling hinds. Also the majority of female sambar will come into estrus during the cooler months of the year and this is why many sambar stags across their range are in hard antler from May to October.
It is generally accepted that most wild sambar stags will cast within a 12 month timeframe from when they began their antler growth cycle. They might hold them for a couple extra weeks or even a month or possibly cast a little short of the 12 month period, but they typically follow this routine throughout their lives. There is anecdotal evidence of sambar stags holding antlers for much longer then a year in enclosures, I know of stags that have held them for 24 months before casting, but there are many extra factors associated with sambar in pens when compared to wild free ranging sambar.
One of the main reasons they cast is as they progress through life, their body mass, size and muscle strength increases and in turn to combat other stags in the same age bracket and even older, they need to grow a new set of antlers each year to match their increase in strength. Providing the stag is healthy, has the right genetics and the food sources are adequate, each new set of antlers is normally larger and heavier with longer tines then the previous years set. Their antlers will continue to grow and add weight until they reach around 11-12 years of age. After this sambar will be in their retirement years and their antlers quickly regress and become irregular with growth and formation. At this age and onwards they are generally too old to win battles with the slightly younger stags in their prime.
A lot of sambar antlers are picked up on good feed. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is that the stag is moving his head up and down as he feeds increasing the chance of an antler dislodging from the movement and the other reason is that the more time a stag spends on a food source in an area, the greater probability he will be there when an antler falls off his head.
If we assume a lot of sambar cast in spring and summer, then over these months I always take note of where the better food sources are. No matter whether your down low on farm fringe or up high in the snowgums, if you see good feed, it will be worth walking the area to check for antlers. Many times I have seen feed in a basin growing nicely, walked the area and picked up antlers from stags that were also drawn to the location to feed because they were there at the right time of the year to have cast their antlers.
If your hunting up in the higher elevations you should notice that often the best feed is not out in the grassy clearings that receive direct sunlight, but under the snowgums where there is shade and the grass and clover doesn’t dry out so quickly on the hot days. Often the grassy clearings will be eaten out from horses, cattle, wombats and deer and any fallen antlers will be easily located. This might make them visual, but other hunters also notice these antlers in the short grass. You will be much better off spending time around the edges of clearings under the trees in the better feed scrounging for antlers as many times this is where they lie. They will be a bit harder to see, but many hunters don’t spend the time looking in the challenging areas. Learn to think outside the square to increase your chance of finding sambar antler.
Another tip is to always keep in mind that wherever you find antlers in previous years there is likely to be other antlers in the coming years in those general locations. It might not be the same stag casting in the same location, but I think along the lines of if one stag cast there, then others might do so as well.
Spend enough time in sambar country and you will soon realize some areas just hold more stags. It could be habitat, hunting pressure, weather, feed, hinds, elevation or other factors that draw stags in, but if you find areas where you are always seeing stags, especially over spring and summer, then there is a greater chance you will find antlers there. In the higher elevations stags like to live in areas where there are grassy benches, heavy timber nearby, rocky cliffs and big systems underneath for them to walk out of. Figure out these areas, spend time in them and you will isolate certain locations that hold stags at the right time of the year.
On farm fringe country, stags like to feed up after winter in paddocks that don’t have cattle and hold the best food. It isn’t hard to work out which paddocks have the best feed in deer country and if you walk these areas (with permission from the landowner) then you will also find antlers. Early spring also sees a lot of hinds leaving the cover of bush to graze in paddocks and the stags will follow. Just keep in mind where you are seeing hinds on farm fringe and search these places over summer when deer traffic has slowed down. Vineyards in the right location can be great areas to look for antlers as the clover grown in between the rows of vines will prove attractive to deer. Unfortunately most vineyards will see workers in them and farm machinery being driven around so antlers don’t last long on the ground.
Paddocks on bush edges that have been grown out for summer hay are also a great place to find antlers as stock will have been kept out of the field. Clearings and flats along rivers are superb places to find cast antlers and many of the major river and creek systems in sambar country will have clearings and interconnecting game trails that are ideal places to search. Be aware that this can also be good snake country, so keep an eye on the weather and pick your days wisely when scrounging around for sambar antler. Grassy clearings in pine forests where the sun can get through are always good to walk and so to are any clear cuts or logged areas as the deer will fine them very attractive. Just keep in mind some pine blocks are privately owned and permission will need to be sought to ensure you can legally be there.
If you are new to deer hunting and unsure just what paddock or area might be attractive to deer, then let other animals guide you. Kangaroos are a large marsupial that require plenty of quality food and if you see kangaroos in a paddock grazing, then there is a good chance any resident deer will also find that paddock attractive. As kangaroos often feed later into the morning and earlier in the afternoon, they are a good visual indicator to where deer might also be at the peak times of the day.
Stags like to eat blackberry shoots in spring and any areas with this plant source are also a good location to search for antlers. Sometimes the antlers will fall next to the blackberry bush and other times the antlers will drop into the patch of vines, so make sure you have a good look around any clumps of this plant specie. It’s even better if you have a large patch of blackberry plants in a paddock that has no stock in it, as this will be very appealing to the deer.
When looking for antlers, one thing I always do when travelling between clearings and feeding areas is to stay on game trails as much as possible. The more time you spend on game trails the increased likelihood you will encounter antlers that have been cast by stags using those trails. They might have just fallen off as the stag bobs his head as he walks along or they could have been knocked on an overhanging branch and onto the ground next to the trail. Always try to walk out on different game trails to what you walked in on when up the bush as this will increase the chance of walking a trail with an antler or two on it.
When walking game trails I don’t travel too fast, you will be sweeping the trail on either side for antlers and also probably looking up ahead for deer. When searching clearings and feed under trees I go quite slow and look in a wide radius, this way your actually covering a lot of ground rather then just what is in front of you in the direction you are walking.
When in the bush, I try to visualize what antlers will look like on the ground and seek out those shapes and colors. It might be the curve of an outer that you see, the ivory tip poking above the grass, or the flat circular coronet that is catching your eye. Sometimes you see a cast antler as plain as day in short grass fully visual, other times when grass has grown long you might only see a portion of the antler. If the antler has fallen down with the points facing the ground you will see the beam before any other part, but if the antler has fallen on its side where the points are facing upwards, then the points might initially catch your eye.
Antlers that have recently been cast are dark and retain their stain for quite a while. Eventually with long exposure to sunlight the topside of the antler will change to white from all the bleaching and the underside will still retain a lot of its original color. Shed hunters need to keep in mind to look for both brown and white shaded antlers, as over the years they will find a mixture of antlers that have been on the ground for varying time frames.
Something I do whenever I find a cast antler is to pick it up and throw it on the ground a few times letting it fall whichever way it does. I do this to help train the eye to what I’m actually looking for as the more antlers you look at on the ground the easier it should be for you to identify antlers when you come across them. Also, before I pick up a cast antler, I always take a picture or two of it as it lies on the ground. I use this to look back over to see how the antler has fallen and I can also file the pictures away to review and take note of the habitat the antler has been cast in.
The majority of stags that cast an antler will shed the other side within 24 hours, and most will likely remove or shake off the remaining antler in a very short space of time after the first has hit the ground. Many times when a cast antler is found, the other side is close by.
If you find an antler on a game trail, it would pay to check both directions of the trail for a distance and also mark any forks in the trail to follow them incase the other antler is laying there. If you find a single antler in grass a good idea is to point it into the ground or leave your pack there and start circling the immediate area. If the antler is noteworthy or off a mature stag then I normally mark the location on my GPS so I can return to the exact spot and keep looking for the other side when I am in the area again. Unfortunately I have plenty of GPS marks of single antlers that despite repeated searching I haven’t been able to pair up, however I do have quite a few pairs.
Pairs of cast antlers from a sambar stag are great to find, a real achievement and a noteworthy addition to any trophy room.
In fact finding both antlers from a mature stag is probably much more difficult than actually shooting a sambar stag. Keen hunters have found sets or single antlers from the same stag over consecutive years and these are highly prized.
Some savvy hunters have trained their gun dogs to locate cast antlers in the bush and this is especially helpful for guys who want an extra pair of legs working for them. Make sure you are in an area that is legal to have a dog and work all areas just as you would yourself when on the search. Training the importance of antlers to your dog from a young age will help teach it that rewards will come if it picks up antlers for its master in the bush.
Normally stags that have just dropped their antlers are very visual and relaxed focusing on their dietary intake. A couple of points to remember here is that if they have freshly cast, their antlers might not be too far away, so note it in your memory bank to spend a few downtime hours searching for them. Also sometimes hunters will see a deer with short velvet or no antler and at a glance think it’s a young stag or spiker. They will shoot it for meat and it turns out to be a mature stag that has just cast. If you are trying to build the percentage of older age class males in an area and you are in doubt as to the animals age, let it walk, there are plenty of female sambar around to fill the freezer. Some of the indicators to look for to help with identifying mature stags in the bush are their longer and wider skulls, thick necks and larger frames with a strong chest and deep belly. Familiarize yourself with what to look for to reduce the chance of making mistakes.
In the right habitat with short grass growing on steep hillsides it is possible to be on the opposite face and glass up cast antlers. It is hard enough to find sambar in the optics sometimes, but if the antlers are bleached they can be visual to the observant hunter using quality optics. You might look over a few curved sticks and get some false starts, but sooner or later you will glass up something that ticks all the boxes and be worth the while to head over and add another antler to the collection.
Sambar often like jumping fences at a certain location or going underneath fences if they have to. It pays to check these areas when possible, as sooner or later antlers will be dislodged by the movement and jarring from jumping fences. As for the trails that go under the fences, naturally there will be times when the lower wire knocks on the antlers of any stags pushing under and the law of averages dictates that antlers will be left behind sooner or later. Recently I watched a nice stag following two hinds run across the bitumen in front of me, then parallel a well maintained cattle fence before darting underneath it through a large opening. I put this in the memory bank so that every so often when I drive past this location I will get out of the ute and check to see if any antlers are left behind. Hog deer knock their antlers off on fences and so will sambar.
Over any 24-hour period sambar spend a considerable amount of time bedded up. So its natural antlers will also fall off deer in their beds. We know sambar use a wide range of beds over the course of the year, but they aren’t exactly an easy location to head straight to and scoop up antlers in summer. I find beds challenging to locate cast antlers in, but it is simply a case of checking as many known bedding areas as possible and sooner or later you will find antlers left behind.
When sambar enter wallows they all behave a bit differently. But most will lie down and roll around, some will dig and prod the soft ground with their antlers and when they stand up they normally give a good shake to get rid of the excess mud and water. These traits lend themselves to antlers being dislodged with all the energy in the movement and many times cast antlers will be found in the wallow, around the edges and in any cover close by. They are great places to thoroughly search for cast antlers and many hunters have found brown gold in wallows. The only downside to finding cast antlers in wallows is that other hunters will often know where wallows are, and as hunters like to check them out for deer activity, they are always drawing hunters to the immediate area. This means any cast antlers laying around might not last long, especially in well hunted areas. But you just never know when a stag will visit a wallow and drop an antler or two, so it always pays to check any wallows you know of or come to for antlers and sign.
Remote wallows in hard to access country will likely hold antlers for a longer period. But there is always the chance that the longer the antlers sit on a wallow, the more possibility there is of other stags wallowing and pushing them down into the mud and out of sight with their body weight. Hunters can combat this by dragging sticks through any water, or mud, to check for antlers under the surface. If the wallow is close to a road a rake or hoe can be an effective tool to assist with searching for antlers that are out of sight.
It’s the little things you do, just like hunting sambar, that all add up to accumulate and tip the odds in your favor of finding what your looking for. Searching for cast antlers is no different. Don’t walk too fast, cover the ground thoroughly, look left and right on the ground as you move and don’t just focus in front of you. Whilst it might take you a while to pick up your first, once you have the hang of it, it gets a lot easier and you will find yourself locating more and more antlers as the years pass. Who knows, maybe in time you will get just as much enjoyment picking up sambar antlers as you do actually shooting them.