Searching For Shed: On The Hunt For Antlers In Arizona

By Stina Sieg
Published: Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 10:08am
Updated: Tuesday, February 7, 2017 - 12:31pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
When you hunt for shed, you're not searching for elk or deer, but for what they've left behind. Above, Bennett Wakayuta straps several antlers to his backpack deep in the wildnerness of the Hualapai reservation.

Right now, outdoorsy people all across the country are on the hunt. For antlers.

Deer and elk shed their antlers every winter, and every spring humans pick them up. For some, shed hunting is a hobby. For others, it’s a business. But whatever the reason, it looks like more people are searching for shed than ever before.

So when you go shed hunting, like I recently did, bring sturdy shoes, some water and all the stamina you can muster. Especially when you go with these guys:

“Let me know when you get tired, girl!” said Olin Beecher, as he powered up a steep hill.

“Ugh,” I replied.

Beecher was hunting for horn with his buddy Bennett Wakayuta on a rocky, remote corner of the Hualapai reservation in Northern Arizona. Basically, they were just walking, and looking.

“See that little white thing sticking up between them bushes? What’s that Bennett, right there?” Beecher said, before hearing an unexcited reply in the distance. “That’s a stick? Alright. Sometimes those sticks will get ya.”

And sometimes get you angry, Beecher said. Depending on the day, shed hunting can feel like trying to find really well-hidden Easter eggs-– or a needle in a haystack. Either way, these guys, with their trekking poles and big backpacks, were just happy to be out here.

For Wakayuta, “It’s a manly thing to do,” he said, “while making money and learning your land.”

For Beecher, it’s a chance to forget about his phone and watch.

“Things you live by in society,” he said, “leave them at home.”

If they’re lucky, by the end of the day, they would have an antler or two.

A few hours south, Josh Epperson was sorting antlers outside his home in Camp Verde. Epperson is an antler middle man, meaning he’s one of many who buys from shed hunters and sells to big clients around the world. In his words, it’s an “enormous business.”

“I mean, it eats up millions of dollars,” he said.

But he only sees a tiny portion of that. In recent years, there’s been what Epperson calls a kind of gold rush, caused by two antler-fueled industries: medicines in Asia and dog chew toys in America.

“They both want it equally as bad, so it’s driven the price way up,” he said. “Probably the highest it’s ever been.”

We’re talking anywhere from $3 to $14 dollars a pound, depending on the quality. The fresher and browner, the better the price. The older, whiter and chalkier, the cheaper the sell.

Epperson’s been doing this 20 years, but not for money, he said. He just loves antlers. He can even tell when two sides have come from the same animal.

“I can’t remember what I did yesterday, you know, but I can remember an antler that I seen 10 years ago,” he said.

It’s probably obvious that Epperson’s a shed hunter himself. Or as he calls it, a “treasure hunter.” 

Back on the Hualapai reservation, the hunt was going well; so well that Bennett Wakayuta could say, with an exasperated gasp, he was “going to try to find no more.”

It took him a painful few minutes to pull his backpack loaded with antlers over his shoulders. Taped together, antlers were sticking on either side of him, like he was transporting some abstract art installation.

But he looked happy, if a little strained. For him, being out here isn’t just about shed hunting. Wakayuta admitted that only a few years ago, he was drinking too much, selling drugs, spending entire winters in jail.

“You know, people hated me,” he said. 

But little by little, being outdoors, in the place where his ancestors had lived, helped change him. And shed hunting was part of it.

“Healing of yourself is what happened for me out here,” he said.

As his buddy Olin Beecher likes to say, you’ve got to respect this place.

“No matter what it gives you,” Beecher said. “A lot of what this place will give you is hurt feet.”

And sometimes it gives you the antler mother load.

This day’s count, by the way: 12.