Article and Photo by J.B. Chandler

Both deer and elk are popular big-game animals hunted here in Montana. There are two different seasons in the fall, one for archery and the other for rifle hunters, but a different season kicks off in the spring, as well. A pistol or bear spray should be brought for protection, but a set of binoculars might do you more good during this one-day hunt for antler sheds.

To start, every autumn, archers get their chance first, shooting September 2-October 15. Then the general hunting season runs October 21-November 26. Buy your tags before heading out on the hunt. We get a deal, as Montana residents pay only $20 for an elk tag. Non-residents will pay over $800 for the same tag. Add in food and lodging and we can see how hunting season can be big business for Montana. Guides and hunting outfits can help you find your prize, for a price, while enterprising hunters may simply ask for permission from landowners and strike out for a wooded coulee or gorge on their own. The most adventurous hunters may hike miles on to state or federal land to find their secret herd, but of course they must pack out their harvest as well.

With the end of fall’s hunting season, many state and federal lands, including wildlife management areas (WMAs) are closed for the winter between December 2 and May 15, officially reopening at exactly noon. WMAs in our area like the Blackleaf, Sun River, Smith River, and the Beartooth on Holter Lake all follow these timelines. Thus, starting the night before (or the whole weekend prior!) people are camped at nearby reservoirs, enjoying some fishing and campfires, getting ready for the rush to start antler shed hunting May 15 at noon.

By 11:30am this year, there was a vehicle parked every 20 yards along the Blackleaf road. There isn’t a shotgun start, so when the cellphones read noon the throngs of people begin marching, hiking, and running their way into the WMAs. Looking down as we hurried across the open fields, we searched frantically through the brush and trees, hoping to find antler sheds. A moose paddle would be great to find, a deer horn would be a nice consolation, but the prize of the day would be an elk antler. For the experience, for your barn wall, or perhaps hanging above your fireplace, antler sheds can be amazing, especially if found in pairs! For many others, the antler sheds are a business. Outfits offer over $10 per pound for the sheds, which can come in at 10 or 15 pounds.

So the Montana hunter can save on meat costs in the fall, and then carve out a small payday in the spring, all for a couple hours out of their day. Worst case scenario? A beautiful Montana hike.