Pilot on Board

By: Karen Weir-Jimerson

Aah, the joy of a puppy! Our household has a puppy again, so we’ve rolled up the rugs, stowed the leather shoes on the highest closet shelf, and bravely opened up the house to our new fox-red English Labrador Retriever puppy, Pilot.

On the day that my husband, Doug, and I went to pick up Pilot, we met other puppies that were destined to be pheasant, duck, and quail hunters. In the group of happy families struggling to hold their wiggly puppy, Pilot was the only dog who was going to become a shed hunter.

The whitetail bucks that call our woods and fields home lose their antlers in late winter and early spring. These bony castoffs are called sheds, because shedding antlers is what deer do—after carrying around their heavy headgear for months, one day the antlers simply drop off.

Bucks are described not by their weight or height but by size of their racks. Count the prongs or points. Some bucks may sport six- or eight-point antlers. Others carry a veritable trellis on their heads. But come spring, regardless of the number of points, the boys drop their antlers in what must feel like a lovely, lightheaded moment of freedom.

Mike Stewart, owner of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, Mississippi, where Pilot was bred and born, trains hunting dogs. His kennel has produced what he calls “Gentleman’s Gun Dogs” since 1972. Wildrose Kennels breeds and trains imported British and Irish Labrador Retrievers for water fowling (ducks, geese) and upland hunting (dove, quail, pheasant). The same talents that make his dogs great hunters— intelligence, trainability, and calm temperament—also make these Labs excellent service dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and adventure dogs. And yes, their talents can be adapted to finding the quiet quarry of shed antlers.

Stewart picked up a rubber antler and showed us the liquid antler scent that you dab onto it to start the training. It looks like an antler and it smells like an antler. And when you toss it or hide it, Labs do what they love best: retrieve it.It doesn’t take long for a well-trained pup to graduate to the real thing. For the fun of discovery, a kind word, and a pat on the head, we learned that a Lab will do just about anything.

Finding sheds is more than a Saturday afternoon activity. It’s a sport that’s called, appropriately, shed hunting. And like the elusive morel, there are lots of theories about where and how to find sheds. I’ve found slender white antlers lying in grassy open fields as well as nestled amid the leaf litter in the woods. I found one shed under a hedge apple tree in the bare dark dirt, its stark whiteness like a beacon on the ground.

 

Our antler obsession is purely decorative. We collect and display them in a large wooden bowl on our kitchen island. (We admit to buying them at shops and online, so we don’t limit the hunt to woods and fields.)

Antlers are beautiful—they are smooth and cool, like alabaster. And unlike ivory (which is from nonshedding tusks), sheds are from a sustainable resource. As I arrange our shed collection in their wooden bowl, it makes me think of Gaston, the character in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, who uses “antlers in all my decorating.”

And now we have a professional shed hunter living under our roof.

So in the crisp mornings of early spring, Doug and I will head out into the woods accompanied by our rubber-antler-trained dog, Pilot. Together we will comb the woods and fields in search of cast-off antlers from whitetail deer. And if we come up empty-handed, that’s cool, too. There are worse things than spending a day hiking with an eager dog crisscrossing the ground in front of you.

 

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