One of My Best Worst Years

   My antler hunting in 2012 started in the middle of January.  I wasn’t able to get to the river bottoms a much as I
wanted, due to ice jams and snow.  I made a couple of attempts, but was only rewarded with soaked clothes and
cold feet.  By the first of March, I was headed into the foothills in search of mule deer antlers in an area that my
produce an elk shed.  The pickings were slim at best, and I hiked more miles than I have in past years.  Long days
with eight or ten antlers seemed like good days after only finding two or three on other days.  I had one afternoon
where I hiked five hours and found nothing.  I have only been skunked a handful of times in my life.  
   Two years ago, I picked up almost two hundred sheds and sets.  Last year, I was rewarded with a hundred and
fifty sheds and sets.  This year, I’ll be lucky to hit just over a hundred.  I’m hiking the same areas I have always
hiked and cover as many miles or more.  The problem is the lack of deer.  We are in the grips of wasting disease in
our area.  The Fish, Wildlife, and Parks are still waiting for evidence to prove the fact, but I’m sure this is our areas
third year.  In places where I used to seen a couple hundred head of deer, now I see ten or twenty.  I’m not sure
what the future wholes, but it isn’t looking very bright from my prospective.  Twenty years ago I would have had time
for things to recover, but knocking on sixty five years old, I don’t have that option.  Now that my whining and
complaining are out of the way, this has been one of my best years for the type of treasures I have found.
   It started around the first of April when I was on an elk antler/deer antler hike.  I was stumbling through the down
fall of a creek bottom in my search and not having a lot of luck.  An elk shed from the previous year was my only
reward, and I had been hiking for half a day.  I finally abandoned the creek and climbed up the eroded
embankment.  There was a small bench like area, and I found a nice four point deer shed from this year.  I took a
couple more steps and peeking from under a cedar tree, were the iron jaws of a trap barely protruding through the
rotting ground cover.  Lichen was helping to camouflage the iron, but the traps inch long teeth left no mistake that
this was a bear trap.  After doing a triple take, I realized what I had found.   Reverently I cleaned natures attempt at
the decomposed burial, and marveled at what good condition the trap was in for being well over hundred years old.  
A root from a cedar had grown through one of the links in the chain.  I only had a pocket knife, so I whittled at the
root for some time.  Finally freed, I admired my find.  It was a NO. 15 Newhouse bear trap almost three feet in length
and with a nine inch bite.    For me, it was like winning the lottery.  I’ve spend thousands of hours in the woods
looking for shed antlers, and this was a first.
    Two weeks later, I was hiking in the same range of mountains and following another creek bottom.  I knew
I wasn’t the first one to look for sheds in this area.  I just knew I had to look harder and cover more miles than those
who had been searching before me.  That is often the case because I’m not one to go out and look for sheds in a
foot of snow,  never have.  I don’t mind the rain or cold, but snow always leaves me wondering what I have missed.
   I would hike up the creek bottom a ways and then work up one side circling back down the creek, cross the creek
and come up along the other side. My goal was to keep this up for a quarter of a mile at a time.  If one side of the
creek or other warranted a better look, then I would take the time.  It isn’t the distance you cover, but how well you
cover that distance.  I had been doing this all morning, and so far my biggest reward had been a two point deer
shed that looked like a coyote pup had been using it for teething purposes.
   While working along one side of the creek, I came across an elk’s front leg.  It was a rocky area and a good place
for a bull to crawl off and die, or maybe be ambushed by wolves.  An elk leg can be carried a long way by predators,
so I wasn’t too surprised at not finding anymore evidences in my first hundred yard circle of the area.  I increased
my circling by another hundred yards and came across more bone.  I worked up behind some boulders, and there
was the winter killed bull.  Most of him was still intact with dried hide keeping the carcass held together.  What killed
him?  I have no clue, but I’m sure it wasn’t wolves or lions because he wasn’t scattered about.  His antlers were
heavy but not long beamed.  The ivories were still intact and worn.  One side of the set was broke off toward the
top, and about six or eight inches of antler was missing.  This bull could have been gored by another bull and left to
die.  My brother found a bull once in a wallow that had been gored to death by another bull.  During their rutting
battle he had run a tine into his adversary’s skull just below the eye.
   I was happy with my good fortune and decided to take a break.  After eating a little lunch, I left my fanny pack next
to the elk antlers and walked up into a grove of aspen.  It looked like a good place to find a moose shed, and there
were plenty of droppings all around.  While stepping over a log jam of fallen quakies, I noticed a sliver of white bone
sticking out of the mud.  There were two fallen trees crisscrossing it about a foot thick.  I spent some time getting
them moved out of the way, and all the time I’m thinking cow skull.  I found a stick and started digging along the
sides of the bone exposing a row of teeth.  The black mud mixed with swamp grass broke more than one stick, but I
kept up the effort for another fifteen minutes.  Finally I was able to get a pry under the skull, and enough mud dug
from around it to break the suction.  With the sound of a toilet plunger getting the job done, the skull broke free from
its burial.  I’m sure I had a surprised look on my face as I looked at what I thought would be a cow skull turning out to
be a buffalo skull.  The black caps on the bone were missing, and on one side the horn tip was eaten away.  The
skull had to be over a hundred years old, and maybe one of the last of several million buffalo that once roamed the
west.  The face was polished and colored a deep brown by the ooze of mud that had incased it for centuries.  I
couldn’t believe my good fortune.  It had been twenty years since I had found my last buffalo skull.  I looked down
the mountain through the budding of quaking asps and saw the elk set that I had found earlier.  You would think that
I would be satisfied to just head for home, but there was still a few hours of daylight.  In those few hours, I picked up
three more sheds.  I took a short cut out of the area and only had to hike about five miles, but I did have to
maneuver down a steep rock slide in the dark.
   A few weeks later, I was up at our mining claim in the Tobacco Root Mountains.  One evening, my wife talked me
into going for a short walk.  We past a couple old mine adits and then a small trailer on a new mining claim.  Instead
of taking the four wheeler trail, I talked her into crossing the trickling of a creek into a small grove of quaking asps.  
As we entered the trees, I could see moose droppings and some large scrapes.  Since we were still only a quarter of
a mile from our property line, I half jokingly mentioned that this would be a good place to fine a moose shed.  At the
end of that sentence my wife informed me that she had found hers as we split up to walk around a small pine tree.  
Sure enough she had spotted a huge fresh shed moose antler.  Not only was it big with thirteen points, but it was a
freak with two of the points coming out of the back of the antler in the middle of the palm.  The front tine had three
points on it.  I have over a hundred and fifty moose sheds and only three of them would be considered freakish.  I
knew as big as this shed was, the other side couldn’t be very far away.  I made a small circle, and sure enough, I
found the mate.  It had eight points and was normal.  This was only second shed set of moose antlers I have ever
  I made five or six more hikes in the month of April and into the first week of May.  On one of these hikes, I spent
five hours of an afternoon in an area that I hadn’t hike in twenty years and was rewarded with a hand full of
nothing.  Desperately, in the last hour of daylight and on into moon light, I really worked the area hard so I wouldn’t
be skunked.  The only thing I found was the bleached bones of a deer carcass with no head.  There have been only
about five times I have returned to my vehicle antlerless in over 50 years.  A couple of times, I have been saved by
a broken antler or the bleached white of an old two point.  It was a mild winter and an early spring, so the rattle
snakes were out the first of May, causing me to put up my fanny pack and hiking boots till falls frost headed them for
their dens.  
   On Father’s Day, I received one of the best gifts I have ever gotten, well except for hugs from my daughters and
grandchildren, and I found half of it myself.  The day before Father’s Day my two youngest daughters were on a
walk from our mining claim.  These two are marathon runners and can cover a lot of ground, but they were only
about a mile away in the next drainage from where my wife and I had found the shed set of moose antlers.  We had
spent some time in that drainage looking for moose sheds but had found nothing.  They hiked farther down the
drainage than we had and close to a neighbor’s property line.  They found a two year old moose shed right in the
creek.  They spent some time looking for the other side, but didn’t have any luck. The next day they took me to the
area, and with the help of three grandchildren, we started looking for the mate.  We had about exhausted the area
where they found the shed.  I picked out the most unlikely spot I could find where a few scattered quaking asps were
dying of thirst among some huge boulders skirted with over grown sage brush below a cliff face.  Knapweed and
thistle were choking everything but the boulders.  My youngest grandson was climbing the rounded granite and
jumping from one to the next.  I circled around behind a couple boulders to encourage his effort while his mother
warned him to be careful.  There, leaning against one of the boulders and barely visible, was the mate to the moose
antler they had found in the creek and it was also the same bull we had found the sheds off in the spring.  It still had
the freak side with a club coming out of the palm and one point about six inches long out the back.    Happy Father’s
Day to me.
   The wife of a friend of mine drew one of three moose permits given in that area for the fall season.  My youngest
grandson and I were driving up to our claim late one morning during hunting season.  We spotted the freak moose
sparring with another bull in an open field about a hundred yards off the highway.  I called my friend, but they
couldn’t come right away.  She ended up getting her bull far to the north of this bull.  At the end of the season, this
same friend gave me a call and said he had spotted the bull feeding off the lilacs in the town of Pony.  He knew the
other two moose tags for that area had been filled, so the bull was safe for another year.  Maybe I’ll come across his
sheds next spring?
                                                               Jim Phillips