Pile of Elk and Deer Shed Antlers

Q&A with the Antler Man

AJ Gall 1.15.2015

The single greatest shed collection in North America.

Q&A with the Antler Man

Give me a little introduction about yourself: What’s your name? Where do you live? Where do you do most of your shed hunting?

James C. Phillips, I have lived in Three Forks Montana all of my 66 and a half years. I always tell people that 80 to 85% of my antler collection comes from within a hundred mile radius of Three Forks.  I’m extremely lucky to have grown up in an area with almost unlimited shed hunting opportunities for elk, moose, and mule deer.  I never saw a whitetail in this area until the late 60’s.  Before I was old enough to drive, my mother would drive a few miles from town to the foothills that surround it and drop me off to hike for the day.  I would collect mule deer sheds.  The elk population has expanded so much that I find elk sheds in some of these areas today.

In the late 70’s, Jim built two antler archways.  Each one was constructed using more than 400 sheds.  His daughter is standing in the center and she was just over 5’ at the time.

How long have you been shed hunting and how old were you when you found your first shed?

I found my first shed at the age of 10 and I get the same thrill 56 years later.  It was an old chalk white elk shed not far from where we had a summer trailer along the Gallatin River, about 20 miles north of Yellowstone Park where 10 to 15 thousand head of elk used to winter. I spent the summer packing sheds back to the trailer a few at a time. I’ve been doing it ever since

How many shed antlers have you found to date?

After the first of every year, I count out the antlers from the previous year.  2014’s total was 201, which brought my collection up to 16,023.  I don’t count the 1500 deer sheds and 700 elk sheds I sold to help put three daughters through college in the late 80s.

Here’s one view within Jim’s Horn House.  So many antlers!

How many sets have you found?

It is hard to believe, but when I was collecting elk, deer, and moose sheds in the Gallatin drainage in the late 60’s and 70’s, I didn’t use a backpack.   On most days, I would find a winter killed bull and wrap the sheds I found around it.  I would stand in the middle and pick the set up with the shed antlers on it and carry them out that way.  In those days, a lot of hunters never retrieved the antlers, so I would come across those sets also.  Up until the mid 80’s, I had a dump ground route that I would drive about three times during hunting season.  Many hunters threw away the antlers and I might pick up a dozen sets on a 200 mile loop by stopping at small town dumps.  I have also traded fresh elk sheds for some of the freak sheds and sets I have.  The severity of the winters over the years has also contributed to my number of sets.  I have found as many as five winter kills in a day, but some years I have only found ten or twelve for the entire year.  Right now I have collected 2,090 deer sets. 200 of them are whitetail, 150 elk sets, 11 moose sets, and the rest are muley sets.

This was just ‘a pretty good day’… Jim packed this load of bone out four miles.

Do you do most of your shed hunting on public or private property?

I do most of my shed hunting in the same areas I looked 50 years ago.  I do most of it on public land because I’m lucky enough to live in an area with hundreds of square miles of public land.  I also do some on private, but it isn’t exclusive to me.  Some of my shed hunting is on BLM, school sections, and national forest lands.

Are you a successful hunter as well?  More successful than shed hunting?

This is the first year since I was 14 years old that I never went deer or elk hunting. I bought the necessary license to do so, but didn’t go.  I was born and raised on venison.  Beef was something my parents had once a year when they went out for their anniversary.  I always got an elk every year when I was first married because we needed the meat, but I never enjoyed elk hunting.  I’m not sure why.  I love to hunt for mule deer, but our populations are so low that they are almost an endangered species. I haven’t shot anything in over ten years.  I’m usually too busy looking for sheds.  There have been numerous occasions when I had to rattle an arm load of sheds to the ground while a big buck ran away.  I’m just not much of a killer anymore.  It is hard to explain, but I would rather look for sheds.  You can see some of Jim’s previous mounts here.

What’s the biggest shed antler you have ever found?

The biggest elk shed I have weighs 16 pounds and has 10 points.  I have several 7 and 8 point sheds in the 12 to 14 pound range.  I have a few shed sets in the 25 to 30 pound range.  My biggest mule deer has 13 points plus the brow point, but it is not my favorite.  My favorite is a spike deer shed that is two and half inches long and I have it attached to my truck keys.  I found it while peeing in the bushes.  I have over 50 deer sheds with 9 or more points.  I have some deer sets with 10 points to a side.  I’m more interested in the freak sheds and sets than the biggest.

This elk got entangled in some stiff telephone wire and finally lost the whole bundle when he shed his antlers.

How many hours do you spend looking for sheds during any given season?  What was the yield of your best season? Best day?

I spent a 10 hour day a couple years ago and never found a shed in an area that I have found sheds in the past.  I figure now that if I find a shed in a little over an hour on the average, I’ve had a good day.  I keep a record of where I go and what I have found on a daily basis ever since 1969.  I hike a lot more now than I ever did back in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s and find less.  Over the years, I have had a half dozen days where I have packed out 80 or 90 deer sheds.  I have had many days when I packed out 25 to 35 elk sheds.  I would carry part of them for a ways and then rest while walking back to pack out the rest.  I might be 4 or 5 mile back in an area.  Most of the time I leave my vehicle in the dark and return to it in the dark.  There have been several years where I have collected over 500 antlers, but there have been several years where I haven’t found 50.  It is all about the effort and where a person is in their life’s journey.

A look down the center of the ‘Horn House’ . . . antlers, antlers, and more antlers!

Was shed hunting easier back in the day?  Have you noticed more competition in recent years?

For the first 30 years of my antler collecting, I was the odd duck.  I was the only one and even my friends made fun of me.  I tried to get my younger brother interested when he was in his teens and twenties, but his focus was on Harley motorcycles and the opposite sex.  Once he came to his senses, he became as possessed as I was.  There is only one time that we ever shed hunted together and that was in the state of Colorado.  In the first 30 years if I didn’t find 25 to 30 deer sheds in a day or over a dozen elk sheds in a day, then I had a bad day.  This year I picked up 10 elk sheds for the year.  My best day this year with deer sheds was 15 and I was pretty excited for my 12 hour effort.

Even in the late 80’s when the price of elk antlers were $5, I know hunters that wouldn’t even pick up a deer shed no matter how big.  Now everyone picks up everything.  There are a lot of people out there looking for sheds.  I’m a fair weather shed hunter and always have been.  I’m not running around in the snow looking for sheds.  I wait till the snow is gone because I’m afraid I might miss something.  Last spring, I hiked in a small area and found the tracks of two other individuals who were shed hunting.  I ran across their footprints in the mud.  I picked up a dozen sheds that day that they had missed.

Here you are looking down the east side of the building. Wow!

Have you bought any shed antlers?  Have you sold any?

I have never bought an antler.  I have traded antler for antler to accumulate some of the freak sheds and sets I have.  I have traded elk sheds to accomplish this, but never deer sheds.  In the late 80’s, I sold 1,500 deer sheds and 700 fresh elk sheds to help put three daughters through college.  They all graduated with double majors and are using their field of study to earn a living.  But if I had to do it all over again, I think I would find another way.

Do you hunt solely on foot?

I have never used an ATV, horse, or antler sniffing dog to do my shed hunting.  I do have a four wheel drive truck, but park it at the trail head.  The odd thing about my antler collecting, as if the amount I have collected isn’t odd enough, is that I enjoy the packing out as much as I do the collecting.  It is the same way today.  I love the challenge of hiking around looking for sheds until I find myself hiking out in the dark four or five miles.  I have been so tired that I have run into a bear approaching me on the same trail and didn’t care what his intentions might be.  Mountain lions have followed me while screaming their irritants at my presents, but I’ve been too tired to pay any attention.  I have fallen in a red ant pile and been too exhausted to move.  I’ve made it to the truck long after dark and had to let the numbness subside from my shoulders and arms before I could slip out of my backpack and open the truck door.  I’ve returned to a very sparse camp site and crawled under a bed roll too tired to eat.  I’ve also gone back the very next day and did it all over again.

While searching for a Christmas tree one winter, Jim found this antler which had been there long enough to be completely grown into the trunk.  Jim believes the shed was hanging there somewhere between 35 – 50 years. 

What’s your favorite piece of advice to give to others who want to be successful shed hunters?

My best advice is to stay out of my area – just kidding.  Well maybe.  Shed hunting for me is a solitary business.  There have only been a half dozen times in 56 years that I have ever been shed hunting with anyone else out of the hundreds of times I have gone.  I have gone for a week at a time and my only contact was a phone call to my wife in the middle of the week to tell her I was still alive.

When I started shed hunting, I was just a kid and I knew nothing about wintering areas or antler packing herbivore habits.  I looked everywhere.  I still look for sheds that way today.  In warm winters with little snow, I find sheds in the heavy timber on north sides.  In winters with lots of snow I look in more open, but protected areas.  Last spring, I was up in some rock cliffs looking for deer sheds.  I was trying to find my way out when I came across a huge fresh shed moose antler.  I never had found a moose shed in the area before or even seen a moose.  I spent three days looking for the other side and never found it either.  I crawl down in the brushy draws where you would never expect to find a shed and often don’t, but on many occasions, I have found a winter killed buck or bull or maybe one that got away from a hunter.

Jim welcomes visitors to view his Horn House anytime he is home and you are in the area.  But until you can actually witness it in person, you need to check out the photo gallery on his website Antlerman.com!

Feel free to email him any questions, as he loves to share his passion for shed hunting with others.  After all, that was the purpose of building a “Horn House” and the website.


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