DEXTER — Spring in Maine brings the start of fishing and hiking season, and, of course, the last of shed-hunting season. And we’re not talking about shopping for an outdoor tool and equipment hut.

Shed hunters are outdoorsmen and women who immerse themselves in the quiet of the woods in winter and spring to look for the antlers shed by moose and deer.

By spring, these hunters already have trekked dozens of miles since the start of the year, scanning the forest floor in search of tracks, and signs of deer and moose.

Deanna Page of Dexter is one of them. Over the past 25 years, she has found more than 15 moose sheds and hundreds of deer antlers.

“It’s a fascination to be the first to find the antler that fell off a buck’s head,” said Page, 48.

“It really is an addiction for most shed hunters. You talk to them, they’re champing at the bit to get out in the winter. Some may have a particular (individual) animal they’ve been watching. And when you find one antler, you want to go back to find the other, to have the pair.”

Deanna Page of Dexter has found more than 15 moose sheds and hundreds of deer antlers over 25 years. “When you find one antler, you want to … find the other,” she said. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Moose and deer shed their antlers each winter before growing a new set over the next two months. As a deer or moose ages, the antlers get larger and develop more points.

Antlers first develop a soft membrane, called a velvet. And as the antler underneath the velvet hardens and grows into bone, the velvet remains. But as the antler growth slows, the velvet falls off in the summer months.

Then, after the mating season in the fall, the antlers fall off when the testosterone in male deer and moose declines. When that happens, the tissue and bone at the antler base weakens, causing the antlers to drop off.

Antlers have long been used as handles, tools and decorations. Maine’s deer and moose antler collectors continue the centuries-old practice, proudly displaying their antlers in their homes and offices. Some hang them ornamentally on the wall, others make chandeliers, lamps or coat racks, and some sell their antlers to artists.

But the main reason most shed hunters spend hours each winter in Maine’s thick forestland is for the satisfaction of finding this natural hidden treasure.

Luci, a 9-month-old yellow Labrador retriever owned by Deanna Page, searches for a moose antler (right foreground) that was placed in the woods by her owner for training. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Page said shed hunting in Maine seems to have gained more followers. There are more than 2,000 on the Maine Shed Hunters Facebook page and more than 300 on the Maine Shed Antler Hunters page.

Matt Leighton of South Portland has been a shed hunter for three years. He searches for sheds mostly close to home, in Saco and Scarborough, and said people would be surprised how many big deer there are in southern Maine.

“I was lucky last year; I got a nice 5-pointer. I’m pretty much obsessed with hunting, so I want to go out immediately in the winter,” he said.

“I pretty much go scout where the deer are when the snow is on the ground, see where they’re yarding up. I find where they’re bedding down, and in late February, I start to go through the area to see if they dropped their antlers. It’s quite time-consuming.”

Like any good shed hunter, Leighton puts the time in. One day, he hiked 10 miles, slowly looking for shed antlers.

Then, when he finds one, he goes back to find the other, zig-zagging in a grid search to see if the antler’s twin fell in the same area, which it often does. In the case of the 5-pointer, he also found the matching antler for a perfect 10-point set.

Luci, a 9-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, takes a break to roll in the waning spring snow. Staff photo by Ben McCanna Staff photo by Ben McCanna

Hunter Dempsey, a lobsterman from Columbia in Washington County, started shed hunting three years ago and was instantly hooked. Dempsey recruited three or four of his friends to help him search. And when they’re not having any luck, they train each other to search by hiding sheds they found to practice spotting the camouflaged antlers in the woods.

“I like it because I’m big into deer, and it’s a good way to watch the deer grow,” said Dempsey, 19. “If I see a deer on my game camera and I find his antler, it tells me he survived another year from the other hunters.

“I try to go every day. I don’t always find a shed, but when I do, it makes it that much better.”

Keren Zucker of Ellsworth has been shed hunting for five years. She hasn’t found many, but Zucker, a deer hunter, finds it a rewarding challenge.

“When I moved out West for six months, I had a lot more success in Montana. It’s more open out there,” Zucker said. “And there are a lot more deer out there. But when I got back to Maine, I tried to go harder at it. I keep a mental note in areas where there is deer activity.”

This spring, Zucker was hiking an area she hadn’t been before and began searching for sheds where she saw a lot of deer dropping. Suddenly, she looked down and saw a small deer antler.

“It was kind of a trail between two fields I thought they might be traveling,” Zucker said. “When I saw it, I did a happy dance. I was going to pick it up and I remembered to take a picture. I get way too excited with sheds. It doesn’t get old.”

Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: FlemingPph