Jason Haley had his young son, Jacob, in tow as the pair stepped down an eastern Jackson County forest trail in search of a place to set up their bear blind when an object caught Haley's eye.
Haley reached off the trail and grabbed a small five-point antler that once graced the cranium of a Roosevelt bull elk, and Jacob quickly chimed in that he wanted to find one, as well.
"I said, 'Well, buddy, it's pretty rare to find one,' " Haley says. "Next thing you know, he walks 20 or 30 yards down the trail and he darts into the brush and grabs an elk antler, but it's even a bigger one from a different animal.
"You've got to be kidding me," Haley says. "We were high-fiving each other, we were so excited. What are the odds of that?"
Seeking shed deer or elk antlers has become Southern Oregon's second hunting season, and one shared by more than just those equally used to hunting with guns.
Shed hunting is becoming more of a family affair in recent years, little day-long outings into the woods
"It used to be a pretty secretive sport, but it's no longer the hard-core hunters," says Rob Tanner, co-founder of the Redmond-based Oregon Shed Hunters club, which will hold a shed-hunting rendezvous Saturday near Fort Rock.
"The past five years, we've seen a lot of families doing it as an activity," Tanner says. "Instead of hiking to hike a trail, people are going hiking to look for shed antlers."
Southern Oregon's black-tailed buck deer are entering the prime shedding period — the end of the life cycle for those celebrated racks of bone and cartilage that grow annually between their ears. It's a season that brings out shed hunters like Haley who mine the forest floor for these prizes, one half-rack at a time.
The prospecting will hit its crescendo in Southern Oregon later this month as more people ply the woods every year for these majestic discards, often collecting them as trophies of animals without killing them.
"It's great stuff," says Duane Dungannon, spokesman for the Medford-based Oregon Hunters Association and a shed hunter himself.
"You don't need a tag, you don't have to get up early and you don't have to gut anything," Dungannon says.
Unlike horned animals that keep their appendages throughout their adult lives, deer and elk grow and lose their antlers annually. Hormones triggered by daylight patterns cause blood flow in the antlers to cease, making them harden and drop off, usually one at a time.
Elk tend to drop their antlers, which can weigh more than 30 pounds, beginning in late March. With about 3,000 elk and as many as 25,000 blacktails in the region, blacktail antlers are far more common than sheds from a bull.
That makes the Haley's haul last summer that much more unique.
"It's one thing to find two 5-point antlers from different elk when you're actually looking for them," Haley says. "But to accidentally find them? Pretty crazy."
Most shed hunters hunt public lands below the 3,000-foot elevation, focusing on areas with a mix of hardwoods and conifers. But this year's poor snowpack will see hunters venturing into higher elevations than normal.
Fresh sheds have a deep red-brown appearance to them, almost like polished wood. Yet the winter woods are full of downed branches shrouded in those same colors, naturally camouflaging them from the eyes of shed hunters.
Usually, the two antlers can be found within 200 yards of each other. Sometimes they're found weeks or even years later.
But you can't find them without looking.
"I wish I had the other one, buddy," Haley says to Jacob, a 10-year-old fourth grader. "Hey, wanna go back?"
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.