As you drive up to Craig Krzycki’s home, nestled deep within the Gallatin Canyon of Montana, you can’t help but see his art everywhere. Antlers are pinned on trees and sculptures line the yard and his big, sweet dog Elmer will run to greet you at your car door to give giant kisses across your face.
Craig’s shop, just walking distance from his front door, is lined with tools and photos pinned to the wall, antlers for every door and drawer handle. The wood stove is on when I walk in and wafts of shredded deer meat and garlic come off the stove from the cast iron pan Krzycki is using, prepping for lunch before he sits down at his work bench for the day.
As a professional big game hunting guide, shed collector and artist, Craig’s life revolves around the natural world. He buys and collects antlers to use as art and sculptures. Whether it’s through practical items like salt and pepper shakers, handles for silverware, or andirons for the fireplace, Craig sees sheds as an opportunity to create something unique.
Hunting has always been a part of his life, so it’s no surprise to see his career path so paralleled with the outdoors. Craig grew up in Nebraska, with his dad and uncles teaching him how to hunt. His dad used to bring Craig and his brother, Wayne, on hunting trips as soon as they could walk. But when his dad and uncles carried rifles, Craig was more interested in bow hunting.
He purchased his first bow- a recurve- for $5, including the arrows and quickly fell in love with it. The roots of bow hunting were what kept him most interested in expanding his skills and he looked for inspiration from Native American hunting techniques and knowledge.
Growing up, he occasionally skipped school to hunt and fish, and knew he would pursue a path that kept him close to spending every day outside - potentially becoming a game warden. But art was always an interest, and he took all the classes he could: pottery, photography, welding and woodworking. In highschool he was even chosen to paint a large mural on the side of a building because of his talent. You can see these skills come into his work now, with occasional paint and welding to add to a piece.
But as he found sheds on the ground while hunting, he would stick them in trees, put them on shelves and eventually started to create rough knife and hatchet handles out of them, exploring what aesthetic they could lend to make a tool more unique. A new world of art opened up for Craig. Hunting for antlers hadn’t yet become popular with people who did have them, just bartering or trading.
When Krzycki moved to Montana to guide for Jake’s Horses, he would guide pack trips in Yellowstone National Park. No one can move antlers from the park, but because there are such healthy elk and deer populations, antlers sit for all of time to be viewed by any visitor that can spot them. Having the opportunity to see so many antlers on the ground, Craig’s curiosity was sparked. This created a deep appreciation for the uniqueness of each one- the shape, size and personality of all of them.
On National Forest land, Craig started becoming more dedicated to picking up antlers and creating a collection to pull from when he had an idea of what they could turn into.
The first thing he made out of antlers were two salt and pepper shakers, with small tin and brass nails hammered into the top. It was a fun exercise in creativity and vision, and he expanded the exploration of what he could make from there. Slowly, the transition to antler art became a good way to occupy himself in the off-season from guiding, filling up the days with creating pieces for farmers markets festivals, gun shows and art shows.
When I asked Craig what shed hunting means to him now, he replied, “It’s everything, it’s so deep to the soul. It’s how I make my living and my world- all the time, it’s with antlers and learning more about wapiti.”
Any guide can attest to the amount of time watching herds and how the job doesn’t stop in the off season. An educated guide knows where animals are in the off-season and where they winter. You can’t drop into a place without understanding some of the behavioral patterns and seasons of ungulates.
“When you guide, you spend so much time watching elk or deer grow up. First, with little knobs on their heads and then finding their sheds later on…” Craig trails off and takes a deep breath, “it’s hard to describe the appreciation.”
Shed hunting has become more popular in recent years as individuals can sell them, as of 2019, between $3-14/pound for white or brown antlers.
But for Krzycki, it’s not about the money. You can see it in his eyes when he talks about what he does. It’s treasure hunting for something tangible- digging into the curiosity about animal patterns and learning more about the outdoors. “It’s also about the memories of watching that elk or deer grow up,” Craig says.
Krzycki believes this is something he will do for the rest of his life- both creating art and collecting antlers. His favorite pieces to create right now are sculptures with elk sheds and twisty pieces of juniper.
“When you build new stuff, part of the drive is to create a new favorite piece,” says Craig with a big smile across his face. “And my favorite piece is what I’m working on now.”
You can find Craig’s artwork on Instagram at @bigskyantler or as a big game guide through S&W Outfitters.