The Deer Food EQUATION.
Many veteran hunters agree that the first few days of deer season offer the best chance of cashing in on hungry whitetails. Certainly this can be one of the easiest times; deer have not yet been pressured much and are still sticking to their normal feeding habits and travel patterns--making it simpler to figure them out. But what if you don't score in the first week or so? Now success hinges on knowing how deer change their diet--and bucks their behavior-- through the remainder of the fall.
Early-Season Jump Start
Late-summer feeding patterns are often misleading because, when the season opens, a new phase of feeding is getting underway. Spotting a trophy buck feeding on a farmer's crop in August doesn't ensure he'll be there on opening day. There are a number of mast crops that deer prefer over field crops, and it's important to know what they are and when they will become prime targets. Take acorns, for example--in many parts of the country an influential mast crop to watch in late summer.
In years when the acorn crop fails, many hunters are caught off guard and waste valuable hunting time looking for a few nut-producing trees when they should be seeking alternate food sources Conversely, when acorns are plentiful, deer roam the timber seemingly at random; with food literally every-where, whitetails are exceedingly hard to pattern. Interestingly, this past season the acorn crop seemed good where I hunt, but after cracking open a few nuts, I found that more than half were empty or filled with mold spore. Consequently, the deer started hitting the field crops earlier than expected.
The problem with any abundant food source is that you need to be in the right place at the right time. Finding small concentrations of a particular preferred food is one good way to narrow down the feeding pattern of a buck. For example, if you're hunting big-woods deer and you know where a dozen or so white oak trees are dropping their acorns, then scouting is easy. However, if you're hunting unfamiliar territory, you might need to do a bit of searching just to find the right food sources.
Once, while scouting a new piece of ground before the season, I found several early-season goodies in an area no bigger than 20 acres and situated in the middle of 300 acres of field corn. That first evening, several deer milled around the hillside like people picking through food in a smorgasbord line--first loading up on honeysuckle, then wild plums and then crab apples. It took a while, but they eventually ended up beneath my perch in a huge chokecherry tree. They browsed beneath me, eating the burgundy-stained grass and occasionally standing on their hind legs to strip the berries from the lowest branches.
Other early-season favorites include apples, pears and beechnuts. It can be tough to find an early-season banquet such as this, but locating one or two spots with irresistible deer food--places other hunters don't know about--might be all you need to fill your tag.
Since the mid-season feeding phase coincides with the rut, it's really a no-brainer to find the whereabouts of a buck. Your time is usually best spent in doe travel routes from bedding areas to feeding spots, or near the fringes of agricultural crops. The key is finding out where the does are foraging and then locating prime ambush sites to intercept the bucks when they come trolling for does.
Although milo has been a whitetail favorite for as long as I can remember, my experience has been that it's usually a better late-season food than early or midseason. (Sportsmen who plant food plots have found that when milo is planted too early, it becomes easy pickings for migrating birds and little is left by the time the late season rolls around.) A few years ago, my hunting buddy and I used to jump late-season deer in the milo fields like they were rabbits. Interestingly, hunting was great until farmers stopped planting milo. Like the deer, we moved on to another food source after that.
Some hunters get hung up on a single food source and often miss out on some of the best hunting. For example, when the field corn hasn't matured, deer can be found in other crops such as soybeans, sorghum and alfalfa. Although I've taken good bucks in other crops, nothing seems to top the tender, unripe soybean.
Food plots have been popular with state conservation departments for enhancing wildlife habitat, and many whitetail hunters use them to build their own big buck sanctuaries. My brother, Tracy, is one such person. The main food source in the big timber he was hunting consisted mainly of acorns and browse; hence deer would simply vanish from the property after depleting those sources and were often taken by other hunters a good distance away. Tracy made a simple plan to introduce mid-and late-season foods in the hopes of holding deer long enough for them to reach at least another year of maturity.
After getting permission to clear an old homestead of junk cars and some dilapidated farm machinery, he was able to plant a few acres in food plots. The icing on the cake would be the two apple trees, grapevines and a pear tree growing in the middle. In addition, he cleared two other ridgetops on a 300acre timber parcel and planted Ladino clover and winter wheat.
The first year he took a nice buck during the late muzzleloader season. The second year proved even better--and worth all the hard work. Tracy applied for the early muzzleloader season with hopes of getting a crack at one of three bucks he'd spotted during the summer months, including one large 10-point.
Two days before the muzzleloader season closed, he moved in with a stand and set up between the buck's core area and the biggest food plot. Two small bucks worked their way along the ridge that morning, but the big one hadn't showed. Around eight o'clock, he set his muzzleloader aside and grabbed a big set of shed antlers with hopes of drawing the buck out to investigate.
The first smack of the antlers brought the two smaller bucks running. Impatient, he slammed the antlers together again and then continued with a hard grinding sequence. A flash of antler flickered in the thick buck brush down the ridge. Tracy barely had time to bring the gun to bear on a small opening 75 yards away when the buck appeared. He squeezed the trigger, and after a short tracking job, he found the big 10-pointer piled up.
If by the time the season winds down you haven't taken your trophy, finding deer food sources takes on even more significance. It's been estimated that a buck drops nearly 20 percent of his body weight while pursuing does during the rut, and bucks work hard to replenish their body fat before winter arrives. Therefore they will be keying on foods with the highest protein content. Field crops such as corn, milo, Ladino clover and alfalfa are always good bets for the late season.
Fifteen-year-old John Russell of eastern Iowa found this Out during the 1997 gun season. John had been hunting the outer edges of a large block of timber for the better part of the bow season. He'd spotted several good bucks feeding in an alfalfa field that bordered the timber.
As gun season approached, John continued scouting with hopes of nailing down the feeding pattern of one buck in particular--a dandy 10-point. Knowing that an early snowfall would most likely send the bucks into a feeding frenzy, he put a stand up near a likely travel route to the field. The last evening of the season, two small bucks jumped the fence and started feeding on the alfalfa. John waited, and shortly before sunset the two small bucks started sparring, which brought two other bucks in to investigate, one of which was the Booner he'd been waiting for. John put the sights of the muzzleloader on the buck's vitals and squeezed, dropping the trophy deer.
The key to hunting the three different feeding phases is knowing what food the whitetail keys on during each period. Knowing what food sources are available in your hunting area is a must. If you don't know, it's time for some preseason or in-season scouting. Early-season treats are good choices from the get-go, but you'll need to switch gears mid-season. During the peak rut, seek out those prime ambush points where the does feed. Late-season tactics should concentrate on finding whatever food is still available. It's probably a safe bet to hunt the cash crops such as corn, milo, alfalfa and clover. Whatever the phase, find the food and you'll find the deer.
MOVE OVER, CLOVER
Mossy Oak's BioLogic division is selling a new kind of foodplot deer forage which promises a superior protein source that's easily digested by deer. The heart of this new forage is a plant known as Brassicas, which is in the same family as kale. It's more than 80 percent leaf-and leaves are what deer prefer. What separates Brassicas from other deer forage is that it's high in crude protein (averaging 30 percent) and is more than 80 percent digestible.
There are three BioLogic whitetail formulas containing Brassicas: Summer Management Blend, Fall Attractant and Fall Premium Perennial Blend. The first should be planted inspring, the latter two in early fall. The Fall Attractant formula contains three crossbred Brassicas species, each germinating and growing at different rates. The resulting growth succession provides deer with the tender forage they like while allowing subsequent germinations to take root, making a plot continuously attractive to whitetails. Fall Premium Perennial Blend is an excellent source of nutrition for deer before they enter winter and continues to furnish crucial forage throughout the year. Summer Management Blend was developed specifically to maximize antler growth and weight gain during summer.
The BioLogic formulas are designed to work in a variety of soil types and climates. For more information, contact BioLogic, Dept. HM, P.O. Box 757, West Point, MS 39773; www.mossyoak.com: 888/MOSSY OAK.
The risk you take when putting stands up too early is that deer often become educated to your whereabouts. A classic example of this might be the nice 10-point I was hunting a few years ago. The first sighting was from a nearby roadway in late September while the buck fed in a soybean field in the last few minutes of fading light. I put a stand up in the corner of a woodlot where the soybean field converged with a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) field. My perch was hovering over what I figured was a buck trail that cut across the corner of the CRP and ended at the soybean field.
The buck didn't show on the first two evenings, so I did some additional scouting and found a new rub line and boundary scrape about 75 yards away. Backtracking his prints from the soybean field, it became apparent the buck had cut a new trail and was quite possibly aware of my stand location. Therefore, I felt a little stand trickery learned some years ago just might work in this particular situation.
I left the first stand up and moved in with a second stand that afternoon. After trimming a few branches around the new site, I settled in for the evening. About an hour before sunset, the buck came sneaking up the new trail--his head suspiciously cranked around and looking toward the other stand, confirming my suspicions. When the buck reached the timber's edge, I was able to kill him.