With 95 percent of America’s deer hunters looking at the rut in their rear view mirrors, it’s nice to know that the rut is still on somewhere. Deer hunters in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and parts of Florida are chasing rutting bucks as you read this. The rut is not always as precisely defined in these states but if you catch it right, you’re in for some pretty exciting hunting. The best way to stay on top of the action is to develop a local network of “rut watchers” and make your move when the “rut on” call is sounded.
Meanwhile, the majority of the country’s whitetail hunters are either hunting predators (due to season closings) or chasing post-rut recovering bucks. These bucks are rebounding from a couple of months of chasing does and the accompanying 30 percent weight loss associated with breeding.
Northern bucks in winter climes will be filling up on high carb foods like acorns, soybeans, corn, and some food plot forages like brassicas. They will dig through the snow to get at these foods and ingest all they can find. Standing corn is most easily accessed in heavy snow areas. These are the best foods for repairing rut-worn bodies.
In areas without planted crops and forages, whitetails will primarily be working browse species like oak, hickory, maple ash, some pines and any fruit tree. The will also hit most “brush” species such as red and gray dogwood, multa-flora rose, and viburnum. The top 1 to 3 inches of new growth will be browsed first. As winter food becomes scarcer, deer will consume more and more of the stem tip. Up to 3 inches is OK. The top one-inch is even better. Down to pencil thickness size-not good.
The vast majority of nutrition in woody browse is found in the first (top) inch or most recent growth. Standing weeds and forbs are also used by whitetails in winter as are tree leaves and, in dire straits, bark. Much of what whitetails eat in winter is marginal at best. Native browse foods like these are eagerly sought by recovering bucks, especially when all the crops have been harvested and deep snows cover most low growing forages.
Foods with little nutrition like tree bark, some leaves, and stems are basically “filler foods” and do little to nothing for whitetails.
How to Hunt
Hunting in the warmest part of the day in cold weather is always a good strategy. Whitetails have an internal thermostat that drives them to feed when they will use the least amount of energy. Burning more calories to stay warm than are taken in by feeding is a losing proposition for deer.
So if you’re not hunting the rut this weekend, hunt cold weather foods.