APPLES Let’s start with an easy one. Apples are common fall sight in whitetail country and relatively common in most northern regions.
Wild trees should be “released” from competing trees and brush and given a good pruning to give them a new lease on life. Add some fertilizer and they’ll produce hundreds of bite size morsels like these.
Do deer come to apples? That’s a big “thumbs up”. Setting up near a productive apple tree is sure way to see deer. Too bad apples don’t hang around all season. Most trees are done dropping in a week or two. Smart hunters look for late and early season varieties to keep apples falling all fall.
DOGWOOD Not all deer foods grow on trees. In fact most don’t. Deer are selective foragers and feed anytime they are not lying down or escaping danger. They “graze” in fields and “browse” woody plants with equal enthusiasm. But they do show plant preferences so it pays to pay attention to what they feed on. This grey dogwood and some close relatives are common in deer country.
Dogwood produce striking purple fall foliage and contrasting cream colored berries in the fall. They are found in grown over fields, along roadsides and ditches. They like sunlight and …
Yup, deer like the berries of dogwood and related browse species (when they can beat the birds and bears to them). This is an excellent early fall food. Hunt near food plots or other food sources.
AUTUMN OLIVE Some parts of the country are literally “covered up” with this invasive species. Autumn olive is very aggressive and provides outstanding cover for wildlife. No need to cultivate these “bad boys”; birds love the berries and will spread the seeds for you.
Bears are known to strip limbs clean of both leaves and berries in fall literally destroying an entire bush. But, no worries, they always seem to bounce back in spring and are the better for it. Bucks frequently use them for rubs and scrapes…
But, seldom eat the berries or leaves. They would much prefer other food sources. Plant them for cover and bird and bear food but they won’t feed your deer. Hunt elsewhere.
SPRUCE These spruce trees provide excellent winter cover. Their limbs hang low to the ground and shield wildlife from harsh winter winds. They hold life saving heat in winter.
Stiff and sharp to the touch, their needles that look better than they feel and taste.
They are one of the few tree species that deer seldom use for food. But, think twice before turning up your habitat nose at this important tree because in winter, “cover is king”. Spruce are important cover sources and to create diversity and edge in most wildlife landscapes. Hunt them in stormy winter weather not early fall.
CORN This one is so easy we almost left it out. But in the world of deer attractants corn is king. Expensive to plant, you won’t grow good corn without some equipment and a hefty budget for lime and fertilizer.
An average ear of field corn has almost 1,000 kernels and can fill a good sized coffee cup and then some. It is rich in with fat producing carbohydrates. Left standing through winter it sustains a host of wildlife species through the tough times.
Mature corn draws deer for miles and is a great fall source of food and cover. Deer will use it until it is cleaned up or harvested. More than one hunter has gotten skunked the weekend after a harvest with nothing left in the field. Keep in touch with your landowner and keep your eye on the corn picker.
ACORNS While we are on the subject of drawing deer for miles, we may as well cover this one. Acorns grow on oaks and mature in late summer and early fall. A large oak tree can produce bushels of acorns in a good year and a mere handful in years when the acorn crop is sparse.
Another wildlife food high in carbohydrates, acorns are a sure bet to fatten up any wildlife that is lucky enough to find them.
Yes, whitetails use them, and use them, and use them. Deer buffs claim whitetails prefer white oak acorns to those produced by reds but in mixed oak stands they seem to eat whatever is convenient. Deer also heavily browse young oak trees and seedlings and frequently make oak regeneration impossible. Hunt where heavy deer feeding sign is fresh.
WEEDS Here’s a head scratcher for you. How about old abandoned fields we called weed fields by most hunters. Early succession growth to be more exact. Grasses and forbs grow everywhere as do all kinds of woody stemmed plants, brush, and young trees. A one acre overgrown weed field will contain dozens of plant species.
But do deer use these as food sources…
Well, yes and no. Overgrown fields rate a thumbs up and a thumbs down. Old field usage depends on a variety of factors including what is growing in the field and what is growing near by. It also depends on the time of year. We know that certain plants and forbs are very attractive to deer (dried goldenrod leaves in fall, ragweed in summer and wild carrot all season long) while others like sedge, smartweed and most grasses are not. Spring forbs are very attractive to deer. Scout em and hunt em as preferred travel routes with a mouthful of food as deer pass through.
ALFALFA When hunters think of deer food they often think of farmer’s fields. But, all fields are not created equal in the eyes (and mouth) of a deer. This field of alfalfa produces tons of high quality food for cattle.
High in protein this forage is a bit tricky for most food plotters to master but …
Deer do use it heavily and can bee seen feeding in it all summer long. It’s great until the first hard freeze then deer seem to head for the hills or valleys or wherever they can find something else to fill their bellies with. Watch the weather and hunt elsewhere after the first hard freeze.
CROWN VETCH This stuff looks like alfalfa so it must be good? Crown vetch is often planted along steep roadsides for erosion control and sports a red clover like flower in early summer.
Slow to establish once it gets going it really takes over and chokes out many competing plants. Show me a plant that takes over in deer country and I’ll show you a plant…
That deer are really not all that fond of. Given a choice they will usually leave crown vetch for the birds and rabbits. Hunt elsewhere.
HAY Who hasn’t seen deer in a hay field. Especially a week to 10 days after it has been mowed. But what exactly are they eating in that hayfield.
Chances are not this dried up junk. Full of indigestible lignin and dried up leaves…
This is not the kind of stuff deer like to feed on. If they are using a hay field like this, chances are they are working tender young shoots after a mowing. Not a good hunting season choice. Look for tastier foods.
FIELD CLOVER Here’s another forage developed for cattle. This field clover looks attractive and makes great winter cattle feed.
Some ‘cattle clover’ can get pretty stemmy and is not all that easy for deer to efficiently digest but …
When it comes to deer, clover rules the roost. It is hearty and grows in most conditions. Deer like clover and willingly use it as a food source. Trouble with clover, there are thousands of varieties and some benefit cattle more than deer. Set up thirty yards inside the woods to catch cruising bucks.
FOOD PLOTS Here’s a planting you’re probably familiar with. Actually, it’s a one acre plot planted with a commercially developed food plot mix designed specifically for deer.
This mix features clover, chicory and brassica; three of the workhorses of the food plot industry…
And boy do deer ever use food plots. Most mix producers spend years developing a blend and it shows. They are highly nutritious, very palatable and relatively easy to plant. A good food plot produces a couple of tons or more of deer forage per year and will keep producing high quality food for years. A good food plot program is a vital component to any deer habitat management program. Don’t over hunt food plots. Plant a bunch and give ’em a rest.
GREEN PASTURES Whitetails are commonly found in farm country where grassy clearings, woods grasses and green pastures abound.
Pastures and green open spaces contain all kinds of grasses which can look pretty inviting…
Until you start paying attention to whitetail behavior and realize that they seldom feed in pastures. If they are using pastures, chances are they are not eating grass. Grasses are fairly low in nutrition and way down on the preference list for whitetails. That green pasture might look good to you but better hunt elsewhere.
MAPLE But what do deer eat when food plots are under 8 inches of snow? How about leaves and trees? How about this maple?
Maples really light up the fall forests but are they likely to light up a deer’s taste buds?
Yes they will. Especially in winter when most food sources are unavailable. Deer switch to woody browse when things stop growing in the fall. They also eat leaves when just dropped or just prior to dropping. Tender young tree growth is also eaten in spring and early summer. Maples are among their favorites and woody browse makes up a high percentage of a deer’s diet (even in summer). Hunt young maple stands (under 6 ft.) for best results.
BRIARS Deer spend most of their time in cover avoiding man and other predators. Briars and brambles pop up almost anywhere sunlight hits the ground. This is particularly true in recently logged areas.
These guys are pretty prickly and look like they would be a little tough on the mouth but…
Deer use them frequently. Not on the top of the preference or nutrition list but deer don’t seem to mind. They nip off the first inch or two and move on to the next shoot. If deer are routinely eating more than the first few inches you may need to harvest more does or creating more food sources. Look for well used deer trails and stake em out.
GRAPES Wild grapes are becoming more and more common in whitetail country. Vines grow up and over anything they encounter in a never ending search for sunlight.
Clusters of grapes appear in the early fall and provide a welcome treat to all sorts wildlife …
Including whitetails. The trick for whitetails is to get to the low hanging grapes (under 6 feet.) before they are gobbled up by other wildlife like fall gobblers and grouse. Birds use grapes heavily and when vines grow over brush and blow downs they provide great small game cover. Scout carefully for whitetail activity before hunting this “dessert food.”
Deer are slaves to their stomachs and hunting food sources is a time tested strategy. The trick is to know what deer like and when they like it (watch for “Late Season Food Sources”). As selective browsers, they move from food source to food source and palatability can change dramatically in a matter of days. Remember: all deer do not prefer the same foods and preferences can and do vary by region. Keeping your scouting skills sharp and paying close attention to early season whitetail preferences will put venison on your table this fall.
Deer experts have documented that some foods are highly attractive to whitetails, some not so attractive, and some they just don’t like. They also know that deer food preferences vary from deer to deer and region to region. See if you agree.