Right now, the land where you deer hunt should be covered with groceries. Deer groceries, that is. Late summer and early fall is the time of plenty in the deer woods, and the deer are busy packing on the pounds. But not with just any old food—deer can be picky eaters. They like certain browse better than others at certain times of the year (biologists refer to them as “concentrate selectors”). So if you want to hunt smart this year, inventory the available food sources on your property, and hunt those spots when deer are craving those foods most.
1. Acorns Draw a Crowd
Acorns are high on the list for deer—especially white oak acorns compared to red oak acorns. The acorns have been “on” the last few years on my deer hunting property, and their abundance in my area had the deer dispersed over many square miles. What’s more, this dispersal lasted throughout the entire hunting season. Nothing we planted, nor any other wild food source, seemed to matter. It was acorns or nothing, and it was almost impossible to predict where the deer would be feeding next. The abundance of food was good news for the herd, but infuriating for us hunters.
This year, however, our acorn production is slim and spotty. Only a few trees are producing, which takes the guesswork out of figuring where deer will be when the acorns start to drop (which is right about now). I know where I’ll be hanging out when bow season opens in two weeks.
2. Fruits Are a Favorite
It’s no secret that deer love apples and other fruits, but they won’t start hitting the apples until acorns are hard to come by and apples start becoming available. Some trees lighten their load midway through the summer growing season, but most wait until they become fully ripe before dropping, which can happen in late fall. I know where our “late droppers” are located, and often find late-season deer under their limbs, pawing through the snow looking for a winter treat. Most fruits are high in sugar content and deer—just like people—seem to crave sugar. Ripe berries also seem to have the same attraction. The trick is to know where the fruits grow and when the deer will be on them.
3. Is Corn Really King?
Each year we plant a few acres of corn for the deer. Our deer don’t begin working our corn until late fall, when most of the sweet, soft mast in the timber has been cleaned up and the green plots have been hit hard. We hunt the corn late in the season when deer shift from those remaining sources of high-carb “hot” foods, which help them pack on the pounds for the long winter ahead. Their preference for corn in your neck of the woods will depend on weather and what other foods they have to choose from.
4. Green Plots Are Great
Our food plots offer tons of browse from spring through fall each year. But the deer are still selective about which plots or cultivars they’re snacking on at any given time. It’s not uncommon for plots with multiple plant varieties to have only one plant being eaten (for, say, two weeks) before the deer switch to another. Our clover plots receive high traffic in the early spring and late fall when conditions are cool and wet, while our chicories get hit heavily in summer. When we first started planting brassicas (decades ago), our deer waited for a freeze before flocking to the plots where we planted rape, turnips, and the like. But over the years, they seemed to become keener on early season plantings.
Green plot grain plantings always seem to be our plots of last resort, and are used later in the year when the deer are beginning to browse heavily. It pays to know what’s in your green plots and when your deer key in on what.
5. And Then There’s Browse
Don’t underestimate browse when it comes to feeding deer. A woodlot can produce a thousand pounds of deer food per acre if it has been thinned to the point where the sun hits the grounds and natural vegetation starts popping up. On the other hand, over storied woodlots with no sun on the ground produce next to nothing. Field edges produce tons of food in the form of natural vegetation shrubs, forbs, and low-growing plants. Research has shown that native vegetation comprises an important part of a deer’s diet, even in areas with plenty of agricultural crops available. They don’t seem to key in on browse until the most preferred foods have been eaten up, but they definitely do use browse a good deal as they move to and from concentrations of preferred foods and natural vegetation is what gets most deer through winter
Our deer go for fruit trees first, and then move on to any berry bushes they can find. They love maple leaves, and the first inch or two of new growth. They always prefer the first inch of new growth to lignin-laden old growth (can be as big around as your pinky finger). Our deer won’t touch beech or hemlock but that can vary with the property.
Dr. Grant Woods is fond of saying, “Deer are slaves to their stomachs.” Truer words were never spoken. Savvy hunters know that the food on their hunting varies each year, and they also know which foods will be available when. And eventually they’ll learn the preferences of their local deer.
Of course, all this varies depending upon when things are planted and the mercy of Mother Nature. Super savvy hunters will map their food sources and refer to it often when planning their hunting strategies. A little boot leather (and some time with an aerial photo) will get you to the skinning shed faster than you can look up “concentrate selectors.”