Hunt the Food
To hunt Whitetails based on food sources you must develop a thorough understanding of what Whitetails eat and when they are usually available for your area. Unlike private land, you will typically need to focus on natural food sources as there will most likely be no agricultural source for food for Whitetails to flock to. In most cases there are no food plots that are maintained, and if there are food plots on public land they will quickly be over hunted and the deer will change their feeding patterns accordingly. Lastly there are no feeders, or if you do find one I recommend you notify your local wildlife officer. Now in the absence of these man-made food sources you will need to target those food sources provided by Mother Nature. You must learn how to locate these natural food sources and I recommend that you be able to do so regardless of their stage of cycle. I tend to identify food sources in January and February when I can freely roam the woods without worry about changing the deer’s routine. It is much harder to identify some trees and soft mass sources in mid winter because you can’t look for the fruit, or even identify by the leaf pattern. So, you must know what areas a particular plant, shrub, or tree typically grows. What the bark or plant structure looks like. Luckily the internet has a wealth of information and pictures to help you out. You only need to know what to search for.
Once I know what to look for it is time to put the miles on. During the winter months I will spend full days “roaming with a purpose” looking for food sources. I usually pack a light backpack and in this I carry a compass, a small camera, a notepad or small journal and a GPS.
Come early summer I am back out visiting the areas I noted in my journal and GPS. I want to know how the mast crop is looking, which trees appear to be producing and which are not. Depending on the weather I may also be making notes about areas that may be impacted by drought or excessive heat. It is amazing the difference a mile or even a half mile can make in the soft mass crop of some species during dry weather.
As season approaches I am out making another round. At this point I am much more concerned about things like scent control, and noise. I prefer to not spook deer at this time if I can help it. Ideally I would like to have a day when it is either really windy or better yet rainy. During these late scouting sessions I am finalizing plans for opening day and where the best location for a stand is likely to be.
Food sources can change depending on location. Rather than attempt to cover all possible food sources I am going to share those that I focus on most. These are widespread and very common in most Whitetail habitats, yet depending on your location or hunting area there could be others that are more prevalent. This is by no means a complete source but more of a primer to get you started. The information here is right out of my journal and personal notes. This is the type of research I would recommend to assist you in locating and identifying these natural foods. You may then use this information to understand their importance to your hunting strategy.
Where available crabapples and Whitetails should go hand in hand when considering early season stand locations. If this fruit is indigenous where you hunt you can almost bet during the early days of archery season the deer will be targeting the crabapple. Here in the south they are very common but I am surprised at how little I hear other hunters talking about crabapples as a Whitetail food source. For us humans the fruit is sour almost to the point of being inedible, but deer absolutely love them.
Locating crabapples is actually pretty easy, especially if you are also a Turkey hunter. These trees prefer to grow in open areas where they will receive lots of sunlight. On public land these areas are usually along roads, power line or gas line right of ways, wildlife clearings and even clearcuts. Look along the edges of these openings in the spring (when chasing gobblers) for the small white apple blossoms. The flowers will have 5 petals and look much like any other apple blossom. Mark these on a map, GPS or make a note in your journal if you keep one and then check them again during the summer to see how the fruit is forming. One note, Crabapple trees do not like high heat. If around a clear cut where controlled burns are being performed the trees will likely not survive and will die so keep this in mind. Beyond this one fact they are very hardy and transplant well if you are so inclined to plant some trees to hunt in the future. The fruit produced will be small and usually will remain green till they ripen and fall. Of course any low hanging fruit will be consumed early but when they start falling deer will check throughout the day for new fallen fruit.
Another early season attraction for Whitetails are the delicious Muscadines. These wild grapes grow everywhere in the southeastern United States and when they are falling practically every animal in the woods, and folks too, will be flocking to them in droves. Muscadine vines can be in the trees, or on the ground and can be found pretty much anywhere. During years with ample rainfall the fruit produced can be downright amazing. Many years the grapes begin falling prior to the season opener but fruit can hang around well into archery season. Because they are fairly common here in Georgia, I will typically look for larger concentrations of vines away from roads and other accessible areas. If I find such an area I will try to plan to hunt on a day when I can stay in the stand all day.
One sometimes forgotten staple in the Whitetail’s diet is the American Beech. These trees produce beech nuts which Whitetails will seek out and they are usually beginning to fall near the start of the archery season. Beech trees are easily identified by they slick gray bark and bright green, serrated leaves.
These trees are abundant all across the eastern United States and can grow to be very large. In years where other soft mast is not producing or has already been cleaned up if you can find a Beech tree that has nuts falling and you have a better than average chance of a run in with a Whitetail.
One of the harder soft mast trees to locate is the Persimmon tree. Not nearly as common as the soft mass varieties discussed thus far, the persimmon is a deer magnet when the fruit begins to fall and typically the fruit falls later in the season than other fruit types of soft mass like apples and wild grapes. Perhaps the easiest way to locate persimmon trees is to look for the white blooms during the spring and make a note in your journal or using your GPS. While a few persimmons can fall early the fruit really only ripens and begins to fall in large numbers after the first frost. The fruit produced ranges in color from dark yellow to orange and when ripe persimmons are very sweet, when not yet ripe the taste is very sour to the point of being inedible by man or beast. A large persimmon tree in an out of the way location has always been one of my most treasured finds for deer season. Whitetails just love them and persimmon trees can sometime produce so much fruit that the limbs are unable to support the weight. I have witnessed large limbs break from the weight of the fruit and once I was disappointed to find one of my favorite persimmon trees split right down the trunk due to a really heavy mast crop.
Find a persimmon tree that is dropping fruit and setup near enough for a shot then spend as much time in that stand as possible without tipping off the deer.
Oaks and Acorns
I doubt I will surprise anyone by saying deer love acorns and usually when a deer hunter thinks of acorns he thinks of White Oaks.
A loaded White Oak may just be the holy grail of food sources for a whitetail deer hunter because they know that deer favor these acorns above just about any other food. It is simple fact that deer will ignore just about anything else available when White Oaks are dropping. The good news for us is that White Oaks are very common and can be found just about anywhere Whitetail deer can be found. As I said, I am sure you already know all of this but here are some things you may not know about White Oak acorns. Deer love them because they have low levels of tannic acid which makes them the sweetest of all acorns. White Oaks produce acorns every other year while typically producing an exceptionally heavy crop every forth year. Trees usually start producing around the age of 20 years and they tend to start dropping later than Red Oaks and can continue dropping into late October to early November.
The trees are easily identified by the course, scaley bark that is a light gray in color and the leaves have rounded lobes.
Red Oaks are also a staple in the Whitetail’s diet but they are less favored than White Oaks. The greatest advantage Red Oaks have for us is that they begin dropping sooner than White Oaks and therefore they will be the first of the Oaks to be targeted by deer. I have seen seasons where the Red Oaks were dropping practically at the start of the Archery season so keep this in mind when doing your last scouting prior to the start of the season. You may even want to take a pair of binoculars along on these scouting trips to look for the heaviest laden trees and note them for future reference. Also, if you are near dropping Reds during the archery season and the acorns are being ignored, it’s a good bet that somewhere White Oaks have started to drop. When this happens the Red Oak acorns will be left on the forest floor to rot. Red Oaks tend to produce mast every other year although weather can have an impact on this, same goes for other types of Oaks as well.
Red Oaks are identified by looking for the exact opposite traits as when identifying White Oaks. First the bark is hard, coarse and not easily removed from the tree. The leaves have pointed lobes and are typically darker in color than White Oaks. Hopefully these photos will help in your identification of the Red Oak.
There are a few other oaks I will mention briefly here in closing. These oaks tend to be more localized but if they are prominent in the areas you hunt then they are worthy of your attention come deer season. The first is the Pin Oak. Pin Oaks produce a smallish acorn that is low in tannic acid and where available the deer will eat them readily. Pin Oaks are related to Red Oaks and have leaves that heavily resemble red oaks as well. Water Oaks are also in the Red Oak family and produce an Acorn that deer will eat. Water Oaks are sometimes stubborn about dropping their acorns and thus the deer can focus on Water Oaks later in the season when other Oaks have lost all of their acorns.
Lastly I will mention the lowly Chestnut Oak. Not really much to say about the Chestnut Oak. Deer typically avoid them as the Acorns produced are very bitter. The acorns produced by Chestnut Oaks are easy to find as they are very large. 2 or 3 times larger than the acorns produced by White and Red Oaks. The one use I have found for Chestnut Oaks is that I will pick up the acorns from a Chestnut Oak aND keep a handful in my pack. If I am in a stand watching a White Oak tree that is producing and see deer nearby I have used these to lure the deer closer by dropping them from my stand. Due to their size it is easy to hear them when they hit the ground. Doesn’t work every time but then again, what does. I have had “thumping acorns” work for me a handful of times over the years so I will continue to keep it in my bag of tricks.
Well that about wraps up Part I. For you seasoned hunters I hope there is a tidbit or two of useful information here, if you are a young or new hunter then I hope you learned a lot. Stay tuned for Part II where we will be discussing terrain and how you can use knowledge of terrain to help locate Whitetail travel corridors and ambush locations. When you combine knowledge of active food sources with knowledge of the terrain the scales can tip heavily to your advantage. In fact, if I am hunting a new location without the luxury of pre-season scouting, the first thing I do is get my hand on a topo map of the area and in most cases I can identify several very likely locations to set up without ever setting foot in the woods. But I am getting ahead of myself, you will have to wait for Part II to learn more. Until then……
May all your arrows find their mark.