Thud! The sound startled me, sending a rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins that subsided just as quickly as I realized the source: a plump, ripe apple. That’s why I was there, and hopefully the deer would be too. I found the spot several years earlier, a derelict orchard so long abandoned that big pasture pines now towered over the apple trees, allowing through just barely enough light for them to produce fruit. In years when conditions were right for a good apple crop, it was an early-season deer Mecca; and this was one of those years.
First to show were a doe and twin fawns. I had antlerless tags, but it was too early in the season to burn them, or the stand. The place always held a good buck or two, and I knew my best odds of tagging one would be in the apples. The three deer munched apples for a while, providing me with some entertainment and live decoys. Eventually, they wandered off and the light grew dimmer.
I was down to minutes of remaining shooting light when I heard the branches cracking. It seemed too loud to be a deer — perhaps another hunter heading out early — but I stood up just in case. It was a good thing I did, because the first sight I got of the buck was him standing in my shooting lane. I didn’t have time to count points or size up his rack. I saw heavy beams, drew and fired. The buck exploded through the undergrowth; then all was silent. I let him lay overnight and found him first thing the next morning — less than 100 yards from the apple trees.
Outside of the rut, the overwhelming majority of time a deer spends on its feet is devoted to feeding. They are where they eat, so find the food source and you’ll find the deer. That food source is, in some shape or form, plants. However, deer can be quite selective as to which plants they eat, and that selectivity can vary with habitat, location and season, among other things. If you can recognize the favorites, you can identify promising hunting areas. Apple trees are easy — low-hanging fruit, if you will pardon the pun. But there are plenty of other plants that also will attract deer to a particular area.
Plant food preferences vary geographically simply because available plants vary from region to region. Often, however, different regions have ecological equivalents: plants that fill the same niche. The genus Rubus, for example, contains several species of what we call prickers, stickers or brambles — raspberry, blackberry, and dewberry. They are a preferred species of both browse and soft mast (see sidebar: Food Classes) wherever they occur.
Besides the stickers, they’re recognizable by their compound leaves, meaning each leaf has several distinct leaflets on a single stem. Greenbriar, another deer favorite, has simple leaves and grows as a green-stemmed vine. That’s the one you get hung up in walking to and from your stand in the dark; and it’s easily recognized by its stout, sharp thorns.
Dogwoods are another common woody shrub deer prefer. They have simple leaves — one leaf per stem. Their most recognizable characteristic is their leaf veins, which follow the smooth outer edges of the leaf. The twigs are often, but not always, reddish or purple.
The leaves of Viburnums, on the other hand, are toothed (most of the time) and the leaf veins are more typical, angling out away from the stem toward the leaf margin. When mature, both dogwoods and Viburnums have clusters of small berries. Dogwood, viburnum, chokecherry and serviceberry are particularly important browse species in the plains states.
Sometimes plants of the same species may be more or less palatable based on where they occur. Those growing in dense shade or on poor soils, for example, will be less nutritious and therefore less attractive to deer. Conversely, plants that receive more sunlight and grow in better soil will attract more deer (evidence suggests they really can tell the difference). That explains why deer may prefer one field of clover (another deer favorite) over another right next to it. Perhaps one farmer added more lime and fertilizer than the other.
The easiest way for hunters to tell the difference is by scouting to see which fields the deer are using. If you own the land or have permission, you could erect an exclosure, or “utilization cage.” They’re typically about five feet in diameter and three feet tall, but any size that keeps deer from grazing a patch of ground will work. Simply compare the vegetation inside and outside the cage. If there’s more in the cage, it’s a good indication deer are using the field. You can also use the cage to tell which plants deer prefer most (see sidebar: Exclosures).
Speaking of geography, it also applies to apples, an all-time whitetail favorite. Working orchards are easy to find, either by driving around or by looking for the orchard symbol (green dots on a white background) on a topo map. Abandoned orchards and even derelict trees are harder to find, but can be great bowhunting sites. You’ll often find them around old, abandoned farmsteads. Look especially along drainage margins. Apples fall, then get washed downstream where the seeds sprout, take root and produce more wild trees.
The Mighty Oak
Sometimes there is considerable variability within a genus, and this is especially true with oaks (Quercus). Research has shown that in the fall, whitetails prefer acorns over just about any other natural food source. However, not all acorns are the same, and there seems to be considerable confusion about oaks and acorns.
Botanists group oaks into two
general groups: red (or black) and white, each of which includes numerous species (see sidebar: Oak Leaves). For the most part, those in the white oak group have round-lobed leaves. Red oaks are characterized by leaves with pointed lobes.
White oak acorns tend to be smaller (there are exceptions to this rule) and have fewer tannins, making them sweeter. They also drop earlier. In general, red oaks produce larger acorns that typically fall later.
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about how often each type produces acorns.
White oak acorns require one year to mature. That means trees can produce nuts every year, when conditions are right. However, not all trees produce every year. Whether, and how much, they produce depends on several variables, including age, soil quality and environmental conditions. Older trees are more productive in general, as are those that grow on better sites. But cold, wet weather in early spring, or storms during the early growing season can spell doom for one year’s nut crop.
Red oak acorns require two years to mature. However, fruit-bearing trees may have both tiny, first-year and larger, second-year acorns present. The number of acorns again will vary with site and climatic conditions. Some trees just seem to be better producers than others, but even the best will rarely have bumper crops in consecutive years. Red oak drop is also inconsistent on a localized basis. This makes it harder to track when there will be a good nut drop. When and where it occurs, however, it becomes a deer magnet.
Usually when both groups (red and white) occur in the same area, deer will hit the white oak acorns first, and then shift to the reds. This is the case in much of the Northeast and North Central states. In the South, white oaks dominate and occur in a greater variety of individual species, which drop at differing times and rates during the fall.
Deer preference for a certain plant species can sometimes vary by season. The red maple is a great example. In early fall, deer nibble indifferently on the green leaves but don’t necessarily go out of their way to find them. Of course, they usually don’t have to, because where they occur, red maples typically occur in abundance — often in low-lying areas that give the tree its other common name: swamp maple. Gradually, as the days grow shorter, the leaves lose their green chlorophyll and change to brilliant orange and crimson hues.
Then the first frosts come. At about the same time, starches in the leaves change to sugar and the leaves die and fall to the ground. After a really hard frost, the swamps rain red leaves for a few days. It may be a stretch to suggest deer have a sweet tooth, but they seem to key in on this event, zeroing in on the bottoms and grazing at length on the new-fallen bounty. While I have not personally observed it, it seems reasonable the same thing occurs with sugar maples on higher ground, and quite possibly with other deciduous hardwoods in other regions of the country.
Deer will only feed on the new-fallen leaves for a few days, but the maples are not done attracting deer. As all the greenery dies, snow flies and deep cold hits, deer switch their diet increasingly to woody browse — twigs. It may all look the same to us, but deer are very discriminating in terms of which species they browse; and maple, especially red maple, is among their favorites.
Several characteristics can help identify maples in winter. An obvious one is to look at the leaf litter under the trees. Tree form is also helpful. The branches of red maples tend to grow upward at rather steep angles. You can also look at the arrangement of branches or buds. Those of red maples are opposite.
Deer also shift their diet toward softwoods in winter. During the other three seasons, they’ll barely look at hemlock and cedar, except perhaps to rub them. But when food is scarcest, which sometimes includes late bow seasons, they will feed on both species where they occur.
Both are needle-leaved evergreens. Hemlock needles are short (5⁄16-9⁄16 inches) and attached to twigs singularly, as opposed to clumps or bundles like some pines. They are also somewhat flattened, and white underneath. Cedars have scaly, branching leaves.
Those of the Atlantic white cedar are rounder while those of the Northern white cedar are flatter. Northern white cedar is also known as arborvitae and is a common ornamental shrub, though they tend not to last in areas of high deer densities.
Weather can also be a factor influencing preferred plant species. Technically, botany includes only vascular plants, but for our purposes we’re including non-vascular plants, which includes both ferns and mushrooms. In general, deer don’t eat ferns. In fact, where habitat is extremely overbrowsed, forest understory vegetation may consist predominantly of ferns. That means there are a lot of deer in the area, but not much to attract them to that particular location.
Quite the opposite is true of mushrooms. If you’ll allow the anthropomorphism, deer relish them, particularly the lighter-colored ones that pop up within a day or two of a good, soaking rain. Where they turn up varies considerably, but you’ll often find them in pine stands, hardwood stands with a dense canopy or other areas that receive less sunlight. Like the falling maple leaves, they’re an ephemeral attractant and the feeding frenzy won’t last long. However, they tend to turn up in the same locations year after year. If you find a good patch after a steady rain, make a note of it; hang a stand there and save it for the day after a rainy day.
While not natural, agricultural crops are plants, and some are important deer attractants.
In parts of the Midwest, for example, corn and soybeans make up as much as 87 percent of a deer’s diet, by weight. The aforementioned clover, which is high in protein, is generally more attractive to deer in the early fall. As their nutritional needs change later in fall, deer gradually shift their diets from proteins to carbohydrates. They may ignore standing corn in September, but will hammer it in October and November. Though also proteins, deer seem to shun alfalfa and soybeans until after the first frosts. Then, these plants become deer magnets. The same is true for brassicas, a food-plot favorite. Deer seem largely indifferent to them until the first killing frosts. Then, plant starches turn to sugar and the plants are literally like deer candy.
The above descriptions of various plant species are rather general. The best way to properly identify plants is to use a field guide for the area you hunt. The better ones will have some sort of key that helps you narrow the possibilities by looking at leaf shape and size, whether leaves are compound or simple, and other physical characteristics.
You should also check with local sources such as your county agricultural agent and regional wildlife biologist to learn about local food preferences. The area you hunt likely contains hundreds of different species, including dozens that deer in that area will eat.
Still, there are always a few local favorites. Find them, and the odds are good that the deer already have — and they’ll be back for more.