By Dr. Grant Woods
As a hunter, I really enjoy the late season deer hunting! Although there will be fewer bucks, as some will have been taken earlier in the season, there are a couple important advantages to hunting this time of year.
First and foremost, deer are hungry right now, and food sources in most areas are limited. So, determining where the deer are feeding should be relatively easy.
Second, in many areas female fawns will come into estrous during the late season and will be visiting feeding areas during daylight hours. Their presence (and scent) means bucks will also be found in those feeding areas during daylight.
Many researchers have documented that bucks will lose approximately 30 percent of their body weight during the rut. That means during the late season bucks often aggressively seek quality food within their home range. Bucks prefer grain and other foods high in carbohydrates at this time. Standing soybeans or corn are almost always a hotspot.
When grains aren't present, deer will often seek the bulbs of turnips or even the tops if they aren't damaged by freezing. Other forages such as wheat can also be very attractive food sources for deer this time of year.
My preference for a late-season food-plot crop - and I think the deer's preference too - is grain, followed by a brassica such as rape and turnips, and the forage crops such as wheat. Remember, deer seek the best food in their home range to fulfill their nutritional needs.
While your buddy may be seeing deer every day eating spilled grain in a harvested corn or soybean field a county away, you may be seeing deer in a food plot planted with wheat and brassicas.
That's because the wheat and brassicas may be the best food in the home range of those deer - or at least the best food source not associated with danger. Finding a quality food source where deer are comfortable at this time of year is critical for success.
A recent example of when I used this knowledge successfully occurred last season. I had seen a good buck in an area a few times, but never in range. The best food in the area was in a food plot located in a bottom where the wind seemed to constantly swirl. There was finally a solid north wind, so I was able to approach and set up on the south side of the plot.
Mid-morning, several yearling bucks pushed a female fawn into the field. She clearly was in estrous. The bucks pushed the female fawn around the plot a few times before the buck I called Trashman entered the field.
The plan worked perfectly! I had found the best food in Trashman's home range. I knew that buck almost never showed in that field during daylight, as I had a Reconyx camera in time-lapse mode watching the plot. But the buck's need to regain weight during the late season, combined with a female fawn that was in estrous and hadn't yet learned to avoid food plots during daylight hours, were the factors that made that plan result in a trip to the taxidermist.
Not all late-season buck mortality, however, results in a trip to the taxidermist. Researchers at Texas A&M University-Kingsville stated, "After the rut, bucks are exhausted and in poor condition, in need of energy to replenish the lost fat reserves. If bucks have pushed the envelope too far during the rut, their survival is at risk."
The university captured dozens of wild, free-ranging bucks and fitted them with GPS tracking collars over a multi-year period. Their results clearly indicated "yearling and 2-year old bucks have less rump fat than older bucks, because young deer are still growing.
Mature bucks typically have the greatest fat reserves, providing them the energy they need to successfully chase, court, and tend estrus does during the rut." Middle-aged bucks in the study had the highest survival, with most mortality suffered by yearling and 2-year-old bucks and very old bucks.
This is typical for many sources of mortality, including lack of quality food and predation. This study was done in the Texas brush country. Some hunters might not consider winter mortality a factor in the relatively mild South Texas climate! Certainly, similar results have been published from researchers working in the northern woods where there's often not much quality food for deer to consume during the late season.
However, north or south, body conditions are better and survival rates are higher in areas where grain production is common. Deer can recover relatively rapidly from the rigors of the rut if ample, quality foods are available.
There are a couple take-home lessons from this research and how I applied it to my hunt. Bucks and other members of the deer herd are going to seek the best food in their home range after rut. This allows hunters to have some great action during the late season, especially if they make sure their hunting property offers grain or other high-carbohydrate foods during this critical period.
If you hunt in an area that produces a lot of soybeans and corn, your biggest task may be finding the area where these grains are available and the deer haven't been hunted so frequently that they are only feeding at night. For those of us who hunt in areas primarily covered by timber or grass pastures, quality food plots can certainly be great stand sites during the late season and help bucks be in much better shape to survive the winter.