One of the best times to hunt deer is after casual hunters hang up their guns for the year. After the rut is finished, when bucks again start acting like deer rather than sex-addled teenagers. After winter has clamped down with a vengeance, and less dedicated hunters are hunkered down in front of their TVs flipping channels between Celebrity Bowling and Baywatch re-runs.
That’s when Dale Garner and many other successful trophy hunters head to the field. “I wait until about a week after our general gun season, let the deer settle down, and then hope for a period of cold, nasty weather,” said Garner, a wildlife management department chief and avid, experienced deer hunter. “After about a week, those big bucks calm down and come out of all the hiding places where they waited out the main hunting seasons. That’s when I get my big bucks.”
While many hunters successfully use the hormone-induced insanity of the rut to catch big bucks off guard, veteran hunters like Garner take advantage of the predictability of hunting deer post-rut. Once hormones subside, deer become creatures of habit. Food and comfort become their focus. Hunters who know where and when deer will feed and bed, and how and when they move between feeding and bedding areas, have increased opportunities to bring home trophy bucks.
NOT SUMMER PATTERNS
Many hunters spend hours at patterning deer feeding and bedding behavior in late summer and prior to the open of hunting seasons. Other hunters study scrapes and rub lines before and during the rut to identify and track movement of big bucks. All those scouting efforts go out the window once the rut is finished and winter tightens its frosty grip.
“If you scout in late summer or early fall, you’re looking at their movements when they’re feeding on summer food supplies,” said Tom Dobbs, a veteran deer hunter with multiple trophy deer mounts on his walls. “They feed and bed in completely different areas in the winter than they do in summer. I scout for my late-season hunts in the springtime. After the snow goes off it’s easy to see where (deer) have been feeding and bedding all winter. Those trails are often completely different from trails they used in the summer.”
There is evidence that not only do deer move differently during winter, but they also move farther. A study conducted by wildlife biologist Lee Gladfelter several decades ago documented that in areas with both agricultural and forested lands, cold weather actually increased deer movement. Daily home ranges for Gladfelter’s study group of deer in a large forested area abutted by agricultural fields averaged 27 acres in summer but expanded to 52 acres during mild-to-average winters.
Gladfelter theorized that deer in his study didn’t need to travel far during summer months to feed. Their summer home ranges were often near agricultural fields where they had to move only a few hundred yards from forest to farm fields lush with crops. He noted that in some cases where crops were tall enough, deer fed, bedded and lived in fields, and used the timber only occasionally during late summer and early fall.
But after crop fields were harvested and cold weather arrived, average home ranges of deer in Gladfelter’s study increased nearly 100 percent. He surmised his deer had to move farther during winter to find adequate food and comfortable bedding areas. Interestingly, while the average size of home ranges increased, deer movement within those ranges was more concise. Deer tended to feed and bed in small areas, but moved among a circuit of small feeding/bedding areas as food sources were depleted and weather changed through the winter.
Veteran deer hunters know acorns are one of the favorite foods of deer. Observers have noted that deer exhibit a strong preference for acorns from white oaks, and their related burr oaks, over acorns from red oak and pin oaks. Curious humans with strong teeth report white oak acorns have a sweeter, nuttier taste than acorns from red oak trees, which have a more bitter, acidic taste due to higher tannin content. Native Americans, who often included acorns as part of their diet, sometimes soaked red oak acorns in water to leach out bitter tannins. That may explain why deer are inclined to show more interest in red oak acorns later in the season, after fall rains have soaked and possibly mellowed their flavor.
Hunters who scout and find ground beneath white oak trees blanketed with acorns shouldn’t assume they’ve found deer nirvana.
“Just because you find a lot of acorns on the ground doesn’t mean deer will feed there,” said Brent Rudolph, a deer management biologist. “Insects and weevils and worms can get into acorns on the trees or after they hit the ground, and eat them from the inside out. It may look like a tremendous food supply for deer and a great place to hunt, but deer either don’t like the taste of wormy acorns or they don’t get enough energy from them, and it doesn’t take long for them to avoid those areas.
“If there’s a grove of oak trees with acorns on the ground in early winter that doesn’t show signs of squirrel or deer feeding, there’s probably a reason,” he said. “Don’t waste time hunting where deer aren’t actively feeding.”
FARM FRESH FOODS
In areas with farm fields, those fields are often primary food sources for deer in summer, and prime food sources throughout the winter. Corn is a high-energy crop that fuels their increased metabolic needs during cold weather. Soybeans, hay and other legumes are excellent protein sources that help bucks regain muscle mass lost during the rigors of rut.
Knowing where to hunt in farm fields is key. Modern farm equipment does a pretty good job harvesting corn so that waste grain in the middle of fields is limited. But big equipment often runs down stalks of corn or other crops when turning, making corners of fields prime places for deer to find waste grain, and for hunters to find deer. A small, irregular-shaped field tucked against a tree line provides deer with wintertime shelter and a high likelihood of easy-access waste grain.
Winter rye is sometimes planted as a cover crop to reduce erosion of farm fields over the winter. Planted in early autumn, winter rye grows lushly to 6 to 12 inches before cold weather stops growth, but rye stays green throughout the winter. Winter wheat has the same seeding, growth and “stay-green” attributes.
Wildlife management biologist Willie Suchy has experimented on his own property with planting winter rye. “Deer really, really love it for winter grazing,” said Suchy. “If a hunter finds a field of winter wheat or rye, especially if it’s near timber, he’s probably
found a feeding area for most of the deer in that area.”
FOCUS ON FOOD PLOTS
Suchy’s experiments with seeding deer-favored crops mirrors the efforts of many hunters/landowners who plant food plots to attract deer or improve deer nutrition in hopes bucks will develop larger antlers. Suchy noted the value of food plots in improving antler quality depends on local circumstances.
“In agricultural areas, or even in forested areas where deer have access to farm crops, nutrition is probably not a limiting factor,” he said. “The place where food plots with special plants might help would be where the soils are poor and deer literally have to work to find enough to eat, especially in the winter.”
Even if food plots don’t improve antler quality, they definitely can attract more deer to an area. Tom Dobbs, the veteran deer hunter mentioned earlier, owns a feed and seed store and has helped many landowners in his area develop food plots. He said landowners hoping to attract deer, and hunters seeking deer, should look for “year-round” plots.
“A big problem with food plots is figuring out how to keep enough food on hand to feed deer year ’round,” said Dobbs. “You’ve got to have plants that deer eat in summer, other plants that are fall food, and other plants that will feed them through the winter and into spring.”
Dobbs suggested late-season deer hunters target well-managed food plots with “enduring” plants. “Brassicas — things like turnips, rutabagas, hybrid turnips — are dual-purpose plants in food plots,” he said. “Deer feed on the tops, then as long as the ground isn’t too frozen, they’ll paw up or actually pull the tubers up by the tops and eat them.”
Jason Fleener, a deer management biologist, prefers a different approach to food plots. “We recommend natural vegetation in food plots,” he said. “You’re just taking familiar food sources that probably grow well in your area and concentrating them in specific areas. Native forbs and shrubs are always good because deer are browsers. If you watch them in summer feeding, they often spend as much time nibbling on twigs and bush tips as they do grazing on grasses.”
Native plants favored by deer vary across the country. Fleener pointed out high bush cranberry and seedling or re-growth aspen as favored browse in his region. Orchard growers can attest that any fruit tree is like candy to deer. White Cedar, a.k.a. Arbor Vitae, is popular with deer, as are maple, wild plum and other “sweet” tasting buds on trees or bushes.
BEST BEDDING AREAS
Late hunting seasons give hunters three opportunities to set up and tag a big buck: feeding areas, bedding areas, or the paths deer use to move between them.
“Some of the thickets and brushy areas deer use for bedding in winter are pretty nasty, so it’s tough to put a stand right in their bedroom,” said veteran hunter Dobbs. “If I can, I prefer to put my stand on a trail near a bedding area rather than close to a feeding area. Big bucks tend to be nocturnal, start moving just before dark and feeding after dark. It may be full dark before he gets to his feeding area, so I have a better chance at him when there’s still a little daylight when he’s just leaving his bed.”
Brent Rudolph, the deer management biologist, offered a final tip to late-season hunters targeting deer during mid-day during bitterly cold weather: “They’re just like us — they like to soak up sunshine when it’s cold. Look for a sunny hillside near their feeding area, with an open view to the downhill side and the wind coming over the top of the hill or ridge. I’ve noticed that big bucks like to soak up the sun with a hill between them and the wind. But they’re careful to make sure they have a good view in front of them and enough wind coming over the hill so they can scent any danger coming on their blind side.”