December 12, 2022
Winter in the Northeast can be brutal for a deer herd. Fresh off the heels of the rut, most bucks have lost 20 to 25 percent of their body weight and are left to replenish their fat reserves during the greatest nutritional bottleneck of the calendar year.
Couple their dietary needs with the weather conditions they are facing—bitterly cold temperatures, howling winds and heavy snowfalls—and it's a wonder that deer don't succumb to winter kill more often. But how can we, as hunters, use this to our advantage to fill our late-season tags?
As a wildlife biologist and habitat consultant, my primary concern whenever I am working on a property in the Northeast is late-season habitat. Not only are deer here desperate for quality food resources to make up for what they lost during the rut, but their metabolism is the most important mechanism they have for generating internal heat to stay warm. For this reason, your late-season hunting strategy is simple: It's time to hunt the kitchen.
While acorns are low in protein, they are extremely high in carbohydrates and fats—42 percent and 52 percent, respectively. These carbs and fats are what help replenish a deer’s fat reserves and keep it warm throughout the winter. Because of their nutritional content, a productive oak grove is tough to beat for late-season hunting success. With that in mind, it is important to understand that not all acorns are created equal.
Whitetails can and will eat all acorns, though certain varieties are preferred over others. Factors such as availability and time of year will influence the deer’s decision to visit one oak species over another. Survey your hunting buddies on what acorn is most preferred by deer, and the answer will be a unanimous "white oak." While this is true, it is important to understand why.
Although every acorn contains tannic acid, the concentration of tannins is what determines the palatability of a particular acorn type. Because of their low tannin levels, white oak acorns are the most desired by whitetail.
So if white oak acorns are more attractive to deer, why do we focus on red oaks during the late season? It's all about timing. Because white oaks drop their crop from late August through early September, deer key in on that desirable food source during that period and will generally ignore the red oak acorns. White oaks will also germinate shortly after hitting the ground, making them less attractive to deer once they do. Due to their higher tannin content, red oaks acorns "preserve" better through the winter since they germinate the following spring.
How to Hunt: Being able to identify a red oak is the first step to successfully hunting over one. Luckily, the bark of species in the red oak family is conspicuous and easy to identify. It is fairly smooth (compared to its white oak counterparts), dark brown or gray in color and has thin, shiny veins running down the trunk that are typically of a reddish color. I often think these veins look like interwoven ski slopes running down the length of the trunk.
If you aren't aware of where the red oak groves are growing in the area you hunt, let the deer tell you. Because of their tolerance for dry soils, red oaks can typically be found on ridge tops and south-facing hillsides. A productive grove of red oaks can be an absolute dynamite hang-and-hunt scenario during the late season. Grab your tree saddle or climbing stand and follow the tracks and trails until you find fresh sign under one or a cluster of red oak trees. If you find a good stand of trees but don’t see any fresh sign, move on to the next one. If you observe evidence of deer pawing at the ground in search of acorns and fresh scat, pick a tree to climb and hang tight.
YOUNG FOREST HABITAT
Woody browse—plant material high in lignin content, such as twigs, buds and stems—can constitute up to 80 percent of a deer's diet during the winter months. Being ruminants, deer have a multi-chambered stomach like cows, sheep and goats. This means they can process tough-to-digest plant materials through a microbial fermentation process in the front chamber of their stomach before digestion. Why is this important? As stated earlier, a deer’s metabolism is what generates heat and keeps them warm through the harsh winter months.
The place to find the highest concentration of woody browse will be young forest habitat. In the Northeast, look for aspen or poplar cuts, clear cuts or any other intense timber harvest or thinning. In this region, a young forest will be productive for deer from the time of harvest up through 7 to 10 years post-harvest, depending on the site. North- and east-facing slopes will mature at a slower rate than south- and west-facing slopes. Species composition will also dictate how long these young forests are a productive food source for deer. For example, an aspen cut will regenerate at a faster rate than a hardwood cut.
As the seedlings and stump sprouts turn to saplings and eventually to young trees, they begin to shade each other out and grow out of the reach of the deer. Without standing on its hind legs, a deer can only reach limbs that are 4 to 5 feet above the ground, so it is important to take advantage of these food sources while they are available.
How to Hunt: My favorite tool for scouting for young forest habitat is the timelapse feature on Google Earth, especially when hunting public land. Search for your hunting area (WMA, national forest, etc.) in the app and look for recent timber harvests by scanning for large chunks of missing canopy. Once you find a possible harvest area, slide the time bar at the top of the screen to look back on aerial images of the same piece of ground from years past. If the most recent images are from 2020, but you slide back to, say, 2015, and the canopy is contiguous, you know the harvest has occurred sometime in the last 7 years. This feature can save you countless hours and miles of hiking only to discover the harvest is mature beyond the point of being a productive hunting location.
Another resource I readily utilize is a simple phone call to the wildlife manager of the WMA or the district ranger for the national forest I want to hunt. It might take a little effort, but with a good attitude and some old-fashioned detective work, you can quickly figure out where the most recent timber harvest has occurred. I like to utilize the logging roads and landing strips from the timber harvest both for access and for choosing a hunting location. Consider using some of the debris left behind to construct a brush blind, as you will be limited to hunting the outskirts of the young forest due to limited visibility.
OLD FIELD HABITAT
Much like young forest habitats, old fields attract deer for their woody browse, albeit in a different form. Old fields tend to have heavy shrub and bramble components. American plum, sumac, elderberry, dogwood and blackberry are some of my favorite species to encounter when scouting an old field. Old fields also have the added benefit of possessing perennial forbs. Even though these forbs go dormant during the winter months, many of them will still be green and nutritious at the base, where deer will paw down through the snow to reach the lush food source when there’s no other greenery to eat.
How to Hunt: Much like looking for young forest habitats, I do most of my scouting for old field locations digitally. Using your favorite mapping software, look for areas that look “messy” from the aerial images. Most often found on neglected pasture lands and around flood plains, old field habitats can be easily distinguished from the surrounding woodlands and agriculture. If you are hunting around a flood control lake, look for areas where the creeks dump into the fingers of the main lake. These areas flood every couple of years, and the standing water will help “drown” many of the tree species and promote moisture-loving shrubs such as buttonbush. These spots offer great opportunities to hunt areas that other hunters don’t have the means or determination to access.
- Fern Patches: These are especially important for those who hunt the big woods. While deer typically won’t feed on the leaves of ferns during the growing season, the bulbs of the plants can become a highly desirable food source for deer making a living in the deep timber. Deer will dig them out of the ground through the snow.
- Locust Bean Pods: If you know of an area full of locust trees, don’t overlook their bean pods as a late-season food source. I’ve witnessed deer in West Virginia bed down and wait for the wind to blow these large pods off the tree. When pods hit the ground, the deer will stand up, walk over and consume them, then go back to where they were bedded and wait for the next wind gust to knock more of them down.
- Persimmons: The great thing about a mature persimmon tree is it can hold its fruit all the way through January. If you live in an area blessed with persimmon groves, do not think of these trees as simply a “candy crop” only available during early fall. Keep tabs on the persimmons in your area, and see if any of them are holding fruit late into the winter.