No sight is more gratifying to a whitetail hunter than a forest raining acorns on leaves littered with hoofprints, droppings, scrapes, and rubs. But as we all know, acorn crops can be light, spotty, or nonexistent. When that happens, many hunters switch to food plots and cropfields. But you may find yourself seeing only does and small bucks there. Or what if your property is all wooded? Or maybe you simply like hunting forested land?
The answer: Hunt alternative woods foods. Some are found near natural clearings and edges; others are deep in the heart of the forest.
Here are 10 examples of woods foods that deer relish. Grab a pen, make a sketch of your property, and get out and mark their locations. When acorns are scarce, you can bet bucks will find them.
Deer consume both the fruits and leaves of these plants, which are loaded with calcium and phosphorus. Look for summer grape, muscadine, and other species in sandy or rocky soils and uplands where the vines aggressively climb trees and bushes. They can grow up to 30 feet tall; on your own land, pull vines down so deer can reach them easily.
Find an area with abundant mushrooms and you’ve pinpointed a deer diner. Rainy, damp weather makes them more abundant. They’re especially prevalent in conifer stands where shade and pine needles keep the ground moist, and along stream bottoms.
On land I hunt, this thorny vine is by far the No. 1 food when acorns are scarce. The stems and leaves offer good protein and stay green year-round. Logged areas, fencelines, or other clearings are prime places to find greenbrier.
4. Plum Thickets
Deer eat the fruits, stems, and leaves of this native plant, which are 86 percent digestible and have a 14 percent protein level. You’ll find them near forest openings, logging roads, and natural clearings. They also provide great security cover and thermal protection in winter with their dense shrubby growth.
Deer feed on both native and nonnative varieties. Protein levels reach 10 to 20 percent, and the tender foliage stays green year-round. Natural clearings, fencelines, woods edges, and clear-cuts are good spots. A prime honeysuckle stand can produce 11⁄2 tons of forage per acre.
Both blackberry and raspberry shrubs attract deer with protein levels that can reach 19 percent. They’ll eat the leaves while they’re green, the stem tips after that. Woods borders, log landings, trails, and storm-damaged areas all typically see a flush of bramble growth where sunlight penetrates the forest canopy.
7. Strawberry Bush
Often called ice cream for deer, this shrub has a taste that bucks relish so much that the plant can be decimated. They devour both the leaves and branches. It can thrive in deep woods settings or areas with partial sun.
8. Mountain Laurel
While not a favorite, this food prevents many deer from starving when acorn crops are poor. It can withstand rocky, acidic soils and grows best on southern slopes. The thick stands also offer terrific bedding cover. A Georgia study found big bucks on public land hunkering down in laurel thickets from opening day until the season closed.
9. American Beautyberry
Though it’s especially favored in spring, deer will eat the leaves and twig tips of this 5- to 8-foot-tall shrub in fall, as well as the purple berry clusters through winter. It offers 10 to 20 percent protein, depending on the season and the part of the plant consumed. It thrives in a wide variety of soils but doesn’t like complete shade.
10. Poison Ivy
No, it doesn’t make deer itch. They gobble it in spring for its high-protein leaves (up to 29 percent). In fall when acorns are scarce, they eat both the stems and pale-colored fruits. Found across the eastern half of the country, this native plant thrives in wooded areas with partial sunlight such as fencelines, clearings, and logged areas.