Knowing what deer are eating is important throughout the fall, but in the late season, it’s pretty much the entire ball game. During the rut, grabbing a bite to eat was an afterthought for bucks, but right now and in the weeks to come, choosing a prime food source is key to their survival. Sure there’s some secondary breeding happening, and bucks are still banging antlers and posturing to prove who’s boss. But this is all happening at, or around, the best food sources in the area. Here are nine late-season whitetail foods that can get you on a post-rut buck.
If I had to nominate a most-overlooked winter food it’s the acorn. They’ve been dropping since the beginning of fall, causing many hunters to think the show is over. (And in areas where oaks are rare, or the crop is poor, it might be.) But if there are nuts left, even buried under the snow, deer will be all over them. Deer are less picky about the acorns they eat now, and the sign they leave in the snow or leaf litter is easy to spot.
2. Newly Seeded Alfalfa
This was one of my early-season picks, but I’m including it here because I’ve seen December deer ignore corn and soybeans to dig through a foot of snow and feed in a newly seeded alfalfa field. Alfalfa is extremely high in protein, and a fresh field must still maintain its flavor because deer devour the stuff. I’ve accessed previously un-huntable farms because I’ve asked permission to hunt winter deer digging up new alfalfa. Farmers are often more than happy to let me hunt, especially if I’m willing to take a doe or two.
Apples are another mast species most hunters associate with early fall, but they can be a huge draw in the post-rut. I hunted a farm for many years with a small orchard, and there were a half-dozen trees that held apples well into winter. The trails beaten to those late-bearing trees were always impressive. And don’t forget crab apples. While deer often ignore these tart little treats in early fall, they will devour them during the late season.
If I were forced to pick only one ag-species row-crop to plant in a food plot, it would be soybeans. In addition to being high in protein, soybeans grow relatively low to the ground and are lightly attached to the stalk. This makes it easy for deer to inhale a pile of them with very little effort, and winter whitetails are all about efficiency when it comes to eating. On the flip side, beans can get buried in deep snow, and if there are easier food sources around, deer might ignore them.
If ever there were a food plot seed perfectly designed for the winter, brassicas (the seed category that includes rape, kale, turnips, and radishes) are the ticket. For starters, deer largely ignore the leaves in summer and early fall, making them a perfect choice for a small plot in an area of high deer density. But after those leaves get hit with a frost or two, deer are all over them. Brassicas also provide more sheer tonnage of food per acre than almost anything. One warning: You’ll need to rotate your food plots, as planting brassicas several years in a row will result in disease or decreased production.
Corn is an obvious food source for farm country whitetails, but it’s far from being a no-brainer. Standing corn looks like an easy buffet, but in reality, chewing corn from a cob is kind of a chore for deer, and in most cases, they prefer the kernels on the ground. This makes a picked (but not plowed) cornfield even more attractive to whitetails. Still, in a winter that features plenty of standing corn, hunting the standing crop is the only option. In my experience, this works best when temps really plummet and deer don’t have a lot of choices. Another tip: Whitetails often prefer smaller plots located close to bedding cover.
7. Hard/Woody Browse
Woody browse is a highly overlooked food source in the food plot era, and it’s actually the stuff that whitetails evolved to eat to sustain them through the winter. It’s their go-to choice, sometimes even when better-looking, easier-to-access sources (like food plots and farm crops) are available. If you’ve got poplar or maple saplings, young white cedar, or Douglas fir growing in your area, ignore them at your peril now. Deer thrive on eating these native species, which often grow close to bedding zones, so whitetails will focus on them when they’re feeling pressured, or if warmer winter temps don’t motivate them to visit other food sources.
8. Shrub/Brushy Browse
When most hunters think “browse,” they focus on young trees, but there are more options. Japanese honeysuckle, dewberry, dogwood, blackberry cane, and Oregon grape are all examples of regional species that are highly favored by deer—and most of them can last well into the winter. In my area, honeysuckle leaves not only remain green during the late season, but the dense stands also provide bedding and security cover for hungry whitetails.
9. Local Winter Favorites
Whitetails are experts at selecting foods that provide just the nutrition they need at a specific time, and some of these food sources are ignored for much of the year. In northern states, sumac “candles”—the red flower atop a woody sumac stem—are like deer candy now. Even better, they frequently grow on the brushy, south-facing slopes that whitetails prefer for bedding, especially during cold snaps. In the lower Midwest, honey locust pods, which deer often step over as they travel to farm fields, suddenly become a preferred food in December. Keep an eye out for quirky food sources in your area, and you might add one more hotspot to your late-season deer lineup.