If you want to be consistently successful hunting whitetails, gaining a broad knowledge of their natural food habitat is important. The time to start thinking about it is now.
It is easy to rely solely on corn feeders to lure them in, but the fact is deer prefer natural foods when they are abundant, and few big bucks frequent feeders during legal shooting hours.
There is another reason for this story.
With today’s financial woes, many hunters are having to hunt national forest land, draw for hunts on public land or simply forego using feeders. We thought it was important to give some space to the importance of natural foods.
The food sources deer will eat are growing right now, and the earlier you get the jump on their location, the better―especially if you are hunting public land.
The Texas Agricultural Extension Service based out of Texas A&M University said it’s important for hunters to know that white-tailed deer are ruminants like cows, but their diet selection is radically different.
“Cattle are grass-roughage eaters, have a relatively large rumen relative to body size, and depend heavily on grasses for their diet. Grasses are relatively low in crude protein and digestibility when compared with legumes or forbs (broadleaf weeds).”
“Because of these nutritive parameters, grasses have a longer residence time in the cow rumen,” they said. “Longer residence time increases rumen microflora (bacteria and protozoa) degradation of the forage. Thus for grass-roughage eaters such as cattle and sheep, residence time is relatively long and rate of passage slow.”
White-tailed deer are concentrate selectors, which means their diet must be higher in nutritive value and more rapidly degraded in the rumen.
“Therefore, white-tailed deer rely primarily on forbs and browse (leaves and twigs of woody plants), which are usually higher in crude protein and digestibility than grasses. Grasses comprise only a very small part of the overall diet of the white-tailed deer. Only grasses that are rapidly degraded in the rumen, such as the small grains and ryegrass, are used to any extent by deer.”
“Other useful introduced forages include both warm- and cool-season legumes. Native plants used by white-tailed deer include browse, forbs, soft and hard mast (fruits, acorns), and mushrooms. Forbs and mast, while providing good nutrition, may not be available each year or at all times of the year. Browse is usually the most important source of deer nutrition because of year-round availability.”
Another excellent source for deer is black gum, which Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials rank as “excellent” for deer and other game. Coralberry or “buck brush” is a great source of food, especially in the eastern third of the state.
The name should give it away, but the thicket it creates along with the nutrition it provides makes it a favorite among deer hunters in the region. Looking at the Piney Woods as a whole, TPWD officials note that in most areas, the virgin forest has been harvested several times over the last century.
For those hunting on national forest or large public hunting lands in the eastern third of the state it is important to examine how the land is divided.
A TPWD survey indicated that 22 percent of all timberland was classified as pine plantation. Most (72 percent) plantation establishment was on forest industry lands. The 1992 survey indicated that approximately 71 percent of the plantations were less than 20 years old.
That is worth explaining because some of the very best areas in the state are around fresh clear cuts (and up to a few years old) that are used to make way for these pine plantations.
“The woods in the region are so different from what they were 100 years ago,” said hunting enthusiast Chris Godfrey. “The reason you see deer feeding alongside the roads so much is because that’s where a lot of the broadleaf forbs they eat can grow. It requires sunlight for them to grow; and in much of the woods, there is not enough light for that to happen.”
Godfrey said that’s why hunters would be wise to find those fresh clear cuts.
“As aesthetically unpleasing as they are, there is no denying they produce a lot of the woody browse and allow for broadleaf forbs to grow, which is very important to deer,” he said. “Some misinformed hunters move their stands when their area gets clear cut, but the reality is they should be staying there because there will be a whole lot more deer activity than before.”
Broadleaf forbs are essentially weeds that grow in open areas and are what often give farmers and gardeners a big headache. In fact, most of the time deer are seen in fields feeding, they are eating these forbs, not the grasses. Find a weedy pasture along a pine thicket, and you’re likely to find lots of deer.
“We have so many super-thick areas, but some of the very best you can find are some of the spots in the national forests that are managed with fire where the underbrush is kept low and you get a lot of the forbs growing and a lot of sunlight penetration into the forest,” Godfrey said.
“These spots also offer the advantage of being able to see deer. So much of the public hunting involves seeing a deer and then not seeing it a second later because of the habitat and its density. These types of areas allow you to have a much better chance of shooting deer you see.”
That is extra important, factoring in antler restrictions, and is crucial for the hunter with limited time.
Hunting on a budget is challenging. No doubt about it. However there is something about truly learning the habits of our quarry that makes the hunt that much more meaningful.