Let’s face it, Texas deer hunters pursue the wary whitetail in two basic ways―baiting and playing on the sexual urges of rutting bucks.
Deer hunters, like deer, are creatures of habit and over the last 20 to 30 years, they seem to have gotten into a rut of putting out corn and doe-in-heat scents and leaving their hunting experience at that.
The truth is, hunters can find more consistent success by focusing on natural food sources, but first that will require a little basic knowledge of how deer eat.
The Texas Agricultural Extension Service based out of Texas A&M University said it is 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. 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,” they said.
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 every year or at all times of the year. Browse is usually the most important source of deer nutrition because of year-round availability.”
It is important to get that out of the way because even among deer hunters there is some confusion about what deer eat, particularly among younger hunters. I go to schools to talk about animals frequently and was surprised by some of the kids who think deer eat a lot of grass.
This is most likely due to the fact as we stated earlier that most hunting in the region is done over bait and the need for guesswork is taken out of the equation. If you all you have to do is pour some corn on the ground (which I do use as part of my hunting strategy) then you do not really need much of a knowledge of natural food.
TF&G Hunting Editor Lou Marullo said a prime example is hunters not taking advantage of the late growing season in the region and focusing on honeysuckle, which fruits in September and October and in some areas is considered an “ice cream food” for deer.
“Ice cream foods are the sources the foods wildlife managers say that deer will eat before anything else. It’s not just a standard, it’s the top food. Talking to some of the guys who hunt public land where baiting is legal, it’s evident that honeysuckle is one such food for whitetails.”
Indeed, in the archery season, I have focused heavily on honeysuckle in the areas I hunted for years in Newton County and occasionally find it in fair concentrations early in the gun season if cold fronts are few and the deer have not wiped it out.
Another excellent source for deer is black gum, which Texas Parks & Wildlife Department (TPWD) officials rank as “excellent” for deer and other game. It tends to grow along the edges of hardwood bottomlands.
Yaupon (the bush that produces the pretty little red berries) is considered a nuisance plant by many landowners but the bushes grow closely together and create dense thickets. Deer however will eat yaupon with great fervor in certain areas. Yaupon thickets are decent places to hunt. If you can find yaupon on the edge of a field, you will see deer feeding on it fairly frequently. It’s something that is easy to key on for hunters and is more readily identifiable than many other plants in the field.
Coralberry or “buck brush” is a great source of food for deer. 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. I’m not sure if buckbrush is more important as a food or cover during certain times of year, but in the areas around the reservoirs in Texas it is thick and is one of the places that some of the biggest bucks come from.
Last but definitely not least are the mast crops, particularly acorns. They are a rich source of protein and carbohydrates for deer and when they begin falling, deer will flock to these spots and ignore other food sources. I have personally experienced having corn piling up under my feeder while deer were feeding less than 50 yards away under a big red oak. Deer know that the corn is going to be there because hunters always feed it, but acorn sources are fleeting and they must get it while they can.
In terms of which kinds of mast crops are best to hunt over, that is going to depend on your location. Red oaks are the hot tickets in some areas although white oaks are like drugs for deer in others. Still others prefer pecans and various kinds of other nuts. This will take some scouting to determine.
Deer may get the urge to procreate this month and have hundreds of pounds of corn at their disposal; but if they can get their mouths on a nice white oak acorn, they usually cannot resist.
Wise hunters will be ready.
Story by Chester Moore