I’d be lying if I said I’ve never popped a deer with its head down, munching corn beneath an automatic feeder. My guess is the same could be said for the majority of Texas’ 650,000-plus deer hunters.
There is not much glamour in shooting a deer with its nose buried in the dirt, grubbing for golden kernels of corn. In my book, it carries about the same challenge as shooting fish in a barrel.
Corn feeder goes off.
Deer steps out.
It might seem sort of shady to mug a deer around a corn feeder. But the truth is, many deer management programs would suffer without it.
Baiting with corn to lure deer into the open is by far the single-most effective way to hunt whitetails in Texas. Hunters in all part of the state rely on corn feeding stations to lure deer from dense cover for easy viewing and close evaluation. The practice is especially popular among game managers in the Edwards Plateau and South Texas brush country, the state’s two richest deer regions.
Although corn provides very little nutritional value to deer, it is way cheaper than high protein pellets. It also is somewhat addictive. In fact, when made available at the same spot on a consistent basis, eating corn can become somewhat of a habit.
Once deer become accustomed to eating corn, they will travel great distances, and sometimes risk walking into open areas to get it. This naturally increases the odds of crossing paths with a hunter who has placed a stand at strategic location.
As effective as baiting with corn can be, however, there are times when it simply doesn’t work. You’ll know it when it happens because stand hours will gradually turn painful as corn piles up on the ground with nothing but songbirds and squirrels showing up to eat it. In really dead periods the golden kernels might sit there long enough to go to seed and begin forming stalks.
Ben Bartlett of Lufkin is a hardcore archer from Lufkin who doesn’t invest much time hunting around corn stations, largely because most mature bucks are inherently wary of them, and he enjoys of challenge trying to beat them at their own game.
But he knows plenty of hunters who love their corn and has heard them singing the blues this time of year more than once. According to Bartlett, the main reason deer sometimes get “turned off” to corn is because more preferred natural food sources are available.
In eastern Texas, mast produced by various oaks as well as persimmon and black gum are heavily preferred over corn. In bumper mast years, the shift can seemingly occur overnight, almost as if somebody flicked a light switch.
Bartlett’s advice when corn doesn’t seem to be the ticket?
“Figure out what they are eating and hunt there,” he said. “Deer will always prefer natural mast over corn, so that corn feeder that was their number one food source will become a distant second when the acorns hit the ground. That’s why I prefer hunting a natural preferred food source every time.
“Fortunately for many East Texas hunters, about the earliest one can expect acorns to drop (water oak and willow oak, and red oak varieties) is mid-October,” Bartlett said. “If the red oak family didn’t produce, they’ll get a ‘bye’ for another couple of weeks until the white oak varieties begin to drop sometime around November 1. The corn pile watcher should always pray for a local acorn crop failure.”
Bartlett says East Texas whitetails seem to prefer some varieties of acorns over others.
“Rarely will you see all varieties of oaks produce in a single year,” he said. “Water oak usually will produce a good crop every two or three years and white oak and post oak are not as regular. Deer seem to prefer the white oak acorn varieties over red oak. If I find an isolated area loaded with white oak or post oak acorns, I’ll be logging the hours there.”
Lendell Martin, Jr., has witnessed similar lulls in activity at his family’s 15,000-acre Rio Springs ranch near Del Rio. Martin feeds corn by the ton, but there are times when the ranch’s vast live oaks and pecans get more play.
“We’ve got quite a few deer and the feeders only go off twice a day, so sometimes there isn’t enough to go around,” Martin said. “A lot of people don’t know they’ll eat pecans, but they do—hull and all. They’ll even eat prickly pear on occasion, especially when it gets really cold.”
Even when the deer are feeding heavily on corn, Martin thinks your chances of killing good buck may be better hunting around alternate food sources or dim trails leading to and from a feeding station.
“A lot of your bigger bucks won’t come around a feeder except at night— they’re just too smart,” he said. “But they will skirt them looking for does once the rut starts. That’s when those trails leading in and out from a feeder can pay off.”
Kevin Wisener agrees with Martin’s policy about hunting the perimeter around a feeder as opposed to right on top of it. Wisener is a Houston County archer with several great bucks to his credit.
“Feeders are great for keeping does in an area,” Wisener said. “During the rut you can kill a good buck on the outskirts of a feeder, which is usually out of sight of a box stand gun hunter, but in capable view of a bow hunter. My advice is to have a stand that gives chances and view to bucks that are only checking the area for a hot doe, that would never come within 75 yards of an open view feeder. I am a firm believer in food plots and lanes with no feeders.”
Speaking of food plots, David Perkins says December is a perfect time to give rye, oat and other supplemental food plots a boost with a shot of fertilizer. Add water and this will produce new tender growth. This might attract deer that aren’t coming to corn.
Perkins says now is a good time to look to out-of-the way places for reclusive old whitetails that have gone into the post rut lockdown, particularly in deep East Texas.
“To be successful at killing big bucks in December, you won’t be hunting high traffic areas,” Perkins said. “You’ll be hunting in relation to thick cover where you may not be able to see more than 30 yards in any direction. In those kinds of places, you’ve got to have the mindset that you aren’t going to see a lot of deer, but that you just might see a good one.”
Veteran Texas bass pro Tommy Martin of Hemphill always swaps his flipping stick for a compound bow and heads to his 40,000-acre lease near Childress when deer season rolls around. Martin says there is always a period in the Panhandle country when the deer get off the corn and switch to native forage.
“It’s always early in the season, especially in years like this one when everything is green and lush,” Martin said. “They’ll still come to corn, but not near as well as they will after we get a killing freeze.”
Martin says one of his favorite ways to hunt when the deer aren’t coming to corn, is to creep around in his high-rack truck and glass the landscape with binoculars for antlers glimmering in the sun or the flash of a twitching tail.
“The main keys are to be quiet and go slow, like 2 mph,” Martin said. “You can see a lot of deer you otherwise might not see.”
Another tactic worth trying when the deer quit coming to corn is rattling. According to Bartlett, clashing real or synthetic antlers together on a crisp December morning doesn’t always work in eastern Texas, but when it does it can be like magic.
“If you have the ability to roam during the season, and the local herd has a decent buck: doe ratio, rattling and calling can produce some exciting results,” Bartlett said. “A decoy (buck or doe or both) used in conjunction can be a real plus, but only if a wily ol’ buck can see it from a distance. I’ve seen bucks “surprised” at close range by a decoy shortly wind up in the next county.”
—story by Matt Williams