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How To Hunt The Best Food Sources: A Season-by-Season Guide

Every food source's level of digestible organic matter changes throughout the year. Whitetail browsing preferences change accordingly, as should your hunting strategy.

How To Hunt The Best Food Sources: A Season-by-Season Guide

Corn is king, but don’t neglect beans. Planting strategic corn or soybean plots to be left for winter is a no brainer strategy. Photo courtesy of critterbiz/Shutterstock

We all know deer need to eat; that seems to be the easy part. But what they need to eat, when they need to eat it and how hunters can use it to their advantage can all be puzzling questions. In this article, I’ll explain how hunters can use a deer’s Digestible Organic Matter (DOM) needs to their advantage while scouting and hunting for mature whitetails.

To do this, we’ll go on a “farm tour.” I’ll take you on a journey across a farm-country whitetail’s landscape, and I’ll do my best to explain how the level of DOM in agricultural food sources affects deer behavior during different times of year. Once we’re done, hopefully you’ll have a better understanding of how DOM relates to hunting strategy!

SUMMER STRATEGY

Summer heat, growing crops and velvet bucks all go together here in the Corn Belt. Th e summer is usually the first time I make contact with a mature buck. Inventory is the name of the summer game, and the crops of the area lend to some strategic choices. If you’re looking to make first contact with a mature buck in farm country, find some first-crop soybeans that lie on timber edges and catch evening shade around sundown. Sometimes, a heavy browse line is seen in the beans in the shaded areas. Stake out these locations with reliable trail cameras or by watching them from a long distance with binoculars or a spotting scope.

If trophy caliber bucks live on this farm, they’ll show up in these spots. Once a mature buck has shown himself feeding in the beans, and if he is a regular here, sit back and study him. You may not kill this buck in this location during November, but you can get some useful information about how he enters and exits these soybean feeding areas in the summer months. These bean-field bucks are there for the excellent DOM found in the lush-growing bean plants!

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Alfalfa fields are great for inventorying summer bucks, and the fields can be mowed or chopped for silage every 30 to 40 days. The author says that deer use of summer alfalfa usually peaks at two weeks into the crop’s fresh growth cycle. Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy

Summer forages like alfalfa and clover are other excellent inventory opportunities for bachelor bucks, and one factor with forage crops is their harvest cycle. For example, alfalfa is usually mowed or chopped for silage about every 30 or 40 days, and deer use will typically peak about two weeks into a fresh growth cycle as DOM of the plant is superior and protein content is highest. Plus, there is nothing prettier than a bunch of velvet bucks with fresh mowed alfalfa hay wind-rowed on the ground at sunset in July!

Standing summer corn makes for difficult scouting work, but it is far from useless. Most of the time, I use summer corn for the structure or cover it provides in lieu of its relative feed value. I love to use the edges of a standing cornfield where the end rows make a right angle to place trail cameras. These inside corners are excellent trail camera monitoring sites, and they’re even better if they are being used as a travel route to a green soybean field.

Corn also helps me access areas of beans or hay without giving away my entry and exits for evening observations. If I have a small field I want to scout from long range, the standing corn usually hides me well enough to slip in and out during the summer months, making these reconnaissance trips repeatable without fear of pressuring deer.

A crop rotation occurring in the summer that hunters should watch for is the harvesting of winter wheat and the planting of double-crop beans. In my neck of the country, winter wheat is mostly all harvested by July 4th, and I’ve seen bachelor groups of bucks flooding into wheat stubble fields, even as the combines are still cutting. The bucks seem to do this out of curiosity, I think. These double crop fields that grow later-maturing, green soybeans will house every buck in the area with a hearty appetite around late August.

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A trail camera photo of a mature buck feeding on soybeans. Lush, summer soybeans off er whitetails high DOM, and they provide hunters with a great place to view velvet bucks. Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy

Noting these rotational trends well ahead of time can provide the hunter ample sources to observe during those velvet months and gather inventory of the local herd. This is a critical portion of my summer plans when I decide to target a certain buck or two that may have my interest.

SEPTEMBER

We’ve all been there before. We’ve watched a mega giant pounding soybeans all summer, got tons of trail camera photos of him, then he’s gone. September is when this perceived crisis occurs, but what drives this shift? A lot of this is blamed on the shifting of home ranges from hormonal changes associated with velvet peel and the impending fall. While true, I feel the visibility shift is also related to food.

A whitetail’s food preferences have shifted now. The DOM of brown ag soybeans drops off. Corn dries up. It appears these big summer bucks are all gone, but they aren’t. They are just lolly-gagging in the timber eating natural browse and falling mast crops such as white oak acorns or persimmons. These plants still have fair DOM value. The message here is simply, don’t panic! If your season opens in September, a great early tactic is moving in on bucks if they are holding true to those older summer food sources. Find the shade, it’ll lead you to the green, late-planted beans and the bucks. If corn is being shelled now, stake out the edges of timber and watch the deer pour into the fresh stalks from a distance. Then move in for the kill once you have spotted a target buck. Go find the natural browse species of plants native to your area and key-in on these during September.

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A comfortable chair and a spotting scope are the author’s ultimate tools for glassing summer bucks. After finding high DOM summer food sources, the author glasses the fields for target bucks. Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy

Always remember that the perceived shift in a buck’s home range that can happen in the early fall is often influenced by, at least in part, shifting DOM values of local plant life.

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OCTOBER

For my tastes, October is THE month of the entire deer/crop year where hunting strategy revolves significantly around which crops are left and what ag practices are occurring in your hunting area. By now, most grain crops are mature, contain much more fiber than earlier in the summer, and the plants have dried. This means the final DOM destination for the crop has arrived.

Several other factors that influence farmers can influence deer hunters during this month. The timing of spring planting plays a huge factor in the harvest dates, as can weather conditions like heavy rainfall or drought. If October has arrived, one distinction that I try to make is where I can use any standing corn to sneak into any of my summer buck hot spots that are still being frequented by target bucks. I love taking a hang-on tree stand and climbing sticks and running them into areas that hunt very small after the corn comes out; but the area must also hunt large enough to be advantageous with the corn to make running and gunning worth it. The corn can provide cover for entry and exits, help dampen noise on entry and give the mature animals we all dream of a perception of security.

If I can find some edge trees in those shaded, inside-corner camera sites, I’ll run in and crash the party and hunt them. Does it work all the time? Not even close. Can it work? Indeed.

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An outside row of corn showing signs of deer browse. The author likes to use the edges of summer corn fields to run trail cameras. Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy

October has long been lamented as having a “lull” of killing mature deer. Hog wash. If you’ve got standing corn, you can kill. My best archery buck was killed on Oct. 10 over standing corn, an animal I had isolated to a 4-acre patch of timber surrounded by crops on all sides. He lived in this “timber island” in a sea of standing corn, and the corn helped me kill him.

Another tactic I like to try is what I call the “Boomerang Buck.” Usually, it revolves around standing corn in October. If I’m hunting a particular buck and am having a difficult time locating him after September’s range shift, I watch for combines harvesting in his area. Once harvest begins and once the dust begins to fly and corn is shelled, the buck you’ve been hunting may show up while harvest is going on. I see this a lot. It is almost like they can’t help themselves. I will set up to get a broad overview of the farm as harvest is being completed or going on actively. Usually, this is done with a quality spotting scope and a chair. If the buck you are targeting is here, he will usually hit these fresh-shelled corn stalks in the first few evenings and “boomerang” back into your life.

This works well at also identifying new bucks one might make a play on. Patience and mobility are keys here. As much as I utilize corn in October, I nearly all-but avoid standing beans. I’m not saying here that one couldn’t shoot a mature buck over mature, brown beans. It can happen. The downside is the risk of exposing yourself for a low-end reward pay off.

By October, most all soybeans have ridden the DOM cycle and are no longer the palatable drawing mecca they were for big buck bachelor groups. When you place your tree stand over these beans, you’re likely hunting summer movements and will often be disappointed in October results. I’ve learned this lesson firsthand. Beans also lack the cover that corn can provide you to sneak in close. At dusk, exiting through a quiet, dry bean field blows deer all over the place. I have seen deer use brown beans more like shady bedding cover than lush food sources. I’ve had some encounters with bucks thinking about October beans in this manner. If one can encounter late planted double crops that are still green with more DOM, these can hold some drawing power and be decent for a quick kill attempt. These beans are all about to be brown soon, remember this before you commit too much time to this strategy.

Farming practices in October can also pinch into your deer hunting plans. Wheat is being sewed now and fertilizer is added in these spots. Once the bean and corn crops are out, many farmers around me will till under their stalks and stubble. This poses a few negatives for us deer hunters. It can be frustrating to pull into a shelled corn field you have staked out and hung stands for only to have a tractor and chisel plow doing laps until dark. As unhandy as this is, the long-term effect of fall tillage on easily available ag food sources is poor. The practice buries waste grains and can render most fields near worthless in the winter months compared to non-tilled fall crops.

Thirdly, have you ever tried walking stealthily through a ripped up, muddy corn field in late October? It can be a bit of a workout, and you’ll need a boot scraper for all the mud!

NOVEMBER

When it comes to hunting the month of November, ag practices and crop rotation don’t seem to have a huge impact here in Illinois for me, aside from one thing: the does. If one can find where does are feeding out in the open, a mature buck is apt to get himself killed walking about in daylight scent checking the does.

If I crop hunt during November, it’s usually during our firearms season. I’ll sit back and wait on some does to approach a destination corn stalk field to feed, hoping they’ll lead a buck in front of me when I am wielding a muzzleloader or slug gun. I have taken numerous bucks during the early Illinois gun season using this method, and it seems to be as predictable as any for wrapping a tag around a trophy animal that rarely slips up in the daylight. Crops like alfalfa also work well for this doe-attractive trick. Once alfalfa and other forages have been frost bitten, the plants ride the DOM lifecycle and are now much less desirable as a primary food source.

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During October and November, the author uses corn in a variety of ways as a run-and-gun whitetail hunter. As cover for his entry into stand locations or as a food source to intercept a mature deer heading to it, corn can be a great benefit to hunting farm-country whitetails. Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy

I have seen deer pass by large tracts of brown alfalfa, traveling to small, recently logged 3- or 5-acre woodlots. These areas are full of green briar, honeysuckle and other browse species. The deer in these cases are simply searching for better DOM in a species of plant that, to us, may not appear so desirable. Regardless, when considering food source related strategies during the rut, try to locate where the local does are feeding in relationship to the total digestible value of food sources. It may seem a simple strategy, but to find the bucks — hunt the does.

WINTER CROP STRATEGY

The final destination of our “farm tour” as it relates to deer strategy lies in the rigors of the late season. In December and January, the rut has dwindled. The deer are tired, having lost tremendous body condition from the physical rigors of the rut. All these factors make our animals desperate for two things: thermal cover and dietary caloric density. It is in these two months where local farming and land management practices can play huge positives or negatives for the buck hunter with a tag in hand.

First and foremost, I find that the location of our crops now is exceedingly important. Other factors in the equation are the presence or absence of fall tillage, harvesting machinery efficiency and unexpected weather events that create what I call a “pop-up” food source. These pop-up areas of over-abundant winter food sources revolve around the simple availability of energy dense concentrates during the most energy demanding time for the whitetail. Cold deer need fuel. Standing corn, beans or winter food plots can serve as the fuel pump for winter deer survival.

Based on the trends of winter crop use I have seen, the first thing a late-season buck hunter should do is locate some of these red-hot food sources. I have personally observed mature bucks relocating or shifting two or three miles from where his winter home range is to reflect this. The buck’s home range will expand a bit now, or it will shift to where he can feed while remaining close to thermal cover.

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A mature buck standing on a late season field edge. With cold temperatures sweeping the country and the rigors of the post rut, thermal cover and high-calorie food sources are essential to whitetails. Photo courtesy of Clint McCoy

Available corn stalks that haven’t been tilled under are a must. Finding a farmer that still runs an older, less efficient combine is a smart play as well. Also, be on the lookout for places where flooded fields or down, wind-damaged crops have hindered the farmer’s harvest efforts. Any of these factors can combine to form one of those intense popup winter feeding areas, creating a great opportunity to harvest a mature buck. Corn is king now but don’t neglect beans. If you’re a land manager, planting strategic corn or soybean plots to be left for this time of the winter is a no brainer strategy.

A partially standing soybean field or several rows of standing corn in late winter can be lucrative in the chase of a winter buck. In respect to post-season activity, shed hunting has become increasingly popular; and the same principles of DOM and food sources hold true for hunting sheds. If you want to find shed antlers, look hard at these crops. Corn stalks are difficult to locate sheds in, but given the right location, a field full of available food can be pay-dirt to the person willing to grid search the area.

This past winter, I located a 40-acre patch of corn that had been flattened by major wind damage. This led to hundreds of bushels of corn on the ground. Once archery season closed and shed season was in full swing, this field yielded 10 sheds, one of which was an 80-inch side with a 16-inch G2.

FINAL THOUGHTS

When chasing big bucks and managing land for them, there is one certainty: there’s always uncertainty in how each year’s crop will turn out. Much like farming crops for a living, a lot of our whitetail successes or failures revolve around the fundamentals of plant science.

Likewise, a sound familiarity of basic ruminant nutrition and digestive physiology is essential for all whitetail land managers and hunters. Like crop farming, no deer season is ever simple, and no season is ever a carbon copy of the last. A farmer’s successful fall yield is measured in bushels-per-acre, while a trophy buck hunter’s yield may be measured in inches of antler or number of tags punched. Although different units of measurement apply, the two yields are often a reflection of one another at season’s end.




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