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Deer: Post-Season Scouting

Food Source Considerations

First, I need to apologize for the huge gap in time.  Summer is always a flurry of activity with family, friends, and preparation for the upcoming hunting seasons.  And we’ve been very busy with building FreshTRAX Outdoors along the way.  For those of you who I met at the Cabela’s Big Game Classic – thank you for coming!  As you know, I covered most of the points in this series during my Blacktail Strategies seminars.

Ok, in Part 5 we’re looking at natural food sources and how they fit into your overall post-season scouting strategy, and ultimately how that information dovetails into your fall hunt strategy.  The topic of food plots is gaining popularity across the board these days, and while they are appropriate for blacktails as well, I’m not going to get into that subject here.

Western Washington and Oregon are home to over 800 species of plants and over 700 of those are native.  A sizable portion of the Columbian Blacktail’s home range up the Pacific coastline is a virtual salad bowl, providing literally hundreds of choices for deer throughout the seasons.  Southern Oregon and northern California serve up a drier climate and associated plant species.

Learn to Observe

The best way to collect information about what deer eat, and when, is to actually observe them in the field.  Many times when we see deer out and about they are in fact feeding.  But how many people take the time to figure out what they are eating?  Not many.  And that is simply a missed opportunity to learn.  I keep notebooks in my truck and my pack.  If I see a deer feeding, I do whatever it takes to figure out what it is eating.  And I note the date, weather, etc. as well.  Can’t hurt.

Summer and Early Fall

Deer have the widest variety of food sources from spring through late June.  After June, most of the tender shoots and buds are filled out and become more fibrous as they mature.  Still, there are lots of choices such as the tender leaves of most berry species, which continue to grow into late fall.  Elderberry, thimbleberry, and salmonberry, are a few examples.  Nettles, hazelnut leaves, lichens, are on the favorites list for blacktails.  Also, they are apt to nibble off the tops of most native ferns, such as sword and bracken varieties, as they unroll their new tender tops to toward the warmth of the sun.

 Elderberry provides nutrition throughout the summer into fall.

I key in on primary feed areas that are somewhat secluded and provide good security cover.  And through careful observation of vegetation, I do my best to figure out what the bucks are eating as they build antlers for fall battle.

Late Fall and Winter

As summer fades and crisp, cool mornings become the norm, all deer will be keying in on food sources that provide the most nutrients to prepare for winter.  Again, direct observation will provide you the most accurate and useful information.

Wherever I am hunting, whether it be a remote clearcut in the foothills or the back 40 of an abandoned farm, I will key in on the best deer browse available.  Because the rut is a factor from October through December, bucks will be difficult to pin down on a food source.  But, when I have observed pre-rut and even peak rut bucks feeding, it’s usually on blackberries (vine tips and leaves).  I walked up on a P&Y class buck last year during the rut as he fed alone behind a wall of blackberries.  Unfortunately, a blunder on my part sent him packing before I could get an arrow to full draw.

During late winter, I often find bucks feeding on the low-hanging curtain of cedar boughs.  In fact, a very successful shed hunter I know gave me this tip a few years ago when he revealed that during years of heavy snow or harsh temps, he’s found quite a few sheds up under cedars.  Not only do these trees provide food, but they provide thermal cover as well – all in the exact same spot!  (hint: write that down).

Cedars play a crucial role in diet and survival during the winter months. 

Deer love apples all year long.  Wild apples or any fruit-bearing tree still producing fruit on old farm sites are always great bets for late season.  I have a few of these spots secured and they never disappoint. 

Another habitat condition I look for is a south-facing edge of big timber bordering a 3-5 year old clearcut.  The southern exposure keeps the growing season longer for vegetation and big bucks love those edges near big timber late in the year.

As the rut winds down after the peak-breeding phase, bucks will revert back to focusing on nutrition for winter.  If you identify some of these key prefered food sources and feed areas, you may well cross paths with a good buck.  I believe the older a buck is, the more likely he will restrict his movements dramatically post-rut.  So you may need to find the right combination of security cover, food, and water in order to pinpoint likely haunts.

In the final installment of this series, Part 6, I will go over some fundamentals of Set Ups for treestands and ground blinds.