Food plots for whitetail deer
Food plots can be key
With another whitetail season come and gone, I wonder how many readers were
truly thrilled with the number of deer they saw? If you happen to fall into the wanting
more grouping, there are many things that can be done to help improve those numbers.
Spending more days in the woods, finding better hunting grounds and even perfecting
odor control techniques may all be advantageous. However, there may be an overlooked
Simply put, deer are driven by their stomachs. Sure, one can argue that the rutting
buck is driven by does. You’ll get no argument here. Still, Mr. Big does hit food plots during
the rut, even if it’s often just hitting food plots when convenient. More importantly, the does he’s
hunting continue to hit food plots. Therefore, prime food sources continue to play a significant
role in his life.
Sure, there’s numerous hunting and stand site strategies. Many highly productive
methods have nothing to do with food plots.
With that said, when I get in a jam and things aren’t falling into place as well as
I’d like, I often return to basics. Basics when chasing deer is relating stands to the deer’s
food plots. Eating is something every deer does every day. It only stands to reason that, when
all else fails, hunting food and food plots related movements are the safest bet.
The premise sounds simple enough. Unfortunately, deer’s prime food sources
change throughout the season. You can either stay abreast of them or risk spending much
of your hunting time watching squirrels. Now that the bows are hung up in wait of next
deer season, let’s look at how we can get a jump on next year’s bucks by better predicting
what the hot food source of the moment will be.
Understanding That Preferred Food plots cycle
The first step in our journey lies in understanding that no single food source is
most desired by deer throughout the entire season. This point is illustrated very well by
some interesting research.
In the early 70ies, Keith McCaffery, now a retired research biologist for WI DNR,
studied the food consumption of whitetails in Northern Wisconsin. His work involved
analyzing the stomach contents of road killed deer. The results he found reinforced the
fluid nature of feed patterns.
“Aspen leaves were the principle food item for the snow free period of the year,
with their consumption peaking in June and July,” Keith told me in a recent conversation.
“Prior to the availability of aspen leaves, grasses, sedges and baron-strawberry were
the principle food sources. Lilies were also important in June and July, while bush-
honeysuckle was found to be important in late summer. After the availability of aspen
leaves, they were supplanted by grasses, sedges and acorns in this particular study. It is
obvious sources of food change throughout the year and these changes are quite dynamic
during hunting season.”
Food plots Catalysts for Change
Anticipating when those changes occur and identifying the latest delicacy is a
tremendous advantage when striving to remain in the best stand locations throughout a
season. Understanding some factors that inspire abandoning one dinner table for another
is an aid in anticipating when these changes will occur.
To begin with, human pressure plays a role. Deer simply must feel some degree of
safety or they will not consistently expose themselves at a food source. One of the most
vulnerable times for any prey species is when they are in food plots and deer are no exception.
If pressured too hard, they will abandon an otherwise stellar food source for a less
desirable one that provides a higher feeling of comfort.
Weather and seasonal needs also play a role. For example, as temperatures
drop or conditions get nasty, deer often seek a diet high in carbs or fat for the increased
energies and body heat they provide. This becomes much more important to their survival
than the high protein foods they needed in the spring and summer months. Some common
examples of this are corn and acorns. Anyone that spends much time hunting the late
season in the north realizes that a cornfield can be a glorious place to be when the temps
Conversely, protein content is an important consideration during spring, summer
and the early portion of fall. A protein rich diet aids in antler development, milk
production and body growth. These are all events that occur during that portion of the
year. Therefore, foods high in protein are more highly sought during those periods.
This is not to say deer won’t eat shelled corn in summer or a high protein food
source in winter, if available. They will, however their bodily needs are not the same
throughout the year and their diet often changes to reflect that.
Furthermore, deer require and ingest a diverse diet to meet their nutritional needs.
Rarely do they eat just one type of food each day. Still, as McCaffrey’s work indicated,
they do tend to hit food plots more heavily on a specific food at any one time. Those same deer
that feast on corn during late November and December are also hit food plots on woody browse
and will hammer dead grasses when a midwinter melt exposes them for a day or more.
Are these dead grasses and weeds better for them than the corn? No, they provide so little
that it results in a negative energy balance, but they are a change of pace.
The Hierarchical System
There’s no doubt that whitetails have specific food sources categorized into a
hierarchical system. As you can already see, the problem is that the preference is fluid in
nature. It is based on the nutritional needs, the growth state of the plant life, the plant’s
vigor and its availability, amongst other factors. Looking closer at the bell curve of aspen
leaf consumption, the reason for the decline in their consumption was related to the drop
in their protein levels and digestibility. As the leaves achieve maturity and near the end
of their life, the protein levels drop, the cell walls harden and they become less digestible.
Because of this, the deer’s preference for other food sources increase.
Furthermore, foods appear and disappear throughout the year. This is particularly
true in fall when farm crops are being harvested, mast is appearing, maple leaves hit their
candy like state, only to taint seemingly just as suddenly and other greenery is dying.
All of this can results in the most desirable food source being supplanted at a moments
The result is that no one food source is most appealing throughout the entire
season. On any given day, it boils down to what plants are in their ideal maturity state,
where the food is located, what its supply is and what other food plots are available.
For example, it means next to nothing that deer would prefer to hit food plots on acorns
on if few are left and those available are riddled with worms. Granted, the alfalfa may
have endured a couple hard frosts and no longer be as desirable. However, if the choice is
between that and woody browse, the alfalfa field will most likely be a hot spot.
Staying Ahead of the Game
With a solid foundation now laid, the last important question is how to keep
up with these changes. Unfortunately, it simply isn’t practical to list what foods deer
prefer over others. Not only does that change with availability, maturity and the seasonal
needs of deer, it also differs based on a host of other factors. The geographic region, soil
conditions, availability and overall health and vigor of the plants themselves are a mere
sampling of these factors.
The answer to this riddle lies in the combination of reading sign, observing deer
and noting the trends over a period of years. Staying abreast with changing food
patterns takes effort.
One method is to invest time in observing food sources. Many hunters cringe at
the idea of giving up a late afternoon that could be spent hunting. For me, when the deer
sightings begin to drop, spending an afternoon finding where the deer relocated to is far
better than watching squirrels for the rest of season.
Along with that, a midday walk through known food sources, hidden within the
woods, isn’t hard to manage every couple of weeks. Obviously, bedding areas should be
avoided, odor control steps taken and disturbances kept to a minimum. So long as that’s
done, the freshly revealed sign can be an invaluable asset.
Time spent on the stand can be productive as well. When a deer is sighted,
being alert to what it may be feeding on provides added information. So does creating a
network of hunting buddies that share information, enabling the group to benefit from
each other’s experiences.
Keeping detailed logs is another very helpful tool. When doing so, along with
documenting the standard info on weather, deer seen, times, and their activities, be
sure to include the available food plots in the area, their relative locations, what the deer
are feeding on or what food source you believe they are in route to. After doing this
for several years, you can then use these logs to help predict what foods deer will be
Besides those activities, inspecting food sources during the late summer months
can provide a glimpse into what to except. Glassing oaks will give a good indication
whether the coming fall’s crop will be boom or bust.
Even inspecting farm crops can be helpful. If the green field that’s slated for an
opening day sit is in rough shape in late summer, it may be a good idea to look into other
Simply put, the more information gathered the more effectively a hunter can
anticipate and react to changing food sources. Documenting this information can then
provide an expanding database to draw from year after year.
In the vast majority of settings, a whitetail’s travel patterns change throughout
hunting season, based in large part on the changing nature of their primary food sources.
In order to be in deer from the opening round to the final bell, the hunter must change
with them. These procedures will help hunters to do just that.