There are no supermarkets in the wild, no convenience stores or fast food drive-throughs. Out there where the wild things roam, deer are often opportunistic eaters, but not always. Habitat is the difference between a deer living the hard knock life and being spoon-fed during certain times of the year.
A deer living in the big woods where oak trees become scarce and sandy soil deters agriculture, being nomadic isn’t a choice – it’s a lifestyle. However, there are plenty of high-density deer areas where millions of acres of rotating crops are divided by tree lines and blocks of timber that drop acorns like rain in September. It’s these areas of abundant food sources that deer have a choice of what’s on the menu.
Farmland is the whitetail’s utopia. Alfalfa flourishes in rich nutrients from late spring throughout summer and remains green late into the fall. Beans begin to sprout in mid-summer, and corn stalks grow tall and produce mature cobs as early as September right when the bean fields begin to yellow. The oak trees drop their acorns beginning in late August and lasting well into October, just as seeds for winter wheat are sewn into the soil. As if the menu isn’t large enough, there’s enough wild clover abundantly growing in set-aside fields to mix things up for a change.
I do most of my summer scouting from the road with a pair of binoculars and my camcorder and tend to target hay (alfalfa) fields early on and bean fields into the later summer months. When the early archery season ramps up in mid-September, I’ll continue to focus on those same summer food sources, but if oaks are present I like to tuck into the timber a little ways.
Through observation, deer behavior tends to shift in the week, or two, leading into the beginning of early archery season. The bucks that were feeding in the open under daylight seem to wait until fading light before sticking their nose from the tree line and eventually feeding out into the open under the moon. It seems intuitive once you hear it from someone else, but it didn’t occur to me until several years ago that a forest floor littered with acorns was the culprit behind the sudden change in summer feeding patterns – why feed in the open under daylight when food is abundant under the canopy of leafy timber?
Once I began catching on to this behavior I started encountering more mature bucks in the early season than ever before. If I’ve located bedding cover and determined a transition route from bed to food, I’ll move in as tight to the bedroom as possible to take advantage of late risers, but not all properties are cut the same.
For example, I hunt a small farm that has sold off much of the surrounding timber blocks and bedding habitat, but a narrow section of standing oak trees lines the edge of the crop field and I’m limited to hunt the field edges. I’ll pick a tree to sit with a shooting lane into the field and another one into the woods to take advantage in either direction.
Acorns only last so long before the deer and competing squirrels eat them up and they are no longer a viable food source to set up on. By the end of September, the green bean fields have already begun to yellow and their leaves develop a bitter taste that deer seem to avoid if something better exists nearby.
Usually, by October I’m looking to set up near corn, or transitions from bed to corn as it’s mature by then and seems to be a draw once the beans turn. If corn is standing it will continue to draw deer, but once they’re in the corn they become invisible, so I try to put myself in position to see them before they reach it. In other words, I rarely hunt a standing corn field edge unless it’s my only option, but I’ll sit a chopped corn field edge with confidence for visibility reasons. In the upper Midwest, corn usually comes down between mid-October and mid-November depending on the weather.
By the time late November rolls around it’s anyone’s guess where the deer will pick to eat. If it was a wet fall and a bean field was left standing, that’s a place I want to be. While the leaves are no longer ripe and edible, the beans seem to entice the hungry mouths of deer from everywhere surrounding. Chopped corn fields are always a solid bet after the stalks are chopped because there’s plenty of kernels and leftover cobbs to last into winter. The hay fields usually remain green well into winter, even under the snow, and will also draw deer. It becomes a free-for-all in the late season, making it anyone’s game in farmland country. Adapt according to the food, and you’ll always be in the game.