A whitetail's life revolves around three basic needs..food, security, and breeding. As most hunters, I look forward to the rut. However, if you look at some of the most successful hunters, they have punched their tag way before the does have gone into estrus. So taking one need out of the equation we are simply left with food and security.
Many attribute early season success to scouting and woodmanship. Skills of being able to read maps, reading sign, recognizing and understanding habitat seem to be a lost art to some but not to those individuals finding early season success and it all is centered around food!
Here are some reasons why browse is so important to whitetail's diet along with some of the top food sources that could help you with opening week and early season success!
NATURAL BROWSE FOR WHITETAILS
According to Dr. James Kroll and other scientific whitetail studies, whitetail deer aren't very capable of digesting heavily fibrous plants like grasses. Whitetails are limited to efficiently digestible plants and young plant parts. With that said, you can guess by the title of this article, natural leafy browse, forbs, shrubs, and some other various plant species check that box. Because some of these browse species are very dependent on climatic conditions, whitetails remain very adaptable and will browse on a large variety of plant species.
With whitetails feeding 5 times throughout a 24 hour period, an adult whitetail will consume approx 6lbs of forage per 100lbs of body weight. With security being a main priority in a whitetails survival needs but still needing to consume such a large amount of food, it's easy to see why browse is so important. Whitetails are simply not going to regularly expose themselves in open ag fields or food plots making natural browse a priority for daytime feedings and movement.
If you've ever watched a whitetail browse as they wonder through the woods, they tend to be like a "curious vacuum", sucking up a few things here and a few things there. With such a large variety of natural browse and forage available to whitetails, we've compiled a list of our favorite early season whitetail browse sources. These items are available before the acorns fall and could be the key to intercepting a whitetail when season is just getting kicked off. Early season can be one of the best times to put yourself in front of a big buck, so here are a few things to look for.
This is a top food source for deer all season, and is easy to identify. In the areas I hunt the most which is the Northeast US, maple, beech, sassafras, dogwood, and sumac are top choices for deer. The choices here are subject to availability as not all these may grow in the same area. It is very easy to determine if deer are feeding on leafy browse by looking for branches that have been stripped of their leaves. Don’t be afraid to look up. I don’t know if deer just like to stand on their back legs to feed once in a while, or if the better tasting leaves are up high, but deer often will make the effort to feed on this type of browse as high as they can reach. Make sure you are checking multiple species of trees for browsing activity. I hunt properties where deer love beech and work it over hard, and other spots just down the road where they totally ignore it and prefer young maples. I try to look for groves of young trees near trails or bottle necks to intercept deer utilizing leafy browse. Field edges, trails, and old logging roads are also good places to look. Keep in mind that deer are true browsers. They are going to eat a bite hear and there and move on. When it comes to hunting leafy browse, you may not get a long time as far a shot opportunity so be ready!
Here are some quick identifiers for each mentioned leafy browse species.
Maples are easy to identify by the shape of their leaves. If you have ever seen a Canadian flag or the label on a real maple syrup bottle, you already have it etched in your mind. The maples 5 pointed spikey leaf makes it easy to distinguish. The photo above shows a silver maple.
There are 2 main types of oaks, white and red. White oaks have rounded lobes on the leaf ends and red oak leaves terminate in a small, pointed bristles. The photo above show cases a red oak leaf on the left and white oak on the right.
Beech leaves are a glossy green with an elliptical shape. They have finely toothed margins on their edges. Beach trees have an unmistakable smooth, steel-grey bark.
Sassafras has a crazy leaf pattern of several different shapes, with most of them often being 3 lobed and looking like a fat turkey track, and the other half shaped like mittens as shown in the photo above.
Dogwood has deep veined leaves that are oval to elliptical in shape. Their leaf pattern is unusual so once you have made yourself familiar with it, you can readily identify it.
The Staghorn sumac is another one that is very easy to identity. Sumacs are actually members of the cashew family and should not be confused with poison sumac. With long, thin leaves, arranged almost fern-like, the staghorn sumac produces a fruiting body that is full of multiple seeds shaped like a cone, or stag horn. The stems and fruit are fuzzy. This is another plant that once you identify it, wont be soon forgotten.
VINES, SHRUBS, AND FORBS
You will typically find these types of plants in areas with high stem counts, where the sun is able to hit the forest floor and other openings. The great thing about this type of browse is that it also creates horizontal cover giving whitetails both their security needs for bedding and daytime browse. This is paramount when trying to fill an early season tag.
Locate patches that are being browsed on by looking for the tell tail sign that a deer has taken a bite. Besides the missing part of the plant, you will see that the stem has a rough, or jagged tip. This is because deer lack upper front teeth and must tear or pinch the plant off leaving a rough looking bite. Since rabbits feed heavily on these types of plants as well, you can tell the difference by the bite. Rabbits have very sharp upper and lower teeth that act much like pruning shears. They will take a clean bite that often has a slight angle to it. Unless there has been a lot of snow, the rabbit feeding activity will also often be much closer to the ground. Early season I move my trail cameras to areas with these types of plants to determine the best time of day to intercept them feeding. Deer tend to spend a little more time feeding in the these plants than they do the leafy browse, giving you more opportunity for a shot.
There is no other plant that I love and hate at the same time more than the ones that make me bleed! When I say greenbrier, I am being a little generic. There are over 20 species of greenbrier in the US, but I also want to lump some other prickly plants into this section like multiflora rose, blackberry, raspberry, and black raspberry. These plants provide a good source of vitamins and minerals to the deer’s diet before available fruits and nuts ripen. All of these are top plants to locate for early season whitetails. Easily identifiable by their leaf structures and the thorns, these plants tend to grow in places deer are naturally traveling through.
Greenbriers have a variety of leaf shapes and colors, but the one identifying feature that sets them apart is they are palmately veined. That is to say that every vein starts independently from where the leaf meets the stem.
With leaves that are ovate in shape, coming to a single point with serrated edges they may be hard to distinguish at times. The plant often is in large clusters, forming thickets of upright, arching branches. The multiflora rose is the single highest contributor to my torn hunting clothes! Identifying the feathery stipule at the base of each leaflet is key for a solid positive identification.
BLACKBERRIES AND RASPBERRIES
The blackberries and raspberries have a similar leaf shape and pattern to the multiflora rose, but grow from a single cane often having smaller, but a more prolific amount of thorns. In addition, positive identification can easily come when these shrubs are bearing fruit.
Often called the touch me not, this is hands down my favorite early season secret. Packed full of water, this is an awesome early season plant, and will be effected by the first frost so it is not available into the cold months. Jewel weed is super easy to identify by its “lady slipper” like orange/yellow flower, exploding seed pods, and translucent stem. It also has a dark green leaf with slightly scalloped edges. These edges and the leaf tip often have a single bristle on the tip. The plant gets its name from the jewel-like effect water has when it beads up on the leaves.
Find jewel weed near any travel corridor that offers good stand placement and you will be in a good place for early season activity. Jewel weed often grows in large patches, and once a deer has found a fresh patch, it normally will eat it all, visiting the patch in the future for missed young shoots and new growth.
Poison Ivy is also common in places where Jewel weed grows and can be another preferred food source for whitetails before the nuts start hitting the ground. Jewel weed has played an important part in my early season success, especially during drought, or dry times. The plant is always very full of moisture and certainly deliberately sought out by deer during a dry spell. They will eat it anytime, but you can use a dry, and hot weather to your advantage if you have these plants where you hunt. Whenever I am scouting public land, jewel weed is the top of my list to find as these areas are often overlooked by other hunters. This plant grows in many different types of environments, offering good places to hunt from a tree stand or a ground blind. Deer will spend extended time feeding in jewel weed giving you optimum opportunity for a shot.
Finding any of these early season food sources outside of the obvious ag and/or food plots is a great way to up your chances for success before the weather gets cold and the acorns start to fall. Find more than one of them in the same area, and you could really have a hotspot! Early season browse is often overlooked, but can give you a good opportunity to place your stand in a high travel area, while being able to set up with common wind direction in mind. The only disadvantage you may discover with early season hunting is putting up with the bugs! Thanks for taking the time to read our blog today, we hope that identifying some important early season food sources helps you with a successful hunt!
Good luck in the woods!
Author: Chris Creed, Afflictor Broadheads