Where’d They Go? How Food Affects Deer Movements

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You’ve studied maps, glassed fields and scouted all summer to pinpoint where to place your treestand. And just when you think you’ve figured them out, the deer disappear the week before opening day. Whomp. Whomp.

What happened? Did you do something wrong? Most importantly, can you adapt? Can you switch to more productive sites?

Deer will follow wherever there’s food, but they also prioritize cover. Photo Credit: John Hafner

Marcus Lashley, an assistant professor in wildlife ecology and conservation at the University of Florida, said deer shift their daily movements during the early season for two reasons. First, hunting activity and human odors create pressure that affects wildlife. Second, food and cover that deer require can change, which makes them relocate.

Therefore, you must adjust. Start by learning how hunting pressure affects wildlife, and how you can use it to your advantage. In addition, this article explores how to predict deer hotspots by tracking how food sources change throughout hunting season.

“Deer have to eat, and they have to be protected from being eaten,” Lashley said. “So, understanding those two principles and where they occur on the landscape takes you a long way in understanding where deer are going to be.”

To pattern deer and succeed as a hunter, you must know that deer eat what’s available when it’s available. To stay ahead of them, Lashley said, learn how food sources change from summer to fall and position yourself accordingly.

Deer snack on forbs all summer. Photo Credit: John Hafner

You likely watched deer eating green vegetation all summer. As Lashley notes, deer rely on forbs, which includes herbaceous flowering plants like ragweed, goldenrod and woolly croton. “Forbs are like ice cream to deer during summer,” he said.

You’ll often see deer feeding in corn or soybean fields. If those crops aren’t abundant, they might eat oats, barley or other crops. Deer also eat woody shrubs and seedling trees, but forbs and leafy plants dominate their diet in June, July and August.

If you placed your treestand near such food sources but you don’t see deer, it might be pointless to keep sitting there. As temperatures drop, farmers harvest crops, and plants stop growing while their foliage changes color and falls. Deer look elsewhere to eat as lush vegetation and vast crop fields disappear. Their travel routes and hangouts shift, making your summer setups obsolete.

When fall hits, they will switch to fruits and berries. Photo Credit: Scouting Outdoors

Come September, deer seek soft-mast crops that include grapes, apples, persimmons, crabapples, blueberries, blackberries, huckleberries and other fruits. Lashley suggests searching the edges of fields and woodlots for these food sources, but act fast. They’re only available a few days or weeks before depleting.

About that time, deer shift their movements again to search for the next big thing, which includes acorns and other hard mast. Deer eat red- and white-oak acorns, but prefer those from white oaks because they’re sweeter. Other hard mast includes walnuts, pecans, beechnuts and hickory nuts.

A great way to locate current or upcoming food sources is to scout from afar, Lashley said. He recommends using binoculars to identify mast crops maturing on trees so you spot potential food sources before they drop. Binoculars also keep your scent out of the woods, and don’t disrupt deer activity.

To stay mobile and flexible as you hunt these changing food sources, use a climbing treestand. They’re portable, comfortable, and easy to set up and take down as you react to shifting feeding patterns. That mobility gives you more opportunities to see and arrow deer.

For more early season hunting tips, visit the bowhunting section on Bowhunting360.com.


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