As the holiday season arrives, most hunters are satisfied with a freezer full of enough tasty venison to last until the 2017 opener. But some hunters holding out for a wall-hanger and passing on immature bucks are beginning to lose confidence that a trophy will show up within range of their weapon of choice.
Luckily, true monster bucks with an advanced degree in hunter avoidance are still lurking in the shadows and looking to replenish and restore their physique for the upcoming winter. Hunters wanting to tag out with a true bruiser need to know that the right food source is the key to a recipe for late-season success.
Many trophy bucks made fatal mistakes early in the season or during the height of the rut. In fact, more than half the buck population has been worked over with a deer processor’s array of butchering tools. The survivors have made it through, whether passed up by selective hunters or being smart and avoiding hunters at all costs. But as December arrives, so does winter, and a solid food source become the No. 1 concern for whitetails.
While it is important for hunters to limit their impact on deer habitat in the early part of the season, late-season intrusions are even more vital, and especially around top late-season food sources. Deer want to look for solid food sources without having to look over their shoulders all the time. And it helps if deer are willing to freely visit and feed during the legal hunting hours.
What makes a good late-season food source? The best for winter is something that is widely available and in an area where human contact has been kept at a minimum.
Natural and man-produced food sources are plentiful between August and November. Deer survive on agriculture crops, food plots, hard mast, soft mast and other nutritious browsing opportunities. But fruitful food resources begin to fizzle around the time hunters are eating their Thanksgiving turkey. The once-booming food plots are depleted. Agriculture crops are harvested and fields are plowed. No matter how rich the acorn crop was, squirrels, deer, hogs and rodents have combed the forest floor for every last one.
In a natural environment — without human intervention — deer and other wildlife begin to feed on the last remaining food options available, and that usually consists of anything green and tender, but their staple diet usually becomes full of less tasty, woody browse.
In a man-altered environment, deer begin to show up in neighborhoods to eat expensive landscaping plants and along highways to browse on winter grasses and forbs. While deer can certainly sustain the winter season on their fat reserves and a supplemental diet of nature’s unsavory offerings and a neighborhood buffet, a solid, tasty food source in their home territory will attract deer during the last few weeks of the season.
Hunters who anticipated a deer’s December needs will have acres of turnips, radishes and other brassicas that look very lavish and satisfying. Brassicas that have been planted in late September and early October will be thick and lush, and deer will have avoided these crops until now. After brassicas receive a couple of hard frosts, their leaves become tasty, and deer will often consume every green figment above the soil and then dig up the tubers so nothing whatsoever remains.
Hunters in the agriculture belt have just what the doctor ordered in recent plantings of winter wheat and oats. By December, the tender shoots from wheat and oats will be out of the ground enough to sustain the future of the crop and provide deer with a stable food source throughout the winter.
Hunters who have watched their food plots dwindle don’t have to be down in the dumps. With access to equipment, they should plow up their spent food plots and plant a quick crop of wheat, oats or rye. Even though soil temperatures are plummeting, soils in the Carolinas can still support germination and forward growth of cold weather-tolerant species. To be on the safe side, winter rye would be the best choice and should produce an effective food plot to attract deer as the season wanes.
It’s never too late to prepare a menu for deer, especially for hunters still holding out for a trophy. Plenty of mature bucks are left, and hunters can still fill their tags if they keep a rich food source available and if the hunting pressure is kept at a minimum.