Let’s face it. Not all of us have access to those big, lush food plots like you see on your favorite outdoor television show. Not that there’s anything wrong with food plots. But if you’re like myself and hunt public land or you hunt private land where food plots are not an option, then you have to rely finding what native vegetation the deer are keying in on at any given point during the season.
Most hunters know to look for soft mast like persimmons or muscadines, or hard mast like white and red oak acorns. However, those foods are not available on every property and, even when they are, it’s often for a fairly short window of time. As food sources change, so do deer patterns, so you have to be able to adapt and change with them.
Unfortunately, there is no way we can cover all the different potential food sources of white-tailed deer in Georgia in this one article. But what I can do is cover five of the most common. These are five plants that you are likely to find anywhere in the state and all are preferred whitetail food sources. Next time you’re out scouting your favorite hunting property, look for these five plants and assess how heavily they are being browsed. It might just lead you to an overlooked stand location to fill one of those buck tags in your pocket.
If you’ve spend much time in the Georgia woods, you’ve probably come across greenbrier. In fact, you’ve probably cursed it as you pulled the thorns out of your pants and leg. There are actually 14 different species of greenbrier in the southeast, so they can vary in the looks of the leaves and the stems (some are green, some are woody). Most have thorns. Most importantly, though, greenbrier is a preferred browse species for white-tailed deer. Deer will readily browse the leaves and the stems of the plant, as seen in the photo above. Since some species of greenbrier are evergreen, keeping leaves throughout the winter, they can be a great late-season food source to watch.
You may not know the term “brambles,” but you undoubtedly know the plants they refer to — blackberry and dewberry. Growing in just about every fallow field and thinned pine stand in Georgia, chances are you’ve encountered brambles in the field. Like greenbrier, it may have resulted in a painful experience! Hopefully you’ve taken the time to enjoy the fruits of these plants, as well. While deer will readily consume the fruit, they will also browse the leaves and stems of brambles, as well. Don’t overlook this readily available whitetail food source this fall.
We all know deer love muscadine grapes and when you find them hitting the ground in the early deer season, you’ve probably found a good stand location. But what you may not have realized is that the muscadine leaves are a preferred forage for whitetails. Those delicious fruit are only available for a very short window of time, but the leaves will provide a food sources throughout the summer and fall. So even after the last grape has been consumed, don’t overlook that muscadine patch as a potential stand site.
If you have allergies like myself, ragweed is probably not real high on your “preferred plant” list. Ragweed pollen has probably ruined more early season hunts for me than all other factors combined, but I can’t deny that it is a fantastic deer forage (it’s great for quail and other birds, as well). Ragweed can provide crude protein levels comparable to the best food plot species and is very palatable. The best part is, it is easily supplied with a soil disturbance and can grow in fairly poor soils. Most of ragweed’s benefit is provided in the spring and summer before deer season opens, so it’s not likely to provide you with a great stand site, but it’s an excellent forage to have available where you hunt.
5. Poison Ivy
If ragweed wasn’t bad enough, I thought I would throw in another hunter favorite, poison ivy. Believe it or not, poison ivy is a moderate to highly preferred deer forage. For reasons beyond my understanding, the urushiol oil found on poison ivy that causes so many problems for us humans, does not have a negative effect on white-tailed deer. Be very cautious when hunting over this preferred food source!
These are just five of a very long list of potential native deer foods in Georgia. I would highly recommend picking up a plant ID book like Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses, and carrying it with you in the field while you scout. Look for plants that are being browsed — they are easy to identify by the nipped off leaves and stems. Once located, take time to identify those plants and make a note of which ones deer seem to prefer where you hunt. This information may prove invaluable when it comes time to look for potential stand locations. Learning which native plants deer prefer will make you a better woodsman and a better deer hunter.
Good luck this fall!