5 Overlooked Whitetail Food Sources

Don’t Miss Out on Off-label Food Sources

Operating solely on early-season data from the 2019 bow season, I sat perched on an inside corner of a 5-year-old clear-cut. I hoped that if and when history repeated itself, I’d find myself on a 3-mile pack-out with an opening day buck. The time was about 3 p.m. when I settled into my hang-on style tree stand. I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t take long before deer began filtering in and out of the clear-cut. Around 4 p.m. there were quite a few does milling around and browsing on tiny oak shoots. Encouraged by the fact that I was on public land and already covered up in deer, my anticipation of getting an opportunity at a good buck grew. Because the cut was rather thick, deer seemed to be appearing out of thin air. Quietly and out of nowhere, a shooter buck came into my line of sight well before those last special minutes of light. Browsing at 65 yards, the buck began working his way in the direction of a bean field away from where I was sitting. I grunted at him in an attempt to entice him my way, but other than one short look in my direction and hesitation to move straight for the field, the buck wasn’t very interested. Before that buck left the scene for good, he worked his way into a patch of pokeberries, spending a good chunk of time gorging himself on the ripe fruit and rubbing plenty of salt into my wound. I was that much closer to X marks the spot, but I learned about one key element that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. That element is off-label food sources.

Mass crops are the talk of early-season town—for good reason. Deer love acorns just about as much as, if not more than, any other food they consume. In the early season, it’s never a bad idea to find isolated white oak stands. These destination food sources still have a place and will pay off. However, when we’re talking about pressured bucks, or trying to find some kind of overlooked staging area, it’s important to hone in on some unconventional food sources.

  1. Chestnuts. Productive chestnut trees aren’t super common in the big woods and often are done dropping well before the season opener. If you’re lucky enough to find a tree that’s still productive during the opening week, hunt it ASAP! That crop will not be likely to last very long. Better yet, if you can find one or two productive trees tucked deep along a hard ridge-line, they could provide a perfect early-season funnel location to catch a buck moving from its bed to a main food source. Hunt these during the opening week if possible.
  •  Osage-oranges (AKA Hedge Apples). Although not a huge favorite, Osage-oranges could be useful as a staging food. I sometimes find Osage-oranges near field edges. But more often I find them along creek beds. When other mast trees are scarce, Osage-oranges become increasingly important. Deer that use creek edges as their preferred bedding cover often funnel past these trees on the go. Hedge apples could be your ticket to get them to pause for a shot. As a hot tip, these are also pot sweeteners for creek crossings.
  • Pokeberries. This is my favorite off-label food source. Pokeberry is not selective on where it grows, but disturbed ground that is later left untouched (like last year’s cut power line or the edges of old logging roads) is where pokeberry seems to thrive. It can be found in soggy patches of open woods where the sunlight invades the forest floor or in 1-4 year-old clear-cuts mixed in with new growth. Really, pokeberry is a garden weed. But fortunately for us, if the source is large enough, it will be a huge attractant early on in the season until about the middle of October. Pokeberry provides a perfect hideout for deer and is a great appetizer prior to a big night time meal.
  • Fern Bulbs. When ferns initially die off, they have a peculiar odor, and deer don’t appear to be to very interested in them. But when other mast or palatable weeds are gone, fern bulbs are usually a good stopping place for whitetails. The best way to find a preferred patch is a conscious observant effort during spring scouting missions. Deer will continue to root up big patches of ground throughout the year looking for bulbs. Drop a way point when you find one of these areas. No harm in setting up right over food like this, as bucks will spend a lot of time digging around.
  • Maples Leaves. When the leaves just begin to change, deer eat them like kids in a candy store. While some of the maples might drop their sweet leaves, those leaves might get bitter before deer can get to them. Search for areas where controlled burns have taken place in the last year or two. Many burned areas like this could support new growth maple shoots. These are perfect, as they’re at eating height and deer can get their fill quickly with little effort. Pay attention to your access here; deer also like to bed directly in these new growth maples, and it can be hard to maintain an element of surprise.

Because of the rising popularity of bow hunting and the trending nature of micro tuning different styles, it can be very hard to find “overlooked” spots at this stage of the game. When you’re doing your scouting, don’t just go searching for overlooked food sources. Deer will eat almost anything if they feel safe in the area where they’re feeding. It’s more important to determine whether the area is safe and then what actually makes a deer to want spend time there. Work off of whatever information you gather afield. There are plenty of decisions to make, but when you’ve found something that looks like it will work, roll with it. You’ve got nothing to lose and a lot to gain.