Unless deer are seen feeding in a farm field or forest clear-cut, a current favorite whitetail feeding area is typically the most difficult of whitetail home range elements for most hunters to identify. This is unfortunate because nowhere else are a skilled stand hunter’s odds for successfully hunting any class of whitetail greater. Finding feeding areas should always be a top priority when scouting preseason.
As mentioned in a previous blog, an unusual number of fresh, off-trail deer tracks and droppings are characteristic of a feeding area. If the hunter has no idea the area ahead is likely a feeding area, however, he or she is likely to cross it without noting it is full of of tracks and droppings. If an area ahead is relatively open, having fewer big trees, allowing the sun to reach the ground and promote the growth of green grasses, clover and leaves and tender stems of various shrubs, I immediately begin wondering if it is a feeding area. My trained eyes then automatically begin searching for other signs such as a lot of red color ahead.
Where I hunt whitetails, a lot of red means there are many red-bark dogwoods and/or sugar maple saplings growing in the opening, two very favorite browse plants of our whitetails beginning the second week in November. Even well before then, whitetails commonly devour the leaves of these shrubs or saplings. Wherever they grow, there always seems to be plenty of grasses, primary foods of whitetails from snow melt in spring until early November.
If deer-tall vegetation ahead is mostly green, the opening smothered by ferns, raspberries, cattails, hazels or second-growth quaking aspens, it’s unlikely to be a whitetail feeding area, at least not the part directly ahead. The red stuff might be buried in deep grasses, however. Moreover, other yet unseen portions of the opening may be okay, a reason for further scouting in the opening. If the trees ahead are oaks, I always inspect the area for acorns on the ground, plus tracks and droppings. If acorns are present you can bet it will be a prime stand site during September through November. Meanwhile as I draw nearer, I begin searching for deer trails, fresh deer tracks and droppings, velvet rubs that were made in early September, rubs and ground scrapes made very recently (shredded bark of rubs still damp) and deep grasses in which I always check for deer beds.
Upon finding fresh tracks and/or droppings, absolute evidence of the presence of deer, out comes my steel tape for some quick measuring, providing absolute evidence of the kinds of deer that made the tracks or droppings. I often add notes of such findings on my map (B3 for 3-1/2 year-old buck, for example, or YD for yearling doe). It being okay to enter a feeding area while scouting early enough preseason, I begin searching for off-trail tracks and droppings in the opening. Lots of them, fresh and old, among common deer foods means I have indeed found a current favorite whitetail grazing area.
Lots of brown or black ragged tips on stems of woody shrubs with red bark (and on others such as mountain maples or ash or oak saplings) mean the opening was a favorite browse area during the previous November and will be a favorite again this year. Keep in mind, previous favorite browse areas may not be full of tracks and droppings until November. It is not necessary to find 100 sets of fresh tracks or droppings in a current favorite feeding area to decide it will be a prime spot for hunting a mature buck or other deer weeks ahead. Discovering some tracks or droppings within every 10 yards or so along a 50–100 yard course is enough, even if mature buck sized tracks and droppings are not readily found. All it takes to be a likely area to take a big buck in November is a feeding doe soon to be in heat or currently in heat.
Thus is my usual procedure for finding and identifying wilderness feeding areas where I figure my odds will be excellent for taking a mature buck.
At this point I spend no more time in a feeding area, it always being my rule to minimize persisting deposits of fearsome human trail scents out in front of where I plan to hunt later. Too much human scent deposited even three weeks before hunting begins can have a negative effect on the number of whitetails that will be seen feeding there opening morning. With my map and compass in hand, it’s now time to begin searching for a suitable downwind or crosswind stand site or two plus proper approach trails 10–20 yards back in the surrounding timber.
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