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Whitetail Food Plot: Leaves, Lichens And Needles
Wild raspberries grow nearly everywhere and, like late low blueberry, their fruit usually gets all the attention. Except where whitetails are concerned.
Deer often slide along the edges of wild raspberry patches in autumn to pick off their browning leaves. Once the leaves are gone, whitetails target the plant’s fresh, fuzzy stems that would otherwise produce next year’s berry crop.
Some might question how often deer eat dead, browned leaves, but it happens more often than deer hunters probably realize. Wisconsin deer researcher Keith McCaffery documented that whitetails often eat the brown leaves of aster and goldenrod as long as they hang on stalks or lie atop snow.
One deer hunter will never forget the afternoon he hurried home after work to bowhunt a new site in a marsh where he often hunted ducks. He climbed a small silver maple tree, trimmed out a spot for my hang-on tree stand, and left the limbs – still cloaked in just-turning leaves of green, red and gold – where they fell.
We’re often cautioned to never disturb a site with freshly cut branches. Within an hour of limbing out his site, he had two adult does and a fawn feeding 12 feet below by boots, gorging on silver maple leaves. They stayed 10 minutes, occasionally raising their noses to test the wind and then licking their noses before scent-checking the limbs where he had touched them.
What makes maple leaves irresistible in autumn, at least temporarily? It’s assumed the leaves of some trees contain attractive amounts of sugars and other nutrients deer crave. All leaves undergo chemical changes while dying, changes that go beyond sugar-processing. As U-Maine’s researchers note, most leaves on trees and shrubs contain chemicals that defend them, to some extent, from browsing animals in summer. As leaves die, they likely become more palatable.
The same processes likely help explain why deer find the leaves of aspen and cottonwood so attractive in autumn. After the deer hunter's experience with the browsing does mentioned above, he has enjoyed similar results with the trimmings from aspen and cottonwood.
Aspen was once discounted as a browse item for deer, but these trees provide deer plenty of food, especially early in their life cycle. Aspens “sucker” up from their extensive root systems soon after an area is exposed to sunlight, either through fire, logging or wind storms. That’s one reason whitetails often hang out in the young regrowth of clearcuts. They browse these fresh sprouts, and continue to feed on aspen buds and leaves as the trees rocket skyward their first five to 10 years.
As aspens reach maturity, they self-prune their lower limbs, but whitetails will continue to eat freshly fallen leaves as long as they contain nutrients.
Few people think of cottonwoods when discussing deer foods, but these trees provide great nutrition for whitetails living along riverbottoms and shorelines. If you doubt the attractiveness of cottonwood leaves, the next time you trim a cottonwood while preparing a tree stand site, pile the branches where you want approaching deer to stop for your shot.
One deer hunter learned that trick while bowhunting with a videographer during a Team Realtree bowhunt in northeastern Montana in September. As a buck approached a sprawling alfalfa field, it delayed its entrance to grab a few mouthfuls of fresh cottonwood leaves. That pause allowed the hunters to both get the shots they desired.
When scouting along cottonwood-studded waterways, check out sandy sites disturbed by machinery or uprooted trees. Cottonwoods sprout and resprout aggressively, providing tasty browse in autumn.
One species of brush you can’t help but admire is beaked hazel, because deer love browsing off its tops to the point where some stands seldom bear fruit. Even so, beaked hazel keeps fighting back, surviving the whitetail’s appetite as well as the shade of large trees. About the only thing that kills it is fire.
Beaked hazel typically reaches heights of about 6 feet, but it can grow as high as 12 feet. Deer can easily hide in these thick stands, all the while finding plenty of buds, leaves and slender twigs to eat. The hazel nut itself is round and smooth, with a hard shell. It’s often found along the edges of openings, but it can survive in dense stands under tall, old trees.