If you’re a fan of public land whitetail, you don’t need lush food patches or agricultural fields to find early season success. In fact, we often prefer other food sources. There is nothing against these two basic locations, but deer still consume native vegetation as their primary diet, even on properties where these resources exist. They have been filling their bellies with the natural, nutrient-rich plants of the earth for generations. Knowing what native plants have to offer can pay off in carpentry skills and busy labels.
The key is being able to successfully identify attractive vegetation, which you then need to target for deer movement. When moisture and nutrients are prominent in these plants, they can give it a go early in the season. Keep an eye on the details and watch the sailing pressure, but you can’t rely solely on that strategy. If you can identify desirable plants, you can zero in on public land feeding hotspots where the odds are stacked against you otherwise.
Let’s take a look at a few different species of native vegetation that deer desire during the early season. These are found throughout the whitetail’s range.
Ragweed has a bad reputation for allergies, but deer consider it a delicacy. At maturity, ragweed plants can reach nearly 7 feet tall and offer a crude protein percentage of 17 to 18%. Its leaves are long with deep lobes.
It occupies the edges of wood and overgrown fallow fields, providing excellent cover and nutrient-rich food. It grows very well and can be very competitive in choking out other plants. It is attractive to deer well into the early season and offers good moisture content and high protein levels. On public lands where you hunt, look for ragweed in adult grassy areas, non-wooded bed areas, security hedges, and borders.
You have probably seen and walked past the native fleabane without a second thought. Most attractive in their early growth stage, the plants only reach a few feet at maturity. Its small white flowers with yellow centers are easily recognizable. Like ragweed, they provide good structure for nesting birds and wildlife.
For deer, the flea is a desirable food source that offers a good source of 20% crude protein and is widely available. Look for fleabane in old fields that are commonly used for bedding, security cover, and preparation areas. This warm-season plant is attractive until early in the season, so you’ll want to find it quickly to determine how much deer in your area feed on it. It is widespread throughout much of the whitetail’s range.
Virginia Creeper is one of the most common vines. It grows fast and can quickly cover any structure it attaches to. The woody stem produces leaves in groups of five and can be very invasive in wooded environments. Check from ground level to head height for navigation pressure. Virginia Creeper is not necessarily one of deer’s favorite native vegetation types, but it does provide value. If there is a forest habitat on the public lands you hunt, look for this vine. With 11-13% crude protein, it may surprise you how much deer are adding it to their early-season dietary diversity.
Black gum is a medium-sized tree found throughout the whitetail’s range. These trees usually don’t get taller than 50 feet, but after they grow even a few feet, they essentially become useless to deer. The key is to find black gum at a very early stage.
Its buds and shoots offer an attractive woody browse for deer with 12 to 14% crude protein. If you have stands of young forest or areas of early succession, clumps of black gum are worth looking for. The leaves are shiny and oval in shape, usually growing in small clusters. At a certain point of maturity, dark blueberries will grow slightly smaller than peas. Just be sure to focus on immature plants.
If you want to learn more about native vegetation types and how much they attract deer and other wildlife, I highly recommend Dr. Craig Harper’s book “Wildlife Food Plots and Early Successional Plants.” It is a gold mine of information, images, and detailed research on which plants benefit deer and what their preferences tend to be within their natural environments.