How to ... find deer where they feed in the North Woods

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: October 24, 2013 - 2:15 PM
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A whitetail doe fed on the leaves of goldenrod, a favorite fall food for deer. Find where does are feeding, and chances are you’ll also find bucks.

Photo: Bill Marchel • Special to the Star Tribune,

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– Right now, a half-million hunters are formulating their own master plans in anticipation of the Nov. 9 firearms deer opener. No matter the plan, each hunter is angling for the same outcome: proximity to whitetails.

In my experience, I believe the leaves of goldenrod plants to be the No. 1 deer food in areas absent of farm crops or mast. Goldenrod is a forb that grows in open meadows throughout the state. The plants vary in height but average 3 feet tall. Goldenrod sprout attractive yellow flowers late in the summer, thus the name.

It took me years to discover just how irresistible whitetails find these plants, because deer will not touch them until the leaves have frozen and turned brown.

For whatever reason, deer won’t eat goldenrod when the leaves are still green. Some experts have suggested the leaves are mildly toxic. But once the leaves freeze, a fungus coverts the plant cells to sugar and the deer begin feeding on the sweet brown leaves.

Another favorite fall deer food, often overlooked by hunters, is the catkins of hazel brush. The catkins themselves resemble army worms — about 1 inch long and about an eighth of an inch in diameter. Hazel plants growing in sunny spots such as openings or forest edges sport the most catkins.

It is somewhat difficult to determine if deer are feeding on hazel catkins because the deer pull loose and eat the catkins without nipping the twig. To determine if deer are at work, take a look at the center branches in the thickest and biggest clumps of hazel brush. Deer are reluctant to “push” their way into the center of the tangle. If deer are feasting there, the catkins will be missing from branches along the perimeter but not from the center of the clump.

Another plant species relished by deer in the North Woods is raspberry. Whitetails prefer the stubborn leaves that often cling to the stems into December, but they’re also fond of the spine-covered stalks.

One more wild food attractive to deer is horsetail. This perennial plant grows about 18 inches tall and has dark green stems that form in sections. Horsetail flourishes in damp areas — sometimes it even grows in shallow water.

Hunt these natural food sources just as you would a farm field or oak ridge. Place your stand or blind downwind of the feeding location.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

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