Scouting After the Harvest
By: Dave Edwards Jr.
How many times have you found a great place on your property to hunt that had everything – great food sources, cover, deer trails and maybe a few rubs – set up a stand, sat there all day with anticipation and never saw a deer? Or worse yet, have you ever convinced yourself that this is the place, it’s just a matter of time and then spent a weekend committed to a single stand and did not see much of anything? I have, and it isn’t much fun! Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have to kill a deer every time I go to the woods, but I at least want to see some action. It was very likely that the area I was hunting was indeed a “good area,” but the deer simply weren’t using it at the time. It is also a good bet that there were either abundant food sources or more preferred food sources available somewhere else on the property.
What drives deer movement? The answer is simple – food! Some may argue that breeding season or the rut affects buck movements, which is correct. They are searching for does. Where are the does? They will be where the food is. So food is ultimately influencing when and where deer move. Like me, deer are slaves to their stomachs (or rumens), they feed many times each day, and food is what drives their movement. Identifying deer movement patterns results in successful hunts. The key is to know where deer are bedding, which food source they are using, and position yourself in a strategic location near the food source, bedding area, or between the two. To do this, you need to scout – this includes scouting food sources on the ground, and “scouting from the skinning shed.” That’s right – learn what deer are eating by studying the rumen contents of harvested deer.
Traditional Scouting Methods
Successful deer hunters are familiar with traditional scouting methods. This method usually begins with close examination of an aerial photograph or map of the property to identify logical places for deer to be then ground-checking key areas for deer sign and available food sources. During the ground-check, the hunter is looking for trails, rubs, scrapes, and habitat features that will influence deer movement such as thickets, travel corridors, bottlenecks or ecotones (where two or more habitats come together). From a food standpoint, scouting hunters are searching for preferred food sources such as agricultural crops or food plots, quality vegetation (honeysuckle, greenbriar, legumes, etc.), oaks that are dropping acorns, or soft mast (persimmons, grapes, apples, plums, etc). To avoid setting up on a great food source that is not being used, a close inspection of the food source is needed.
That is, just because you found a swamp chestnut oak – one of the most preferred acorns in many southern regions – that is “raining” acorns doesn’t mean that deer are eating them. Is there abundant deer sign in and around the food source? If you are inspecting an oak, do you see many acorn caps, a good indication that something has eaten the acorns? In fact, if deer are heavily using a particular oak tree, you shouldn’t find many acorns because they are eating them as fast as they fall. Obviously, signs that deer are eating the food source are important. However, the one key sign I look for and will instantly give me confidence that deer are using the area is fresh deer droppings. If old droppings are present too, I’m hanging a stand! That means that deer have been using the area consistently for a while.
Effectively scouting by traditional techniques is certainly necessary to consistently have successful hunts. However, traditional methods require a good bit of time and energy on your part, which for most of us is limited. Besides the time required, traditional scouting techniques require the hunter to “ramble around” the woods, disturbing deer and leaving a lot of scent behind. This activity and disturbance is sure to put deer on the alert, particularly mature bucks, and will influence deer movements. This is where scouting from the skinning shed comes in handy. It helps minimize “scouting pressure” and can save precious time that can be spent in a deer stand.
Scouting From the Skinning Shed
Scouting from the skinning shed – a phrase I first saw used in Quality Whitetails by Dr. Grant Woods in his 1999 article by the same title – refers to inspecting the stomach contents of harvested deer to determine available and preferred food sources that deer are using at that time of the season. “At that time” is important because food sources change from week to week.
For example, deer may be feeding heavily on water oaks, but if a more preferred food source becomes available such as a clump of white oaks dropping acorns, deer change their diet and adjust movements and bedding accordingly. To be productive, you need to do the same. This is particularly true for bowhunters – placing a bow stand just a few yards in the wrong direction from a great location can cost you the chance at a nice buck.
Another example I often see is when deer are using agricultural crops or food plots but change food sources and movements literally overnight once acorns start falling. Hunters who continue to hunt food plots during this time often spend the afternoon watching grass grow. They often claim, “The deer just weren’t moving.” Scouting from the skinning shed would have told them that deer are now feeding on acorns and would have prevented a “wasted” afternoon or weekend. Sometimes you will even see that deer are feeding in different areas and on different food sources in the morning versus the afternoon. Scouting from the skinning shed tells you what the deer are eating and will reduce the amount of traditional scouting needed to put you in the hot spot.
Notice that I mentioned it will reduce the amount of traditional scouting. Once you know what the deer are feeding on, you still need to do some quick scouting to make sure you are in the right place and that there is active deer sign in the area. For example, although deer may be feeding on cherrybark oak acorns, your property may have several areas with cherrybark oaks. Traditional scouting will pinpoint where the deer are and more importantly where they are not. But by scouting from the skinning shed and knowing deer are eating cherrybark acorns, you can concentrate your scouting efforts on figuring out which stand of cherrybark oaks they are using. This prevents you from having to employ full-scale scouting efforts in the middle of hunting season.
So how do you scout from the skinning shed? Obviously, the first thing you need is a deer at the skinning shed. If you are familiar with your property or hunting lease and are practicing QDM, you probably know a few places you can harvest a deer without any scouting – places that are always productive. If you hunt with friends or a club, chances are that somebody in the camp will harvest a deer.
Once you have a deer, inspect the contents of the stomach. To do this, field dress the deer and find the rumen. Deer have four stomach chambers that are essentially “linked” together. As food makes its journey through these chambers, it is increasingly digested. That is, roughage and pieces of raw food materials will be in the first stomach – which is the rumen – and the last stomach will contain extremely fine food particles in a mostly liquid state. The rumen is the largest stomach and the one we are interested in. The rumen is also what most people will identify as “the deer’s stomach” when field dressing, and even novice hunters can find it easily.
Simply cut the rumen open (which I seem to do by accident every time I dress a deer anyway!) and see what’s inside. A word of caution: if the rumen is bloated or tight, release pressure slowly with the point of your knife before slicing… and turn your head or you may be inspecting your own stomach contents! Better yet, if the rumen is bloated, ask a naive hunting partner to open it for you. Although the contents often look like a green gooey mess, with some inspection, the primary food sources the deer has been eating should be obvious. It helps to dump the contents on the ground or concrete pad and run some water over it. Be sure to use disposable rubber gloves to handle the rumen contents, as it is very difficult to wash off the odor, and also poison ivy and oak are commonly browsed by deer.
However, there is a better method. I keep a “scouting box” at the skinning shed that makes the job easier. The scouting box is nothing more than a wooden box with a bottom made of ¼-inch hardware cloth that acts as a screen or sieve. This box allows you to dump the stomach contents onto the screen and wash away the more digested particles, leaving only the larger pieces behind. If you are interested in seeing the semi-small items, you can use a second box below the first with a finer screen. However, I only use the larger screen now because the small items were hard to identify and the larger items told me what I needed to know.
Identifying Food Items
Once you have washed the stomach contents down and have parts and pieces of food items left, you face the task of identifying what they are. If the deer has been eating plants, you will see bits and pieces of leaves. It’s relatively easy to identify plants using the larger pieces of leaves, but in some cases you will have to rely on subtle hints from fragments like leaf edges and veins. If you are not familiar with common deer browse plants in your area, I recommend asking your biologist to give you a crash course on plant identification or study a plant identification guide. Although I can identify most southern plants, I keep a field guide on hand for those I struggle with. In the Southeast, one of the best field guides is Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses, by Dr. Karl V. Miller and James H. Miller, available from QDMA.
You will seldom be able to identify highly digestible plants, especially most food plot crops like clovers, unless the deer consumed them very recently. These simply digest too fast and are quickly rendered into a green liquid.
Obviously, if the deer has been eating acorns, you will see acorns. There will be whole acorns, pieces of acorn meat (usually tan or yellow) and hull. Again, a good field guide is very helpful to identify which oak species the acorns came from. Acorns are mostly identified by their size, shape, characteristics, and markings. Soft mast like crabapples, persimmons and various berries can sometimes be tricky because the “meat” is soft and digests easily, and the skin has been chewed. I often have to rely on the seeds of soft mast for identification. Once you do it a few times, you will become more confident and proficient at identifying the deer foods.
You will also be amazed at some of the weird things deer will eat. I have found rocks, cigarette butts, rope, candy wrappers and a parachute to name a few! That’s right, I said a parachute. I once managed the hunting on a National Guard post in Florida where we checked stomach contents of harvested deer. During nighttime military maneuvers, troops often dropped large flares from aircraft that drifted down on parachutes about the size of a kitchen table. Somehow, this deer ate the parachute! The entire parachute including the D-ring and cords were in the deer’s stomach in a ball. The parachute took up most of the deer’s stomach. I never figured out how the deer got the whole thing into its stomach, but I’m sure it would have been a sight to watch!
Unless you are just interested, I would not spend too much time trying to identify the small stuff in the stomach. Your goal is simply to determine the primary food source that the deer was eating. With a very quick inspection you can tell whether the deer spent more time eating browse or eating acorns. Upon further inspection you should try to identify which specific browse plants (agricultural crop, food plot, native plants, etc.) or mast crop (acorns, soft mast, etc.) the deer concentrated on.
It is obviously helpful to check more than one deer. Deer are like people. Given a choice, most of us would prefer to hang out around a seafood buffet rather than a salad bar. But there is always someone who would prefer the salad. I also recommend checking deer throughout the season since food sources change.
We use our scouting box to inspect deer rumen contents throughout the hunting season at our commercial hunting lodge so that we can monitor deer feeding habits and adjust hunting locations accordingly. We also keep records of our findings. This allows us the ability to predict which food sources deer will be using next year and gives us an advantage that allows us to stay ahead of the game (pun intended). After collecting information over a couple of hunting seasons, you will begin to see a pattern of feeding habits for each week of the hunting season. For example, from annually collected diet information, you will get a good feel for when deer use agriculture fields, when they prefer natural browse, and when they shift to acorns or other mast crops. Many food sources are only available for short periods of time, and you may not have time to locate the food source or adjust your hunting strategy the same season you see these foods in rumen contents. By keeping records of what you found and when, you can make predictions for next season and plan and scout accordingly (With acorns, however, remember that acorn crops are inconsistent from year to year, and your predictions about timing will be dependent on having a decent or strong acorn crop that year).
Date, location of the harvest, sex and age of the deer, major food sources present and percentage of their composition are a few things we record from each deer. Recording the location is certainly helpful if you are hunting a relatively large property. Although deer across a property will usually focus their feeding efforts on similar food sources, I have seen completely different diets on the same property due to the availability of food sources in different areas.
For those who enjoy seeing exactly what the deer are eating, collect as detailed information as you like. Obviously, more information will result in finer-tuned results. However, I caution you from trying to identify every single piece of food you find, as this is virtually impossible. From a hunting and management standpoint, concentrate your efforts on things that are common in several deer and are relatively abundant in the diet.
Analyzing rumen contents is also a good way to assess your habitat and nutritional management strategies. For example, if you are constantly seeing poor quality food sources such as red cedar or oak leaves in stomach contents, this may be a sign that your deer population has exceeded the property’s carrying capacity. Improved harvest or habitat management may be needed. Your property may appear to have plenty of “green stuff” for deer to eat and may even have a decent food plot program, but a closer inspection may indicate that few quality food sources exist. A high deer population results in high competition for desirable, nutritious food sources.
I commonly visit new properties where deer populations are high. From a truck window the woods appear to have food in the understory. But a closer look indicates that most desirable plant species such as greenbriar, honeysuckle and ragweed have been heavily browsed or are non-existent. This reminds me of the old saying, “Good from afar, but far from good.” Scouting from the skinning shed will help you monitor your management efforts and make adjustments when needed to ensure deer are getting a quality diet.
Pay Attention to the Little Things
Although it is more important to note the common food items you find when scouting at the skinning shed, paying attention to some of the weird or odd items that show up in the stomachs of deer can instantly put you in a honey hole. Pokeweed is a common plant in the South that is often found on recently disturbed ground such as roadsides, logging decks, firebreaks or clearcuts. Because pokeweed is a preferred food source for deer, it is common to see pokeweed that has been heavily browsed. In fact, I would consider it an “ice cream” plant for deer.
I can remember checking a doe’s stomach during archery season a couple of years ago – the rumen was completely filled with pokeweed leaves. I ran out and checked a couple of logging decks from a recent pine thinning operation. Sure enough, deer had been hammering the pokeweed, and there was fresh sign everywhere. A friend and I set up on two different logging decks the next morning. I had action all morning and was able to get a doe. I picked my friend up at 10:30 a.m. He had witnessed similar deer activity and had a dandy 9-point buck! We would never have thought about hunting these locations without seeing the pokeweed in the stomach of that doe.
Scouting from the skinning shed does not take the place of traditional scouting, it simply complements it. You still need to scout and know the woods. I recommend scouting shortly after the hunting season is over. During this time of year, deer sign, including rubs, scrapes and trails, is still relatively fresh and easily seen, and after being pressured all season, deer will be hanging out where they feel comfortable and secure. This is also where you will find deer next hunting season once hunting pressure cranks up. Post-season scouting goals are to identify travel corridors, bottlenecks, thickets, bedding areas, and various food sources. Use this trip to become intimately familiar with your property, habitat features, food source locations, and key areas deer use when hunting pressure is applied. With this information you will know where to look and hunt next season after you identify what the deer are eating.
Scouting from the skinning shed has many benefits. It’s free information that will improve your hunting success, and it only takes a couple minutes to “scout” while you are dressing or processing a deer. But most importantly, it helps you identify what deer are eating so you can concentrate your scouting efforts in specific areas and avoid having to cover the entire property. This not only saves you time and energy, it reduces disturbance. Lastly, scouting from the skinning shed allows you to assess and monitor your habitat management program. Although many factors influence deer movements, food is certainly high on the list. Find the food, and you will find the deer!
About the Author: Dave Edwards Jr. has a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Florida, and a Master’s in Wildlife Management from Mississippi State University. He is currently a project manager for Westervelt Wildlife Services and previously worked for the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission. Dave is a Sponsor Member of QDMA.