Phil Anderson has a job only a whitetail freak like you and me could love. "I often snoop around a gut pile with a stick, but I learn a lot more when I take the time to collect stomach samples and carry them home for screening," says the ruminant nutrition consultant from Emlenton, Pa. "The neat thing about rooting around in guts is you get true information as to what a deer ate during the last day or two, not what you think he ate or what some expert said he ate."
Here's how to use Anderson's weird science to your advantage.
Once you've dressed a deer and rolled the guts away from the carcass, hold your nose and slit the large, bag-like rumen, or paunch. Reach inside (rubber gloves are recommended), fetch a sample and bag it. "A quart of material is plenty. I suggest double or triple Ziploc baggies," laughs Anderson. When you get home pour the sample onto a piece of .25-inch screen and spray it lightly with a water hose. Note the large particles exposed on the screen-pieces of corn, fruit, nuts, mushrooms ... . "Try to identify leaves or plant parts before they dry out, shrivel and become hard to recognize," he says.
What It Tells You
Say your season is still open and your buddy busts a deer. The woods are bare and brown for miles around, but the animal's rumen contents are bright green. Yesterday, that animal was either browsing the last green leaves in a thicket, or perhaps pawing for winter tubers that are popping up beneath the dead leaves. Scout and find a ridge or swamp that still has some browse, or a spot with freshly upturned leaves. Get on your hands and knees and see if little greens are sprouting in the duff. If so, set up close and fill your last tag. Or, say you shoot a big-woods buck with corn fragments in its stomach. Have your buddy set up in a funnel that leads to and from a crop land a mile or more away. There's a good chance he'll see deer and shoot one. You see how it works.
While instant gratification is possible, Anderson says the greater value of "gut-pile science" is in the long run: "Examining the stomach contents of many deer over many years will provide valuable insights on the deer movement patterns on your land; it'll tell you specifically how, when and where they move and feed at different times of the season."
Anderson has monitored rumen contents on his Pennsylvania tract for a long time. Most years there are cornfields within a mile or two of his woods, but few deer they've killed have had corn in their stomachs. Not knowing better, I would have bet the farm that some to most of those bucks were moving to feed in the corn, probably at night once the guns started booming. But Anderson confirmed that for whatever reason the corn was not a major food source for the herd during the late-fall and winter seasons. He also learned something else: Almost every deer they killed up through the late-muzzleloader season had a crab apple or two in its rumen. So now they bag the corn, focus on the crab apples and see and shoot more deer.
Finding Late-Season Food Sources
After the rut bucks need to find calories to replenish fat reserves before the winter's hardest months. The problem for them is that by the later part of the deer season food sources have typically been depleted or are gone. Typical staples such as agricultural crops, honeysuckle and acorns have been harvested or devoured. As a result, if there are still standing crops in the area or green fields with winter wheat deer will concentrate on them. If the ground isn't buried in deep snow, or worse, ice-covered snow, deer may dig for acorns and other mast crops. Scout along the edges of crops fields, in other open areas and in oak groves for fresh sign. If such a food source is being actively targeted deer will be bedded in the nearest security cover; in fact, sometimes late-season whitetails will be so concentrated they can be difficult to find. Scouting is actually more important after the rut.
Many hunters have learned that winter food plots can be an excellent draw for late-season whitetails. Brassicas are often the best option for a late-season plot. Brassicas include a large group of plants such as radishes, turnips, cabbages, canola, rape and kale. Most hunters use kale, rape and/or turnips. Brassicas tend to taste bitter to deer when the plants are young and growing, so the deer won't touch them until sub-zero temperatures cause starches in the leaves to be converted into sugars, which makes the leaves palatable to deer. Brassica's protein content typically ranges from 15 to 20 percent.