“You can’t eat horns!”, was what the old deer hunters used to tell me. They usually took the first, legal, “Tasty Deer” that passed by. Mountain Men also preferred Tasty over Antler size. Small does, fawns, or young bucks were easier to deal with, more tender, and left no waste.

A mountain man would often eat 25 lbs. of meat a day, if they could get it. Meshack Browning, the Maryland and Pennsylvania Daniel Boone preferred fresh liver and heart. The loins would be chunked and stuck onto sharp sticks around the fire. As they slowly cooked, he would strip the rest of the meat and drape it onto willow racks over a smokey fire. The cooked, smoked, and jerked meat would last a few days. Other scraps fed the dogs.

Deer taste like what they eat! Mule deer in Montana stink. Their strong mucky smell and sage odor are due to the grass and sage that they feast on. No matter how much you cook or spice them, you can taste the stink. If I hunt Mule deer, I prefer the ones that live around wheat fields. They tend to be fatter and less stinky.

Appalachian Mountain deer smell like acorns and oak trees. They do eat other things but the first smell that you will recognize is acorns. Domestic deer taste way different. The pellets or other grasses that they eat in their confined quarters, make for fine eating. These deer do not have to escape predators or endure the elements too much. Pampered domestic deer are more like Kobe beef.

Bigger bucks, and bulls taste rougher than younger bucks and bulls. That 7×7 Bull elk of a lifetime will certainly be huge and pack a lot of meat but… When the old meat is blue or purple, the meat is tough. Even if ground, the meat is noticeably chewy and tough. The best elk I ever tasted was spike bull that grazed in wheat fields.

Does are a tasty choice depending upon the season. If you wait until later in the winter, the does tend to be pregnant and have higher levels of estrogen. Some people say that this ruins the deer’s flavor. Fall does are often fat and healthy. Cow elk are the same.

Observe the deer’s behavior before you shoot it. CWD, and other health issues may be of concern. Use your optics to take a close look at what may become your dinner. Injuries from car strikes, fences, predators, parasites, or other regional issues may be an issue.

One of my old deer buddies went on a late season doe hunt. We had drawn permits and planned to hunt Evitts Mountain. Does were aplenty and my Dad and I were back to truck first. A few hours later, my buddy came back to the truck with his deer. It was small! At first, I was not sure that it was a deer. My dad poked me and said not to make fun. He was proud of his small deer and had to drag it a long way.

We hung the deer, at our camp along 15-mile Creek Rd., and I went to work skinning and cutting. The small doe cleaned up like a big rabbit. The skin just slid off and the meat was soft and tender. As per tradition, I prepared the inner loins for the hunter. I first soaked them in milk, dredged the cubes in seasoned flour, then fried them lightly. That Little deer was the tastiest deer that I have ever eaten!

Deer eat natural and agricultural crops. In more residential areas, they may also feed on landscape plants such as azaleas and flowers. My niece once complained that she came home to find deer feeding on her front doors natural, fresh, Christmas Wreath. If they can eat it, they will.

The health of a deer depends on what it eats. Northern Whitetails need 2-7 pounds of food a day, to survive. Elk need 40 pounds. When the weather is bad, they eat more. In the Summer, deer may eat 15 pounds of food a day. This means that one deer may need over a ton of food a year!

Since deer primarily browse, leaves, forbs, and grasses make for great food. Clover, chicory, and alfalfa are great meals for deer. Alfalfa is best served fresh and green. Deer have trouble digesting dried alfalfa and other cattle food. Buds and twigs are also common forage, but it takes a lot of tiny buds to make a meal. Taller grasses contain high levels of lignin, which gives the stems strength to stand alone. Deer do not like the chewy taste. Younger and softer green plants are more desirable.

Corn is often eaten but not healthy for deer. Even in the winter, corn tends to simply pass through the deer or clog them up. It is not uncommon to find a starved deer with a full belly of corn. It may be an effective baiting tool, where legal, but is not a healthy choice.

White Oak acorns and Chestnuts are a deer’s Hershey Kisses. These little nut nuggets are high in protein and delicious. When a mast crop is falling from the trees, deer will come from miles away to enjoy the buffet. I used to have my young son pick the acorns out of my yard. I would pay him $1 a 5-gallon bucket. These buckets were spread around my tree stands. Chestnut Oak acorns are bigger but not targeted by the deer. Red Oaks are also a good choice.

One of my old tree stands was along a hedgerow. Several Persimmon trees were usually full of fruit. After a frost or two, these soft fruits would drop, and the deer went into a feeding frenzy. Those deer were sure tasty.

Soil, water, and topography will also determine the taste of a deer. If the soil is acidic, it will change the flavor of the food. Lousy soil means lousy feed. Water means more lush and tasty growth. Ideally, the soil PH should be 7.0. Full sun hillsides tend to grow more food. Water and moist foods are needed for complete digestion.

Natural deer foods also consist of lichens, mushrooms, forbs, grasses, and mast crops. In urban yards, bulbed plants are often eaten. Azaleas and other expensive ornamentals are on the menu. Tulips, dandelions, and other common seasonal flowers will be targeted. Many homeowners may grant hunting permission because of these landscape eaters.

If you plant a small vegetable garden, it will be gone overnight. I once had a garden full of bush beans. I nurtured them until it was time to harvest. The night before I could pick my crop, a group of deer cleaned me out! Only stems remained.

If you are planning to improve the taste of your deer, consider a 50/ 50 mix of natural and planted feeds. Think seasonally and be certain that you have something for the deer to eat year around. Make sure that sunlight can reach the forest floor to nourish the young food plants. Deer are creatures of edges. Consider roads and pathways that are planted with a buffet of seasonal goodies. Keep food producers pruned so they will continue to produce food.

Hunting is more than antlers. If you plan to eat the deer examine what they eat.

Montana Grant

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