The Deer Corn Factor

Legal baiting hasn't changed much in the south Georgia deer woods.

Nick Carter | November 22, 2011

This buck would present an easy target during daylight hours with its nose in a pile of sweet feed. But mature bucks will rarely be caught doing this.

The base of the burn barrel had heated to a muted orange glow by the time conversation rambled through college football into the existence of black panthers. Finally, a younger hunter in the group broached the subject all of us had in the backs of our minds.

“Where y’all hunting in the morning?” he asked, knowing this late in the evening he was low on the totem pole and might need an alternate plan.

“My climber’s in the white oaks,” was the first response.

“I’m going to that swamp stand,” came another.

“If you weren’t already planning on it, I wanna hunt the clearcut,” came a third.

That’s when the ribbing began.

Seventy-five yards in front of a tower stand on the edge of the 100-acre, 1 1/2-year-old, rolling clearcut is a trough feeder. The property owner set it all up a couple months prior to bow season. The stand is concealed in a wooded pocket with lanes cut to the clearcut. A hunter can watch the feeder and the edge, where the deer are supposed to pile out of some thick, young planted pines on their way to the golden acorns.

Being a north Georgia deer hunter, I cut my teeth on white oak ridges and mountain saddles in the steep northwest corner of the state, it almost felt like my duty to say something disparaging about baiting. I was taught hunting deer over bait is wrong… mainly because it was illegal.

But this year it’s not — not in Taylor County where we sat around the burn barrel digesting thick-cut ribeyes. I make it down to Taylor County two or three times a year to hunt with a good buddy who has some land there. They’ve always used corn, both planted and out of feeders, to keep deer on the property. I never considered hunting a trail leading to one of those feeders unethical, not if I was 200 yards away and out of sight of it. But hunting over a trough full of corn?

That’s not my kind of hunting, I thought. That’s for folks who aren’t willing to burn the boot leather to find a good natural food source or a trail intersection or a good rub line in a thick swamp bottom.

Well, my attitude had changed by the next afternoon. That morning I hunted a high-traffic oak flat deep in the woods and saw a bunch of deer, but nothing I wanted to shoot. We had worked hard cutting firewood through the early afternoon, and I was looking for something easy. I wanted a comfy chair and a firm platform underneath me where I could listen to the game on the radio and maybe pop a doe for the smoker.

I was headed to the baited clearcut stand with visions of an afternoon spent quietly cheering the Dawgs as they stomped Auburn. Deer would file into the feeder at about dark, and I would be heading back to camp with meat.

One of my visions came true. Georgia beat Auburn worse than I can remember, and I wished I had stayed at camp to watch the game because not a single deer was seen.

I apparently experienced what many hunters in south Georgia are experiencing this season. Hunting over corn does not guarantee you’ll see deer. In fact, at least this far into Georgia’s first deer season when hunting over bait has been legal in the Southern Zone, it may not even be the best way to kill a deer.

Around the GON office we have been pretty interested in how legalized baiting will effect this year’s season in the Southern Zone, especially when one of the year’s first Truck-Buck entries arrived. In more than 20 years of Truck-Buck, it was the first entry GON has ever received that described scattered corn as the food source the deer was killed over.

This nice Wheeler County 11-pointer was still in velvet on opening morning of bow season when Thomas Vann, of Glenwood, killed it from a stand baited with corn.

Thomas Vann, of Glenwood, dispersed corn in some open planted pines to lure in a nice Wheeler County 11-pointer on opening morning of bow season Sept. 11.

It went down exactly how you would have expected if you listened to the hype over legalized baiting while the measure was going through the legislature. On the 100-acre property, Thomas had been putting down corn for two months on the edge of a grown-up clearcut deer were bedding in. He watched four bucks come to the corn every morning with his trail camera.

On opening morning, he slipped into a stand overlooking the corn about an hour before shooting light, watched the four bucks moving around for 30 minutes until it became light enough, and then he picked out the biggest one and arrowed it.

“I knew he was there,” Thomas said. “I could set my watch by him.”

Sounds pretty easy, right?

Well, Thomas is a good hunter. The bow he killed this year’s buck with was his prize for winning a bow week in Truck-Buck two years ago. That’s an accomplishment few hunters can claim. He says there’s no way he would have caught his buck coming to corn if it hadn’t been opening morning. He has not been hunting over corn lately.

“You ain’t going to kill a deer like that on corn later in the season,” he said. “It turns them nocturnal quicker than anything.”

Thomas did say he has set up a stand where he cut shooting lanes through some thick cover and baited the lanes. His wife hunts there, and his 11-year-old granddaughter killed her first deer there this year.

“You can kill does and yearlings over corn pretty easy,” he said, “but it ain’t going to change anything on these big deer.”

That’s a worry many people have had over legalized baiting, that it would open up the opportunity for a huge harvest of young deer and decimate deer populations. That doesn’t appear to be the case at least this far into the season.

According to WRD biologists in south Georgia, the data has not been crunched, but anecdotal evidence from deer-cooler surveys and talking with hunters suggests the harvest is not significantly higher than it was last year.

Greg Waters, a biologist in southeast Georgia’s Region 6, said there has been little or no change to the harvest because of legalized baiting.

“It’s all the same story, everybody thinks their nextdoor neighbor is shooting everything that walks,” he said. “That’s always been the case, and it’s still the case now. With or without (bait), they still think their neighbors are shooting anything that they pass up.”

Greg said one thing he has noticed is many people who regularly plant food plots now have a feeder in the middle of whatever they planted. They still planted the food plots, but they threw in some corn to boot.

In southwest Georgia’s Region 5, WRD Wildlife Technician Brian Vickery also said if he has seen an uptick in the harvest it has been “ever so slight.” With the peak of rut-related activity where he hunts still a week away when we spoke to him Nov. 16, he said bait might become a factor when bucks start really focusing on does, does that utilize supplemental feed on a regular basis.

The same report is coming from deer processors. Bob Miles, of Bob Miles Taxidermy and Deer Processing, in Dawson, said he pushed hard for baiting legalization last year thinking it would increase his business for both deer and hogs. He hasn’t seen much of an increase for either species. Bob said he’s maybe taking in 5 percent more deer than he did last year, a figure that wouldn’t raise eyebrows with or without the corn factor.

Bob said everyone has some corn out somewhere, including himself, but they’re not killing a lot of deer over it.

“A lot of people are looking at deer. They’re not shooting,” he said. “There are so many acorns and stuff out now. There’s still so much food out there for them, and they’re going to that first in my experience and from talking to other folks.”

An abundance of acorns was mentioned by several hunters as one reason corn might not be as effective.

Reggie Dickey, of the Georgia Hunting and Fishing Federation, which was a major player in getting the baiting legislation passed, said his clubs in Effingham County are so covered in oak tree acorns that you can’t walk without stepping on them.

“There are so many acorns this year that the deer aren’t even messing with (feeders),” he said. “Mostly what’s on the feeders are squirrels, turkeys and hogs.”

He said he doesn’t even hunt over corn, that he prefers his food plots, but hunters in his clubs who are using corn haven’t killed or seen any more deer than they did before. Reggie said that’s exactly what he expected.

When questioned about why he and his organization pushed baiting legislation so hard if he knew it wouldn’t make a difference, he responded, “It was for the people that thought it would really help ’em. And it was for the ones who were already doing it so they wouldn’t have to look over their shoulder.

“It ain’t killing any more deer. Deer just don’t come to a feeder in our part of the country. It ain’t like in Texas where they don’t have nothin’ to eat. These boys, they’ve been feeding ’em down here anyhow for the last five years, and they ain’t feeding them no more now than they were then.

“I figure, give it about two years and it will die off because people are going to find out it doesn’t work here like it does out West where the deer don’t have that much to eat to start with.”

The high price of corn right now may also be a limiting factor for hunters who might otherwise rely heavily on corn. Reggie said he saw 40-lb. bags of corn at Walmart selling for $9. Last year at this time, Walmart was selling 50-lb. bags for $7.

But most hunters with serious feeding programs buy corn by the 50-gallon drum anyway, and because of the drought, those are tough to find right now if you haven’t already contracted with a farmer for them.

Kenneth Merritt, who runs Merritt Deer Processing in Coffee County, said he hasn’t noticed any difference in the harvest this year. Kenneth is also a farmer. He didn’t even plant corn this year because he knew it would fail under the dry conditions.

“I usually sell some by the drum. I didn’t have any this year. I didn’t grow any because we were so dry,” he said. “The people around here that did grow it already had it contracted and sold. The people that usually buy it by the 50-gallon drum are having to buy it by the bag.

“With the price of corn being high, I’m seeing a lot more people talking about planting food plots. Used to they could pour out corn cheaper than they could plant food plots, but now they’re going back to some food plots.”

So, just like in the Northern Zone, food plots and acorns, not corn, seem to be the preferred food sources for deer, at least so far this season. But as the season wanes and natural food sources become a little more scarce, will the corn factor rear its head?

Brian Vickery doesn’t think so.

“As deer season tapers off after the holidays, you’ll have a few weekend warriors that are still dedicated to the cause that’ll go out an burn some boot leather,” he said. “But for the largest majority of the hunting public, I think after the rut’s over with, the activity will taper off.”

He also said deer, at least in his region, aren’t as mast-crop dependent as they are farther north where the winters are more harsh. If the acorn crop doesn’t make it through the season, deer will still have plenty of browse, he said.

There’s one other glaring aspect to the corn factor that was mentioned by every single hunter, biologist and processor GON talked to. Whether it was being done legally or illegally, hunters were already putting a lot of corn out long before hunting over it was legalized in the Southern Zone.

The consensus: Not much has changed with the harvest or the way people are hunting now that hunting over bait has been legalized.

The reason: Whether they were hunting 200 yards and out of sight of it or not, south Georgia hunters are using corn the same this year as they always have.

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