Gut Check

Scout from the skinning shed to discover what deer are feeding on now.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Figure out what your quarry is eating, and you'll know where to hunt. That's why quail hunters examine the crops of the first few birds they bag-and why deer hunters should do likewise. After the rut, when bucks gorge to regain weight dropped during breeding, you can glean useful information about which of the dwindling food sources deer are hitting by examining the rumen of every deer tagged in camp.

"If someone kills a deer, volunteer to dress it," advises whitetail expert Dr. Grant Woods. "For five minutes of yuck, you get days' worth of valuable, recent information." Here's how to go about it.

(1) Read the rumen. Start by examining the contents where the esophagus enters the rumen-the first of the four stomach chambers-to determine the deer's last meal. Then work away from the esophagus, noting the condition of subsequent layers. (The longer food is in the rumen, the less it resembles what you see on the ground.) Look for soft mast or browse, such as mushrooms, leaves, and fruit. These foods digest quickly and evidence of them indicates recent feeding.

(2) Work out a feeding pattern. Noting when a deer was killed, and therefore when it had its last meal, gives you a starting point for establishing a feeding time line based on the rumen's layers. For instance, if you find mushrooms near the esophagus of a deer shot at 10 a.m., hang your morning stand in damp, wooded areas where fungus flourishes.

**(3) Check the big deer. **Dominant bucks use similar habitats and eat similar foods at similar times. "If someone kills a nice buck, I definitely want to see what's in its belly," Woods says.

(4) Find the secret source. Scouting from the skinning shed works better in diverse habitats than in areas dominated by one forage type. Look for evidence of unexpected foods such as late-dropping fruit, then work on locating that food source. "Find the one pear tree in the area, for example," Woods says, "and you've got yourself a super hotspot."