How To Find Your Bowhunting Sweet Spots Now
October 04, 2010
For the serious bowhunter, the pre-season is the best time to pattern deer and to set up stands.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
There is one rule above all others that I faithfully follow concerning the topic of how to find the best places to bowhunt in the South come opening day and week, as well as the season as a whole. The truism is that every autumn we must start anew in determining where those sweet spots will be. The fact that we may have arrowed a nice buck or a mature doe near such and such oak grove, orchard, food plot or whatever food source the year before or during some opening day in the past means very little for the upcoming season.
That said, how do we go about beginning the process of making a wise decision on tree stand placement? Once again, a maxim exists, and it is true wherever there are deer in the South. And that truism is that the presence or absence of acorns more than any other natural or man-generated food source determines where early-season Southern deer will congregate.
A good example of this truism is a decent buck that I arrowed this past season. I have had permission to hunt a farm for seven years and had never killed a deer there. The landowner is a kindly man, constantly inviting me to come over and pursue his property's whitetails. For the first few years that I had permission, I did so quite a bit. But the acorn trees were lacking in number, and the ones that did grow seemed to be poor bearers. In fact, I rarely even saw whitetails there -- let alone quality bucks.
Before this past season began, I called the gentleman and renewed my permission to hunt. As is always the case, he regaled me with stories of all the deer he was observing and invited me over. I delayed conducting my pre-season scouting there, as I had little hope that the property held many deer. Finally, I decided to make the short drive to the land.
To my surprise, I found the oak trees had engendered a cornucopia of acorns. Indeed, in one particular grove, the nuts lay like so many marbles among the forest duff -- making it impossible to walk without stepping on vast numbers of them. I noted a major and very well-worn trail running into the grove, and droppings also littered the area.
A week later I returned to confirm that the situation was still the same -- it was -- and I positioned a portable tree stand 10 yards off the main trail. Three evenings later, I had only been aloft for 70 minutes when I arrowed a buck. He had been foraging along the trail, stopping often to consume the acorns. Thankfully, I believe in the truism that every season is different when the topic is what sweet spots will exist.
I also believe in the maxim that acorns draw Southern deer like no other food. And just what are those Dixie delights from state to state? Certainly, the white oak (Quercus alba) qualifies as the predominant acorn producer in our region.
Of course, the white variety is not the only important member of the oak family. Certainly, the northern red (Quercus rubra) and southern red (Quercus falcata) species have region-wide significance, as either or both of these closely related varieties exist in every Southern state. Indeed, these two red oaks produce much more consistently than white oaks do, and many years they will be the major food sources of our whitetails. Several years ago at the start of the season, every tree stand I own was positioned either in or leading to a red oak grove and that pattern held throughout the first six weeks of the season.
Many other oaks live in our region; some have regionwide significance and some are locally of great consequence. For instance, the scarlet oak (Quercus bicolor) is largely a tree of the upper South, as it grows mostly on upland ridges and slopes. Conversely, the turkey oak (Quercus laevis) is generally a tree of the lower South, as it does better in dry, sandy soil and in coastal dunes.
Most oaks grow in groves, but some of the species can be found as single trees in out-of-the-way spots. For example, the post oak (Quercus stellata) is one such variety. I rarely find it in pure groves. Where I do come across the post oak is as a lone oak growing in a pine thicket, a random tree along a fence line, a sole tree out in a field, or a lonesome oak on a hillside.
These random trees, whether they are post oaks or some other variety, do seem to have the magic ability to produce acorns every year and to be deer magnets. Learn now where they dot your local forest.
How do we determine the potential of oaks at this stage of the pre-season? Right now, very few oak trees have shed any of their fruit, and the only reason that has happened is because the weather may have been unseasonably dry. So any acorns we might find on the ground now will have little or no relevance once the season begins. What I like to do now is use binoculars to scan the treetops. Doing so can give us a fair idea about which oak trees and groves will likely be bearing fruit once bow season commences.
HOW THE LEAF DROP INFLUENCES MOVEMENT
Earlier, I mentioned that some oak trees grow in isolated locales. Those trees, specifically the ones that dwell in areas where the growth is dense, will be the ones to highlight once leaf drop occurs. Typically, when the various bow seasons begin in the region, very few leaves have fallen, and in places, they are even still green or just starting to turn.
But once the annual leaf drop starts, the deer no longer seem to feel comfortable -- especially in the daytime -- foraging in what is now a fairly open forest. I prefer to stay on stand the entire day, feeling that a whitetail can appear at any time. But rarely do I observe deer entering open woods, except during the low-light conditions of dawn and dusk.
That's why that after leaf drop, I reposition all of my tree stands to areas where the oaks, or some other hard- or soft-mast food source, have produced in thickets. Right now is a good time to scout out the public and private lands you hunt to find those places. For instance, you might come across an oak that stands sentinel among a sea of evergreens. Or you might turn up a hard-mast producer thriving in an overgrown creek bottom. If Dame Fortune really smiles upon you, you might even discover a fruit tree still producing its bounty in a long-abandoned -- and badly overgrown -- homestead. All these places are dandy ones to hunt after leaf drop, and, again, you can find them now -- or reconfirm the potential of such places that have produced in the past.
SOFT MAST AND OTHER SWEET SPOTS
As much as oak acorns dominate as a Southern deer food source, here is another maxim for our region -- at some stage of the season, those acorns will have been consumed by the host of game and non-game creatures that feast upon them. The virtues of Southern s
oft-mast food fare are that the varieties exist in great number in every region of every state, and that they generally produce every year. The downside of these same varieties is that they typically don't draw deer for long periods, as the animals tend to visit these menu items in a hit-and-run manner.
A good example of a soft-mast variety that is characteristic of the above is the grape family. One or more members of grape species flourish in every Southern state and rarely do these varieties attract deer for long periods of the season. Once again, now is a good time to locate those copses where grape vines send forth their tendrils.
Of course, other soft-mast food sources are worth learning about right now and where they exist on your hunting properties. In some places, those soft-mast producers could be a lone persimmon tree growing along a fencerow, or a pawpaw sending forth its custard-like fruit in a creek bottom, or a crabapple dropping its bitter fruits (to us) in a coppice. Find those soft-mast food sources now, mark them on a topo map, and keep that information handy for later in the season.
I truly believe that how well we conduct our pre-season scouting of food sources will determine how well we will do during the bow season. That's why it's so important to find the sweet spots before the season begins.