Follow the Mast to Find Whitetail Success

Early season prep includes more than practice and tick protection. Find the mast in order to place the best stands.

Follow the Mast to Find Whitetail Success
Shutterstock image

In the summer, I often drive a 2-mile-or-so road that winds its way past several parcels where I have permission to deer hunt. I enjoy scanning fields and assorted openings for whitetails.

I often glimpse several dozen deer, including some very nice bucks. One year, I became particularly infatuated with sightings of a 12-pointer; another year a 10-point partial albino. And I’ve seen quite a few mature eight-pointers over the years.

But in the many years I’ve hunted in those properties once the season starts, I’ve rarely observed any of those specific summer bucks.

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And when I have, they’ve never been where I spotted them in the summer. In fact, I’ve long ago stopped having any expectations of summer “scouting” expeditions being of any more value than a chance to go to town to get some ice cream.


Of course, there’s absolutely no harm in glassing summer bucks from afar. But if we want to maximize our late summer and early fall time in preparation for the season to come, here’s what we should be doing.

DETERMINE THE HARD-MAST PRODUCTION, SPECIFICALLY ACORNS

Mast-Deer
White oak acorns are a preferred food of deer. Find a productive white oak, and you have a good stand site. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

In many regions, hunters can create and manicure the finest possible food plots, plant apple trees galore, and painstakingly seed their access roads. But the reality is that when acorns first start falling deer go to the oaks. Two families of oak trees exist in the Southeast, the white and red, and of the two, the white oak species have the most effect on deer movement in years that they produce acorns at all.

The Southeast’s most common varieties include the white, post, live, chinquapin, bur and chestnut. In most cases, if the white oak proper is bearing, that’s where the deer will be. But some autumns, I’ve hunted properties where the only white oak that produced was either the post or the chinquapin, and they then commanded most of the deer traffic.

Common red varieties include the northern red, black, scarlet and blackjack. Red oaks seem to be more consistent producers than white oaks. In years when red oaks are producing and white oaks are not, hunters must focus on the red oaks — because positioning a stand in a non-producing oak grove of either white or red oaks is a colossal waste of time. Lastly, if both white and red oak trees are shedding nuts, the safe bet is to situate stands near the former trees. White oak family members, with the chestnut oak being a notable exception, generally have lower tannin levels which makes their acorns more palatable.


DETERMINE THE SOFT-MAST PRODUCTION

Mast-Deer
Persimmons are key soft-mast food sources for deer. Soft-mast trees can save the day if the oak crop is spotty one year.(Shutterstock image)

Another important task is to determine which soft-mast trees and shrubs have produced and where. In my part of the region, the three major wild soft-mast foods are summer grapes, persimmons and paw paws. In other parts of the South, muscadine and fox grapes, wild plums and various species of cherries may be the soft mast to make note of.

The point is that wherever you hunt, a number of soft-mast trees and shrubs are important whitetail foods in the fall. Know our local soft-mast foods; it’s especially important when the oak crop fails or is spotty.

POSITION LADDER STANDS IN KNOWN FUNNELS

Certain places are known deer travel ways every autumn. Perhaps the best example of a deer highway is a funnel. If you live in the highlands, a funnel might be where a steep mountainside abuts a flat or bench. If you live in the flatlands, a classic funnel might be where a river bottom borders an agricultural field. In rolling hills country, a pinch point might be where a gap lies between two hills.


Regardless, deer use funnels to travel between feeding and bedding areas. What’s more, funnels can produce sightings just about any time of the day making them superb day-long stand sites. That’s why many bowhunters, myself included, like to position ladder stands within pinch points and keep them there the entire season.

Now is a good time for hunters to determine where the funnels are and place ladder stands there. If these stands are already in place, we should check them to see if any part needs replacing or if the attaching ropes need to be tightened, loosened, or replaced.

Mast-Deer
Hybrid (blight-resistant) chestnut trees are a great option for managers who want to improve food sources for deer on their properties. (Chestnut Hill Outdoors image)

STAND SITES BETWEEN MAST SOURCES AND BEDDING AREAS

Some bowhunters prefer climbing stands, others opt for hang-ons; many of us use both kinds, letting the situation determine which stand is best for a particular outing. For example, my son-in-law, David, chooses climbers if he finds poplars (which typically lack branches for most of the lower half of a tree) in an oak grove that looks promising. He selects a hang-on stand if a tree features a number of side branches.

Archers desire these two stand types when they want to be mobile and perhaps hunt several places in the course of a day. Or when they know that food sources are rapidly changing so that stand sites likewise will be in constant flux. After you have found producing hard- and soft-mast varieties and positioned a stand either in a grove, or on the way to and from it, you should cut shooting lanes.

Some hunters worry that cutting lanes right before or during the season will cause deer to alter their travel patterns. I disagree. Trees and limbs are constantly falling in the forest. If a deer has to avoid an area every time its appearance slightly changes, then there would be no safe places for deer to live, ever.

I believe the best time to create shooting lanes is right after we’ve climbed down from a just positioned stand. While aloft, I make mental notes of where possible offending limbs are and, once down and on my way out of an area, I cut those boughs and even a few saplings. One of the most frustrating things about early season hunting that can occur is to have done a great deal of work on the right place for a stand, then not be able to shoot a buck or doe within range because proper shooting lanes were not created earlier.

BOWHUNTERS: SIGHT IN, MAINTAIN AND PRACTICE

Pre-season practice with your bow of choice is crucial—even for crossbow hunters. In June, I’ll look over my compound and crossbow to see if every part looks the way it should. If one or more parts don’t appear right, I’ll take the bow to my local archery shop operator and have him thoroughly examine it. I do this in late spring because I don’t want to lose practice time during the summer. Or worse, have my bow not ready for opening day because I was too disorganized to ready it for the season.

Obviously, June has already passed and so has July. Hopefully, you’re not one of those folks who has delayed prepping his bow and has just found a missing part or something askew with it. If you have, get your bow squared away now.

TICK PREVENTION

Mast-Deer
Shutterstock image

As someone who has recovered from Lyme disease, albeit with permanent nerve damage in my toes, I am fanatical about not coming down with any more tick-related afflictions. Gamehide’s Cody Larsen has advice on that topic.

“Our native ticks are dangerous enough, and now there’s a new threat from an invasive Asian tick,” Larsen said. “Early season hunters in the Southeast are particularly susceptible because it’s so much warmer in that region.

“Some of the basic things hunters can do are check themselves thoroughly after hunting, tuck their socks in their boots, and wear gloves and long sleeves even in the hottest weather. Also remember that ticks attack usually from below, so be sure to especially check yourself below the waist.”

Gamehide’s ElimiTick line has permethrin, a natural tick repellent, imbedded in clothes’ fibers. Two new items for this fall are the Tactical Style Quarter Zip shirt and Tactical Style Pants.

ORGANIZE EARLY SEASON HUNTING CLOTHES AND OTHER GEAR

Before the season starts, I make sure that every clothes item is in its proper storage container and that essential gear (such as knives, multiple flashlights, haul rope, licenses, scent spray, tick and bug repellents) are in my daypack. For this daypack, I have designated certain pockets for certain gear so that there is no fumbling about in the dark for some item. I believe all this preparation with hard and soft mast scouting, treestand prepping and positioning, clothes selection and storage, tick prevention, and gear organization is important and productive. Scouting fields in

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