February 03, 2022
I’ll never forget the first deer I killed because it came to feed on apples. About a week before opening day, a veteran bowman and I had scouted a forest that neither of us had ever hunted.
Acorns—and deer droppings—were everywhere, as both white and red oaks were releasing their bounty, making it hard to pinpoint the hot food source. Then we stumbled upon a clearing that had apparently been the site of an old homeplace. An old apple tree grew there, its boughs drooping with ripe fruit.
"Put your stand here for opening day," my buddy instructed. "I know acorns are a deer’s No. 1 food, but sooner or later a deer will come here, and you’ll kill it."
His prediction proved accurate because, according to my records, I arrowed a mature doe there at 8:36 a.m. on opening day. We hunters relish pursuing deer that come to food plots that have been planted with clover, chicory, brassicas and other wildlife-attracting foods.
But one of the most overlooked flora that can be planted in a plot are apple trees, especially heritage ones that originated in the East decades or even centuries ago. Varieties exist that ripen in the fall and will potentially draw deer from the start of bow season through the rut.
The Shelton family operates Vintage Virginia Apples & Albemarle Ciderworks in North Garden, Va. (albemarlecider works.com). I asked Chuck Shelton what late-ripening varieties hunters should plant in their food plots.
"We sell a number of heritage apple trees that ripen in the fall over a period of about a month," he says. "In order of ripening, some of the best ones are Grimes Golden, Roxbury Russet, Baldwin, Winesap, Stayman Winesap and Black Twig. Of course, as a group these varieties will be available to deer for a lot longer than a month. Deer don’t care if an apple is half-rotten when it falls from a tree."
Shelton says a Grimes Golden, which originated in northern West Virginia, is an excellent pollinator of other apple trees in addition to being a great early-season deer attractant. In fact, the doe mentioned above had come to feed under a Grimes that had probably been planted many decades prior. Gather this variety before the deer consume them all and you’ll find the apples make outstanding applesauce.
Shelton says that the Roxbury Russet is the oldest American apple, originating in Massachusetts in the 1600s. Known primarily as a Northern variety, the Roxbury is a heavy bearer, resistant to several diseases and is a classic cider apple.
Also originating in Massachusetts, the Baldwin is resistant to cedar-apple rust and is an excellent keeper.
"The Baldwin used to be the number-one most often grown apple in New England," Shelton says. "And it’s still an excellent apple for that region."
The Winesap reputedly came into existence in New Jersey sometime in the 1700s, and is still a fairly common apple. My favorite way to eat them is in pies. Ripening next is the Stayman Winesap, which has the Winesap as a parent. My wife regards the Stayman as the best eating apple.
Hands down, the Black Twig is my favorite apple to plant for deer and to eat. Another offshoot of the Winesap family, this deep-red apple can linger on tree limbs well into November, and I’ve heard stories of whitetails digging through snow to find them. If there is such a fruit as a “rut apple,” then this variety deserves the nickname. Shelton labels it as one of the best eating apples; it excels in cider, as well. A Black Twig pie is a taste sensation.
The Right Size
For individuals who want to plant fruit trees in a food plot, Shelton believes semi-standard ones are the best option. They don’t grow as tall as standard trees, making them easier to spray, and they are capable of producing fruit earlier. Semi-standard varieties generally produce fruit in five to seven years, while standard trees may take twice as long. Dwarf trees require more care than either standard or semi-standard ones and are better suited to backyards than a food plot.
When to Plant
Shelton says that Vintage Virginia Apples begins to ship bare-root trees in early December and continues to do so until the trees break dormancy in early spring.
"The earlier you can plant a tree the better so that the tree can send out roots before summer," he says. "However, if someone lives north of New Jersey, for example, they probably won’t be able to plant trees in December because the ground has likely frozen by then."
"My advice to those people is to order the trees in December or early winter and either heel-in the trees or have them shipped later when planting conditions are better."
The heeling-in process is fairly simple. First, dig a shallow hole and lay the tree on the ground at a 90-degree angle to the hole. Lay the tree atop a tarp so it does not come in contact with the ground. Then, cover only the roots with soil, tamp down the dirt to eliminate air pockets and keep the tree reasonably moist until you can plant it properly.
Getting Them in the Ground
Shelton suggests that hunters position their trees randomly about a plot. However, if you decide it’s best to put your trees all in one area, plant them about 20 feet apart. Additionally, construct a wire cage around a tree, and you might also position tree guards around the base.
Finally, it’s a good idea to plant a crabapple tree in a food plot, as crabapples are outstanding pollinators. Both Shelton and I recommend Dolgo crabapples for this purpose, though other varieties perform well, too.
Supercharge your food plots, and don’t feel bad if you have to consume a few more pies and cobblers than you are accustomed to dining on. The improved hunting will be worth the additional inch or two on the waistline.