October 28, 2019
Modern deer hunters have become so reliant on food plots and artificial feeding that some have forgotten how to hunt deer that eat natural foods. As sure as bucks rut, acorns fall. Both events are precipitated by photo period—the amount of time between sunrise and sunset. Weather plays a secondary role that influences the peak and duration of both. But any hunter who pays attention can learn how to hunt the acorn drop.
Biologists know this event occurs, and state game agencies post mast reports for at least some regions, especially where the dominant habitat consists of upland hardwoods. However, mast indices, although perhaps not as reliable, are typically available for other locations. Mast can be hard or soft, with acorns, hickory and other nuts in the hard mast category and blackberries, persimmons and other fruits and berries in the soft mast category.
Biologists use mast crops to predict the success of an upcoming season. However, they are even better indicators in hindsight, with the effects of a good mast year leading to lower deer harvests. Hunter behavior is partly to blame here. Deer are back in the woods, rather than in the more open areas where most hunters hang their stands. On very rich mast years, deer also travel less to get food before the rut begins, further decreasing the hunter success rate.
Acorn Drop Theory
It happens all the time throughout the South. A hunter sees deer and sign at a favorite stand. The first acorn falls. The deer vanish, and so do the hunter’s chances if adjustments aren’t made.
It didn’t take an acorn to hit me in the head to formulate the “acorn drop theory,” because when I started hunting, food plots and feeders were unknown, and deer were scarce or nonexistent. I had to hunt oaks to be successful.
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When game cameras entered the picture, confirmation of deer movement in response to the acorn drop came easily. The same bucks, identified by antlers, that had been showing up at favorite stands simply moved to the acorns, some as far away as a half mile. Not having to move to find food, they bedded beneath or near oaks dropping the most or tastiest acorns, moving only on a whim or the whiff of a hot doe.
They first thing a hunter must establish is the boundaries of the hunting territory. The second is where oak trees are located on that territory or nearby land that will influence deer on land he can hunt. A smartphone app or paper map that shows terrain and cover significantly reduces scouting time. Electronic aerial coverage is so accurate these days that a hunter can identify individual trees.
Over the past couple of seasons, areas I hunt have been pounded by hurricane floods and winds. In other areas, ice storms and tornadoes may down oaks and logging operations can also ruin previously hot honey holes. I eliminate areas where I once hunted deer successfully that are now less likely to hold deer or have become more difficult to access because I can see acres of knocked down oak trees by staring at a smartphone screen. Of course, maps and mapping apps also make it easier to find places where oaks remain standing.
A few feet-on-the-ground sessions will teach a hunter how to compare what they see on a map to actual forest conditions. These should be scouting expeditions for acorns and active deer sign. However, it is not unusual to see deer fattening on acorns any time of day during scouting forays.
Basic Whitetail Needs
Food and cover are basic deer needs. When you find acorns, you’ve located a prime deer motivator. Whitetails may find enough cover in a small stand of understory such as a privet or hawthorn patch, or they might bed in the open on a high spot where they can see long distances. They may also travel long distances from heavier cover to eat acorns, especially old bucks and any deer subjected to hunting pressure. That is one reason to locate the deer as soon as the acorn drop begins.
When deer are bedding in cover too thick to see through, the best tactic is setting up overlooking trails or travel routes as close to cover as possible. If they remain in the open, bedding in the oaks, they tend to meander, covering acres as they forage. That can make the hunting more difficult or easier, depending upon the range of the hunter’s firearm, bow or crossbow.
Through October, buck sign should be evident. Even in an area where latitude or elevation has deer in pre-rut mode, they still leave tracks and litter the ground with cracked acorn shells. The shells of acorns eaten by squirrels have gnaw marks in comparison. Deer also sniff out acorns buried by squirrels and their diggings are much more haphazard than squirrel diggings, which are small and funnel shaped.
Places with old antler rubs and scrapes are going to be the same places where this year’s rubs and scrapes will occur, so hunters should be on the lookout for these obvious buck calling cards. Typically, the earliest scrapes and rubs are made by the oldest bucks.
What’s the Yield?
Individual oaks and oak species tend to bear in abundance in alternate years. However, weather conditions can mean back-to-back bumper crops or busted crops. Good weather, without spring freezes when the oaks are flowering, and adequate rain, results in good hard mast yields, whereas late spring frosts and drought cause yields to decline. Some of the worst events are winds and floods in September that blow down unripe acorns or cover them with water.
Most hunters and biologists say white oaks are most attractive to deer. However, white oaks may not be bearing well or may not be the dominant trees. Areas where I hunt have both types. Overcup is the dominant white oak. They grow large, produce incredible acorn tonnage and deer zero in on certain trees every year.
But with the season long and acorns of different species dropping at different times, deer may suddenly leave one area for another. It is guaranteed they will use all available feeding habitat, vacuuming up every acorn possible. Therefore, a hunter who relies on acorns must change hunting locations in response to deer feeding movements.
Sneaky Deer Hunting
The most difficult way to hunt can also be the most effective. Whether you call it stalking, still-hunting or sneaking, moving along slowly and watching for the flick of an ear or flip of a tail is an exciting way to hunt. However, the crunching of crisp autumn leaves and popping of white oak acorns half as big as golf balls underfoot can defeat the purpose. The best times for a sneaky hunt are early morning when the forest floor is wet from frost or dew, or during a rainy or windy day that conceals sound and movement.
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Most hunters use a self-climbing or pre-set elevated stand. While I use them, I also hunt the old-fashioned way, sitting on a stool or on the ground with my back against a tree where the views are long in a mature oak forest. A turkey vest with a seat cushion is handy for a hunter who wants to do some walking before finding sign to hunt over and taking a seat. I also like hunting from a tent blind. I carry it into the woods with a folding chair strapped to it, wearing it over one shoulder and my gun, bow or crossbow over the other.
The acorn drop lasts only two to four weeks, so it’s important to recognize this natural event. Getting in on the action right away is key to having your pick of under-pressured deer. Because acorns are preferred food, the phenomenon occurs swiftly before tapering off as acorns become scarce and artificial food sources become tempting. If you hunt the acorn drop before other hunters begin seeing deer at their food plots and feeders again, you can feel smug at your success. You will have already loaded your dream buck into the back of your truck.