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Going 'Soft' on Whitetails

Finding and hunting soft-mast food sources can be the key to tagging your next trophy buck.

Going 'Soft' on Whitetails

While deer will gravitate to acorns more than any other native food, a number of soft-mast species play an important role in the whitetail’s diet. (Photo courtesy of Realtree)

During my pre-season scouting last season, I positioned ladder stands, hang-ons and ground blinds in a number of places. One of those stand sites was where the limbs of four persimmon trees were heavy with the orange golf ball-size globes that characterize this soft-mast species, and on an early October hunt, I arrowed a nice doe there.

Months later, in the dead of winter, I returned to that same area on the last day of the season. Several hundred persimmons still clung to the limbs of those trees, and the mounds of deer droppings under them gave evidence that the whitetails still knew about this food source. Twenty minutes after sunrise, and after passing on a non-shooter buck, I killed a doe that had come to feed on the soft mast. That doe was the fourth one I arrowed there this past season.

Obviously, nothing trumps white and red oak acorns when it comes to drawing whitetails. And that includes food plots, agricultural areas, green fields and soft mast. But knowing the major soft-mast sources in your state can give you a better chance of making informed stand-site decisions. It can also greatly increase your chances of killing a big buck or putting a meaty doe in your freezer.


Soft Mast for Deer
The persimmon grows in every southern state and thrives from the mountains to the coastal plains. (Shutterstock image)

Evin Stanford, a wildlife biologist with the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC), says soft mast plays an especially key role in a deer’s diet in down years for acorns.

"Soft-mast foods can definitely be important, particularly when the acorn crop has failed or acorns simply aren't plentiful," he says. "My favorites for hunting purposes are wild grapes and persimmons, which are heavily used by deer, as well as many other wildlife species such as raccoons, foxes, coyotes, bears and numerous bird species. While deer mostly forage for both grapes and persimmons on the ground, keep in mind they can reach up to about six feet high to grab such tasty foods"

The importance of the common persimmon increases when we consider that it flourishes in every southern state. Texas even has two species: the common and the black. What's more, this globular fruit can thrive in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee as well as in the coastal plains of South Florida. When scouting, look for the tree’s small, dark plate-like bark and, of course, the orange fruits.


Soft Mast for Deer
Numerous species of wild grapes grow throughout the South, including the muscadine. (Shutterstock image)

Where I hunt, two species of grapes exist: summer and fox. Both begin to ripen in early fall, and both remain on vines, shriveled like raisins but still very edible, until early winter. Summer grapes grow in every southern state, typically winding their way up trees and sometimes forming dense copses in clear-cuts. I often find them along woods and field edges, too.

"When wild grapes hit, they can be plentiful and heavily used by deer," says Stanford. "When you see a good crop of wild grapes, log the location in your memory bank and remember to check that area again in following years."

Fox grapes are not as widespread as the summer species, but they do grow throughout the upper South down to northern Florida and as far west as Alabama. They are much larger than the summer variety, which, at times, seems to make them more of a draw to whitetails.

Numerous other species of grapes exist in our region, and hunters should become familiar with their local varieties. For example, the muscadine grape is perhaps the most important one for deer hunters who live in the Gulf Coast region from Florida to East Texas. This variety often thrives along the tidal and lowland rivers that characterize this part of the South. Muscadines are more of an early-season draw for whitetails, but like all wild grapes they appeal to them long after they pass peak flavor.


Soft Mast for Deer
Deer prefer pawpaws once they’ve turned brown and fallen to the ground. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

A number of years ago I gained access to a farm that was known locally as a deer hot spot. Previously, the farmer had only allowed one other individual to hunt his land, and that gentleman was not happy when he learned we would be sharing the property. After we talked over the phone one evening, the guy warmed to me a little but made one demand.

"You can hunt wherever you want during the first week of the season—except the creek bottom," he said. "That's where the pawpaw trees are, and I’ve been after this big buck for a couple of years now. I’m hoping he’s gonna come to those pawpaws once they hit the ground."


The next time I heard from the fellow was during the opening week when he called to inform me that he had killed a ten-pointer in the pawpaw patch. I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and this soft-mast variety continues to play a major role in my early-season game planning.

From my experience, and from talking with other hunters who hunt over these oblong fruits that are greenish-yellow to brown in color, deer seem to wait until pawpaws have turned dark and fallen to the ground before really targeting them.

Another important tidbit is that timing is everything when hunting near these small trees, which usually are less than 20 feet tall and grow in small, shady groves that are often, though not necessarily, near water. Last season, for example, I positioned a hang-on within 10 yards of a pawpaw tree and checked it every few days to see if the fruits were about to turn brown and fall. Work kept me from hunting during one four-day stretch, and by the time I returned the pawpaws had all been eaten.

Stanford says that squirrels, raccoons, foxes, opossums, turkeys and numerous other creatures relish these fruits, so they don’t remain on the ground for long. And deer definitely do not forage on the woody and leafy portions of the pawpaw, he says. This soft mast exists in every southern state, but only in the eastern part of Texas and in the northwestern reaches of Florida.


Soft Mast for Deer
The fruit of the sumac ripens in late summer, though deer will eat it well into winter. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

All of the preceding soft-mast deer foods will factor annually into where I position stands. It's good to know that deer consume the following menu items, but, in my opinion, it would not be wise to devise a game plan that centers on their availability.

Stanford says that deer favor the fruit of the smooth sumac, which is found in varying degrees of abundance throughout the South. Sumacs often grow in shrubby patches of recently disturbed ground, but they can also appear in grasslands and woodlot edges. The tiny red fruits grow in upright clusters that ripen in late summer but remain edible well into winter.

Soft Mast for Deer
Deer will eat dogwood berries both directly off the branch and from the ground. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

Eastern flowering dogwood berries ripen in early fall, and many times I’ve observed deer browsing on dogwood berries both on trees and on the ground. The scarlet autumn leaves and the tiny, elliptical berries are diagnostic. The dogwood is another small tree that lives in every state in our region. Look for them in the understory of both moist and dry forests.

Numerous species of wild cherries grow in the South, but the most important to the whitetail is the black cherry, which lives in all or parts of every southern state. Black cherries ripen in late summer or early fall depending on elevation and region, so they would only have relevance to hunters early in the season. Like the dogwood, they are understory trees that can live in a variety of habitats.

Soft Mast for Deer
Black cherries, which are prevalent throughout the region, are a deer favorite in the early season. (Photo by Bruce Ingram)

One last deer food to make note of is the mushroom. Hundreds of different species grow in the South in all kinds of habitat, and deer don’t seem to be very choosy about favoring one variety over another. Look for fungi to spring up after a fall rain.

Ken Knight, a supervising wildlife biologist for the NCWRC, offers these last thoughts on the topic of soft mast.

"A lot of the soft-mast species ripen before acorns are available in the fall," he says. "Their lifespan is shorter, but as a whole they provide a significant part of a deer’s diet in summer and early fall. Therefore, these species help bridge the gap between the abundant new sprouts of spring and the high-carbohydrate acorns of the fall. While these are all found naturally in the wild, they can also be planted and/or managed to produce more food."

That’s why on my land I've cut down trees growing near my persimmon, black cherry and dogwood trees, and planted pawpaw seeds (which are now producing fruit) in a shady hollow. Knowing more about a deer’s soft-mast foods is a plus for any Southern hunter, especially during the early portion of the season.


Soft Mast for Deer
Bear & Son’s 3-Piece Game Set.

Prepping a deer for the cutting board is easy with this three-piece knife set.

Make quick work of field dressing and deboning your deer this season with Bear & Son Cutlery’s 3-Piece Game Set, which includes individual caping (2 3/4-inch blade, 6 1/2 inches overall), gutting (3 1/4 and 7 3/8 inches) and skinning (3 1/8 and 7 1/4 inches) knives crafted from 440 stainless. The knives feature aggressively curved handles with finger choils and pinky holes that make them easy to grip. The all-steel design makes them a cinch to clean. The rugged three-piece set comes with a ballistic nylon sheath, is reasonably priced and built to last for years. ($40.49; — Dr. Todd A. Kuhn


Soft Mast for Deer
The Moultrie 6000-series cellular trail camera.

Moultrie’s 6000-series trail cameras provide remote surveillance on the cheap.

Remote transmittal of trail camera images and videos can be expensive, with cameras and modems costing several hundred dollars and pricey data plans to match. Moultrie’s new XV-6000 and XA-6000 (the "V" is for Verizon, the "A" is for AT&T) offers hunters a simple, inexpensive alternative. They feature a .9-second trigger speed and 70-foot flash range and capture 16-megapixel images and HD video. The Moultrie Mobile app offers a variety of sorting and tagging options for simple browsing of your pics and vids. Plans start at $4.99 a month. ($119.99; —Dr. Todd A. Kuhn


Soft Mast for Deer
German Precision Optics Passion ED 8x42 binocular.

Raise your scouting game with a high-quality binocular.

Identifying a particular type of soft mast’s stage of ripeness is key to knowing when it’s ready to be hunted. A good binocular allows you to get an up-close view of the progress without prematurely intruding on a potentially fruitful hunting spot.

German Precision Optics (GPO) offers an extensive line of high-end optics from which to choose. Its Passion ED 8x42 binocular features a magnesium micro-bridge and body and aluminum eye cups, which contribute to a carry-friendly weight of just 26 ounces. A 426-foot field of view at 1,000 yards and the company’s proprietary GPObright lens coatings, which provide excellent light transmission, allow for a big, bright sight picture during early-morning and evening scouting sessions. ($449.99; —Dr. Todd A. Kuhn

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