Whitetails & Crabapples

Whitetails & Crabapples

Deer are drawn to these wild fruits as bees are to blossoms. Here's how to use north Florida's crabapple trees year-round for hunting success in fall. (September 2008)

During the spring turkey season, it's easy to spot blooming crabapple trees and mark them with a GPS unit.
Photo by Michael Corrigan.

The rain finally slowed to a mere trickle, but the wind was still gusting a bit. That was just fine with me because the weather forecast called for calming conditions for the remainder of the day.

Before arriving, I had monitored the weather forecast and was sure my timing would be spot-on.

As I walked along the powerline right-of-way, I caught a fleeting glimpse of whitetails on the edge up ahead. Spooking deer was disappointing, but at the same time, I was filled with optimism.

There was a good reason for them being where they were before they got spooked -- and I knew why.

Approaching my stand location at 20 yards from the edge of the powerline easement, I could literally smell the sweet scent of the available food source. Wild southern crabapples littered the ground, and the local deer were hitting them hard. Fresh hoofprints and droppings scattered about confirmed my high expectations. This was going to be an action-packed hunt -- I was sure of it.

I settled into my Ol'Man climbing tree stand and could already tell the wind was starting to die down a bit. With each gentle gust of breeze, the sight and sounds of ripe crabapples falling from the branches filled me with more anticipation.

Each time a fruit hit the ground, it was like a dinner bell sounding. I was confident that deer would respond to the delicious odor and the noise.

An hour passed, and the woods became utterly still. The wind direction was perfect. I could hear the barks of a protesting squirrel less than 50 yards to my right. Soon after, I heard an occasional twig snap and slow footsteps coming from the same direction. A doe emerged from the thick cover, intent on getting her fair share of the groceries.

So was I. The hunting was either-sex during archery season, and the north Florida wildlife management area I was hunting had plenty of bucks and does.

I stood up, turning to get a better angle for a shot. Before I could ready my bow, four more does pulled up to the dinner table. Now with five deer, all less than 15 yards away, I worried that one might see my movement as I drew my bow.

A few minutes passed. I continued to scrutinize the wind direction. If it held steady, venison would be on the menu tonight. I quickly came to full draw at the exact moment that all heads were down.

One doe spooked just a bit, but I had already settled my top pin behind the largest doe's shoulder. The jig was up after my razor-sharp broadhead arrow cut a clean path through both lungs of the leading doe.

She stumbled twice and fell over, less than five feet from the arrow. All the other does quickly exited the stage. I wasted no time packing up my gear and dragging my prize back to the truck. Over the next week, my freezer nearly got filled to capacity with three more deer taken from this stand location before the crabapple food source dried up.

In north Florida, bowhunting and wild crabapples go hand in hand.

When archery season opens, you can usually bet that deer are targeting the fruit. Find the fruit and you find deer. It's almost that easy, but I'm still amazed how few bowhunters know that wild crabapple trees grow in this part of the Sunshine State.

Southern crabapples -- or Malus angustifolia in botanical terms -- are commonly found in the southeastern states such as Georgia and Alabama.

However, north Florida is the species' southernmost reach, and the trees can be found in virtually every county from Holmes to Taylor.

Southern crabapples can resemble bushes more than trees and commonly grow in "thicket" communities. When you find one tree, you'll generally find several more, all growing together.

Both male and female flowers open on the same crabapple tree. To the hunter, this means that every tree is able to bear fruit -- in contrast to persimmon trees, where only the females are capable of producing fruit.

Crabapples look like miniature apples about the size of a Ping-Pong ball. They are typically green in color even when ripe, but with a shading of yellow. Southern crabapples are quite sour to the taste as compared to the sweet crabapples found farther north.

Bite into one, and I doubt you'll find it suitable as table fare. However, deer don't seem to mind the sour flavor. In fact, they seem to relish it.

Southern crabapples grow well along roadways, field edges, edges of clearcuts or anywhere that receives full to mostly full sunlight.

Check along the edges of powerline easements or fencerows, and you are sure to find crabapples. Deer naturally gravitate to these edges where the trees grow best.

When it comes to a whitetail food source for the opening day of archery season, what more could you ask for? Especially since these plants don't understand property lines and grow on both private tracts and in our WMAs! Find a thicket consisting of mostly crabapple trees and you've got yourself a hot spot for sure.

Thick cover and a preferred food source make for some great bow-hunting action. I have a few crabapple honeyholes that are so thick that I have to literally carve out an opening so I can fling an arrow 10 yards. And using a ground blind is the only way to hunt them effectively.

I did mention roadways. I have several slam-dunk crabapple hotspots that are within spitting distance of roads -- in some instances, so close that I can actually spot other hunters as they drive by in their vehicles.

One time. I used the noise of an approaching diesel pickup truck to cover me while I came to full draw on a young buck standing less than 10 yards from my blind. The deer's attention was on the truck as it drove by. When the arrow struck him, I doubt he had a clue what happened.

For archery season, roadway crabapples are made to order. Miserably hot conditions are typical

this time of year, and locating your stand within close walking distance from the truck means you won't be sweating and stinking with perspiration by the time you get there.

You can scout for crabapples a week or two before the archery season opens. But that can be tough unless you have an eye for identifying crabapple trees or their fruit itself.

Since those fruit are rather small and greenish in color, they don't contrast well with leaves.

I choose to locate several crabapple tree stands well before the season opens and even before the trees bear fruit. Why so early? Well, I'm in the woods hunting anyway. Spring turkey season is a great time to scout for crabapple trees and kill two birds with one stone.

I like to run and gun for spring gobblers and in doing so, tend to cover lots of ground. While in search of a hot gobbler, I keep a sharp eye out for crabapple trees. During the months of March and April, they are in full bloom in north Florida and the flowers stick out like a sore thumb.

Crabapple trees produce a pink and white flower. The buds exhibit a brilliant pink in color when they first start to emerge. The blossoms have five petals and when fully open, are about the size of a quarter.

At this time of the year, crabapple trees produce the only naturally occurring pink and white flowers in any appreciable quantity. Dogwood trees may be flowering as well, but they produce larger white-colored flowers with no pink hue.

Wild plum trees may also be flowering this time of year. Wild plums look similar to crabapple trees, but they too have white flowers with no pink hue.

I bring with me a GPS receiver, pen and small notebook so I can record the location of crabapple trees and write down a detailed description of the area. When archery season nears, the GPS unit makes it easy to locate the trees.

A few days before archery season opens, I like to visit every single crabapple tree location. With over a dozen or more locations usually recorded, one or two spots always offer hot deer sign and are my prime candidates for opening day.

A killer tactic is to target crabapples directly after weather event like a thunderstorm or frontal system. Rain and wind will knock down crabapples, making them available for whitetails to consume.

I believe deer are wise to this, and a soon as a weather system passes, they go on the prowl.

During the early archery season, cool fronts occasionally push through north Florida. When they do, mild weather conditions are a welcome relief. The change seems to motivate whitetails to feed more frequently during the day.

When the season nears I become a Weather Channel addict and pray for fast-moving frontal systems. The ideal weather scenario is where a front moves through my area during the early morning hours on the day I've planned to hunt, with the forecast projecting rapidly clearing skies and a constant wind direction as the day progresses. Entering my stand location under windy, rainy conditions helps to cover any noise I make and washes away any ground scent I lay on my way in.

When the skies clear, I am left with a fresh undisturbed stand site overlooking a recently fallen food source.

During dry spells, I take matters into my own hands -- literally. In locations where I have been successful in the past, I like to slip in quietly during midday or during a non-feeding period. Once there, I don a pair of rubber gloves and pick a fight with each crabapple tree.

If the tree in question isn't too big, I usually have no trouble shaking the trunk or main branches vigorously enough to dislodge a fair number of fruit from the branches.

Rubber gloves protect my hands and help to reduce the spread of human odor. For larger trees, I use a length of rope. I can lasso an upper branch to gain leverage and assault a tree that way. With a plentiful food source now on the ground and available for consumption, whitetails usually find it within 24 hours. Odds are good that over the next day or two, I will have a successful hunt.

Ordinarily, crabapple trees drop fruit slowly once the crop is ripe. But I've also observed occasions when trees were loaded with fruit one day and then, after a windy weather event, were virtually bare the next.

To hunt crabapples effectively, you have to be on your toes. That's why it pays to record as many locations as you can find during the off-season. After one location dries up, whitetails won't waste any time locating another source for crabapples. Keep tabs on each crabapple grove so that you can switch stand locations when deer change their feeding pattern. Very often, if I plan an evening hunt for one location, I will purposely arrive at my general hunting area early to check out a few other crabapple spots. If my Saturday hunt is unsuccessful, I'll already have a solid Plan B for Sunday.

Achieving consistent success during north Florida's early archery season requires that you have an intimate knowledge of available food sources in your hunting area.

Finding them is your first goal. The second is getting set up in advance, before the dinner bell rings.

In my experience, at no other time of year are the published "feed periods" more reliable than in the early archery season. Hunting pressure is low this time of year, and major cold fronts have not yet come in to play. Those two factors tend to trump the major solar-lunar feed periods.

Admittedly, when crabapples are available, whitetail action can come at any time during the day. However, if your time is limited, make plans to be in the woods at least during major feed periods.

Also be sure to take full advantage of a major late-morning or midday feed period that coincides with the tail end of a stormy weather event. Those are great times to be in the woods, and it will only be a matter of time before whitetails shake off the rain and enter the restaurant to dine.

Take advantage of the crabapple connection this year during the north Florida early archery season. This preferred food source could be the key to your hunting success.

Scout smart during the spring to locate crabapple trees and then target them during major feed periods when hunting season arrives.

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