Stalking The Food Sources

Often the first step in finding your buck is locating what the deer are feeding on. Here's an overview of some of the forage to pinpoint in North Florida this month. (September 2009)

Finding a persimmon tree bearing fruit can be a definite boon to an early-season bowhunter.

Photo by Michael Corrigan.

Hunt on public land long enough and it is inevitable that someone will blow your setup. Sometimes it's individuals who think they can stake claim to a certain area. After years of hunting a specific "spot," they justify to themselves that it belongs to them. These are the guys who park their vehicle right next to yours and walk right into your setup.

Is it rude? Most sportsmen would say yes. But then again, it is "public" land and there are no regulations to prevent such behavior.

After years of hunting on wildlife management areas, I've learned to cope with such things. It comes with the territory. Last year, I had such an encounter with two bowhunters while hunting a North Florida WMA. It was still dark as I got in a tree with my Ol' Man climbing stand and got comfortable well before sunrise. The setup overlooked a stand of persimmon trees a stone's throw away from the dirt road where I parked my truck close enough that I could see the headlights of other vehicles passing by.

Keep driving, I thought as each one drove past. Then it happened. A truck stopped and parked right next to my vehicle. Soon after, I watched in disgust as two bowhunters walked through the woods with flashlights bobbing toward me. Both men walked right past my setup and hung their tree stands almost within view.

It was so disappointing. I would never do such a thing, no matter how badly I wanted to hunt a spot. After taking stock in the situation, I considered climbing down and relocating to another area.

However, I knew the general area well. Several persimmon trees were scattered about and the other two bowhunters were set up near a few of them. They were obviously hunting the spot for the same reason I was. Typically, deer approached the area from almost any direction and wind conditions were calm. When the sun rose, our scent would rise straight up and away with thermal currents. But achieving success would depend on whether or not deer crossed the scent trail laid down by the other hunters. Deer could approach my setup from the opposite direction from that trail and, fortunately, that is exactly what happened.

Just after sunrise, a small 6-point walked in and dined on ripe persimmon fruit. Almost immediately a 15-yard broadside shot was presented and I delivered it. To my surprise, the buck did not turn and run back in the direction from which it came, but rather straight toward the other hunters.

I heard the buck fall just out of view and I listened to the telltale sounds that a deer makes as it expires. The buck was down for good, and I was certain the other bowhunters had a front row seat to the action.

Success can occur at anytime, but I have rarely experienced it when other hunters were encountered in the woods. This was a first. After the shot, I climbed down from my perch and picked up the blood trial.

"It is over here," a voice called out.

I sensed a tone of disappointment in the man's voice. He was already on the ground packing up his equipment.

"Nice buck," he said.

It wasn't long until the other hunter joined up with his pal. This guy had nothing to say at all, but his body language spoke volumes. It was apparent he was upset, perhaps because his hunt was abruptly ended.

Did they learn anything from the experience? I hope so. It was apparent that neither of them did their homework. The WMA was loaded with persimmon trees and if they had put some effort into pre-season scouting, they could have had a plan B in case another hunter beat them to this first-choice stand location.

So, there is a moral to this story: If you put all your chips on one stand location, you can be disappointed, especially where WMAs are concerned. To be successful during Florida's early archery season requires that you scout and possess an intimate familiarity with local whitetail food sources. The goal is to locate several spots that offer a food source that deer target. This means searching for stands of soft-mast-bearing fruit trees and early-season hard-mast producers.

The Power Of Knowledge

I cut my teeth on bowhunting in Florida, and most of my hunting has been on WMAs. For years I exclusively hunted over game trails and deer sign with limited success. It wasn't until I studied food sources and learned to identify soft- and hard-mast-bearing trees that my success rate improved.

I made the turn after a friend of mine put me onto a book that a close friend of his family authored. The book is titled, 110% Success Bowhunting Whitetails. Dr. Ray McIntyre authored the book and at the time he was the president of Warren and Sweat Tree Stands. He wrote the book at the urging of his colleagues who were intrigued with the consistency of his bowhunting success. Dr. McIntyre has hunted the Southeast for more than 30 years and much of that was hunting on Florida WMAs.

McIntyre lists the species of trees that produce soft and hard mast and explains why they are preferred by whitetails over other types of food. His views are the foundation of my deer-hunting success as well as many of my fellow hunters.

How many different species of acorn-producing oak trees can you readily identify? Hunters often talk about red oaks, white oaks and black oaks as though they are the three species. In the Southeast alone, there are about four or five species of white oaks and even a couple of subspecies that are rarely ever mentioned.

Though many deer hunters can recognize persimmons when ripened fruit is on the ground, can they identify a persimmon tree? How about a crabapple tree or a honey locust tree? If you can only identify a small number of mast-producing trees, your effective scouting will be limited.

Hunting natural preferred food sources is perhaps the most consistent way to harvest whitetail deer, including big bucks, during the early season. And it continues to work throughout the entire deer season for that matter.

You may need to change tactics a bit when the rut hits, but in many locations, the rut is a slow trickle. During the rut, bucks haunt the same areas that does use. Those does always go where the food is.


. McIntyre pointed out that deer have only three things they must do. Every day they have to sleep, eat and walk. For hunters, where the deer sleep is only a passing interest. Thus, if you put a stand where the deer can't smell you, along a trail they use to walk to where they feed, you can achieve his 110 percent success.

Soft Mast

The early season provides a unique opportunity for bowhunters to take advantage of the whitetail's sweet tooth. Soft-mast food varieties such as persimmon, crabapple, honey locust and pawpaw fruit are often available during archery season. Deer target these food sources wherever they can find them.

Persimmons rank at the very top. Bite into a ripe persimmon and you'll know why it is no wonder almost every animal in the woods is drawn to them.

Scouting for persimmon trees is best accomplished in the off-season, during late winter and early spring before green-up occurs. I do this because I can see farther through the woods when the leaves are off. I stroll through the woods and look for the darkest black-colored tree trunks I can find. The trunk of a persimmon tree resembles a creosote-treated power pole. With this image in mind, persimmon trees are easy to spot.

It's easy to mistake the bark of a persimmon tree for that of a dogwood, black cherry or tupelo, but with a little practice, you will be able to quickly distinguish between them.

Finding single trees adjacent to wetlands is common, but the goal is to locate a stand of several of these fruit trees. Persimmon trees are either male or female. Male trees produce male flowers and female trees produce female flowers. The female trees bare fruit and males don't. If you locate a single persimmon tree, invariably it is a male. But if you find a stand, you can bet that at least some are female. Make note of such locations and return before the season to verify fruit production. If you find persimmons growing, that's a place to prepare stands and cut shooting lanes.

Southern crabapple trees rank second only to persimmon. I learned several years ago during turkey season that spring is the best time to scout for crabapple trees. During the months of March and April, they are in full bloom in North Florida and the flowers stick out like sore thumbs.

Crabapple trees produce a pink and white flower and the buds exhibit a brilliant pink color when they first start to emerge. At that time of year, crabapples are the only naturally occurring tree that puts on such a floral display.

Crabapples produce both male and female flowers on the same tree. For hunters, this means all crabapple trees are places to mark for the fall deer season. The miniature green apples produced are about the size of a ping-pong ball and quite sour to the taste. Bite into one and it's doubtful you'll find it suitable as table fare. However, deer don't seem to mind the sour taste. In fact, they seem to relish them.

Southern crabapples grow well in North Florida WMAs along roadways, the edges of fields or clearcuts, and anywhere that receives full to mostly full sunlight conditions. Check along the edges of power line easements or fencerows and you are likely to find crabapple trees.

Hard Mast

Say the words "hard mast" and most bowhunters think of acorns dropping from oak trees. The nuts produced by beech and hickory trees less often come to mind. However, both produce a food source that is available for whitetails when archery season opens.

In areas where soft mast is limited, deer target freshly fallen beech and hickory nuts. The first week or two of production yields "green" nuts with a "fleshy" outer hull that deer can penetrate.

Beech trees, which often have enormous trunk diameters, are easy to locate along ridgelines adjacent to wetlands, Hickory trees of all varieties can be found almost anywhere in our woodlands.

Virtually all Florida bowhunters know what an acorn looks like. However, it is surprising how few can actually identify specific species of the trees. In North Florida, there are numerous oak tree species, but only a few that produce when the early archery season opens. For instance, white oaks are known for their preference by whitetails, but they typically don't drop acorns until the tail end of the bow season.

When the season opens, varieties of red oak, such as laurel oak and water oak, are the first to produce. Bow­hunters should also target the southern live oak. This is the tree that the Mossy Oak camouflage company modeled its company logo after. It is technically categorized as a red oak, but it behaves much like a white oak in that it often produces an annual crop. The acorn produced by this tree contains a low tannic acid content and is sweet to the taste like its white oak counterpart.

When live oaks are producing, one need only find one with good deer sign under it and hang a stand to be successful. I hunt a WMA that hosts numerous live oaks. The trees tend to grow well along wetland ridgelines. Unlike laurel and water oaks, you won't find large stands of these trees that consist of several acres.

I have about 20 individuals or groups of trees recorded in my GPS. That may seem like a lot, but I also can scout all of them in one full day. About a week or two before the season, check all of these trees and pinpoint at least five or six producers with an abundance of deer sign under them. I'm looking for droppings and cracked acorn hulls. Deer crack these acorns, spit out the hulls and then swallow the nutritious meat.

Find the food and you will usually find deer sign associated with it. Find both and you have a sure-fire stand location. Scouting for such situations before the season can make your hunting easy. Learning how to identify mast-bearing trees in your area is an integral part of that scouting.

Once you have your stand sites pinpointed, have a plan for changing stand locations as situations arise to dictate such moves. If you don't place all your bets on one site, you are bound to come out ahead.

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