Hunting For Acorns

Many hunters bewail the years when the acorn crop is abundant. That may make it harder to find deer in food plots -- and you may actually have to hunt them! Here's how.

The stand was about two-thirds of the way up a hardwood ridge. I was overlooking a hillside bench that's one of my favorite deer travel corridors. The bench ran the perimeter of the rise, connecting a thick pine bedding area on my left to a white oak flat to my right.

It was the afternoon of opening day of bow season. I was glad to be back in the stand where I'd killed two deer on consecutive days the previous fall.

Today, a 15-mile-per-hour wind blew from the direction of the bedding area, making the sweet gum tree I was in sway back and forth. It also made white oak acorns thump down on the ground like hail.

With an hour of daylight left, I was hoping the weatherman's forecast would be correct. As if cued by my thought, the wind suddenly died.

This was the magic hour.

Minutes later, I heard water sloshing in a creek, just beyond my sight. A deer was crossing the creek and heading my way. I stood up in the stand, fastened the release to the bowstring, took a comfortable stance and waited.

Soon I saw movement -- a patch of brown, a hint of white and antlers!

My strategy was to let him pass by me on the trail and take the quartering-away shot as he headed for the acorn-bearing oaks. What I hadn't anticipated was that he would stop in front of me at 15 yards -- broadside.

I drew the bow, settled on a fluff of hair behind his shoulder and squeezed the release.

I watched in disbelief as my arrow ricocheted off a twig I hadn't seen before. With a loud crack! it slammed into a tree 10 feet behind the deer.

To my further amazement, the buck didn't even flinch. He never even paused to look up as I nocked another arrow, ducked below the twig this time, and put a broadhead on target.

To me, hunting the acorn crop is as good as deer hunting gets. For me, it has been as good as the rut, if not better. Deer get stupid over acorns, and when they're plentiful, you can count every deer in the woods having mast on its mind.

I've probably killed more deer that were feeding on acorns, or heading to acorns, than in any other situation.

That's why it always surprises me to hear hunters complain about "too many acorns." Throughout most of the South, 2007-08 was a banner year for acorns.

For me, it was the best year I've had for sighting numbers of deer.

And yet, I heard many hunters say that it was their worst year for deer sightings. Throughout the season and well into the post-season, I listened to hunters and read their posts on Internet message boards saying that the deer were just not moving. From what I could tell, for most hunters it was a feast or famine year.

But while the many complained, a few seemed to be enjoying the time of their lives. Those who weren't having much luck made statements like, "There are too many acorns in the woods. So the deer don't have to move," or else, "The deer must all be moving at night. I've been hunting both mornings and evenings and haven't seen a thing."

Then there's my favorite: "Our food plots are knee-high this year, but the deer haven't been in them. There are too many acorns on the ground."

Yes, I understand that many factors influence deer movement. But I can't understand why a hunter would continue to sit over a food plot if he knows his quarry is eating acorns.

Early in my hunting career, I was taught that the key to success was to follow the food source. Time of day, moon phase, temperature, barometric pressure, wind, terrain and deer densities are all factors that a good hunter should take into consideration. But food sources top them all.

In deer hunting, hunting over acorns may be as close to a sure thing as you can get. But it's not quite as simple as merely hanging a stand in an oak tree and taking your pick of the deer as they parade by.

It can be that simple, but there are some clear strategies you should know -- particularly if you're bowhunting in the early season when close shots are the rule.

Hunting "the woods" presents its own set of problems and challenges, and can be intimidating to people accustomed to hunting over food plots. Let's look at different situations at various times of the day and year, and see if we can lessen the intimidation of hunting the acorn crop.

Coming in late also lets you hunt sites where bedding areas abut the oaks. In this scenario, setting up right in the middle of several oak trees makes perfect sense. You'll be away from the bedding area and, while the deer graze on acorns, have plenty of time to make the shot.

I have a friend who does not deem himself a good deer hunter. And yet every year, he manages to shoot at least one big buck and several does for meat. His strategy?

Go into the woods late.

He's amused that I get up at the crack of dawn and reach my stands at daybreak He claims that deer are bedding down at around daylight, but get up a few hours later to move around and feed some more -- just about the time when most hunters are calling it a day.

He insists that he discovered this not because he's so savvy, but because he's too lazy to get up early.

It took me a long time to get my mind around the concept of going hunting after breakfast. Most of us are conditioned to begin our hunts very early in the morning. We anticipate that first hour or two of daylight.

I don't mean to take anything away from this strategy, but deer sightings are high during the early morning, and an awful lot of deer have been killed during this time.

The problem is, we get busted an awful lot when we approach an oak flat under cover of darkness. When I approached oak trees early during a year of heavy acorn production, I don't think I've ever made it to my stand without getting busted.

Once I finally convinced myself to do a midmorning hunt, I was sold. I can't believe how many frustrating crack-of-dawn mornings I endured while deer blew, and stomped and ran away before I realized I could avoid all that by going in at, say, 9:00 a.m.

When acorns are on the ground, especially during the early season when deer haven't yet felt hunting pressure, the animals move throughout the day. It's not unreasonable to expect deer to bed down just after the sun comes up, and then return to feed on acorns a few hours later.

In fact, my hunting journal shows that in heavy acorn years, I saw the most deer, both bucks and does, between 10:00 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.

Coming in late also lets you hunt sites where bedding areas abut the oaks. In this scenario, setting up right in the middle of several oak trees makes perfect sense. You'll be away from the bedding area and, while the deer graze on acorns, have plenty of time to make the shot.

Another good option for a morning stand that can be used before daylight is at the very floor of a bottom.

Ordinarily, I tend to avoid these areas because swirling air currents make it hard to stay upwind of a deer's sensitive nose. But the wind is often at its lightest early in the day, and if you pick the right day, this can be a killer spot.

On my hunting property, there are two big hills. Between them is a deep bottom, and on top of those hills are many big white oaks. At either end of the hills are thick bedding areas.

Setting up along a travel route between oak trees and bedding areas can be effective at catching deer moving during the midday period. But I've found that sitting in the middle of the oak trees is more effective, particularly when those oaks are on a hilltop.

I think this is representative of many hunting properties. Deer use that bottom to travel from their bedding area to the acorns.

I love to sneak into this spot early, taking care to stay far away from the oak trees, and wait for deer to come by as they leave to go bed down.

The main difference is that in the approach mentioned previously, I am set up right in the feeding area, waiting for them to return to eat. In this one, I'm set up near the bedding area, waiting for them to leave the feeding area. In one approach I am counting on the deer to come back to the acorns, and in the other, I wait for them to leave the acorns.

Setting up along a travel route between oak trees and bedding areas can be effective at catching deer moving during the midday period. But I've found that sitting in the middle of the oak trees is more effective, particularly when those oaks are on a hilltop. For some reason, deer seem to be attracted to hilltop oak stands between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.

At those times, an acorn-covered hilltop is going to be my first choice.

The advantage of being in the thick of the food source versus on the trail is that you can have a good long look at the deer as they move around between trees. Also, since it's midday, you have plenty of time for tracking a deer, downing it and dragging it out.

If there are no oak-covered hilltops on your property, then any area featuring several oak trees, or a single "heirloom" tree among some pines will work just as well.

Much as I love sitting on top of a hill, surrounded by oak trees, that's probably the last place I want to be during a late afternoon hunt. I'll admit to you right now that I can be a stubborn, prideful slow learner. I'm ashamed to admit how many times I've sat in a tree well after dark, waiting for feeding deer to leave. It's been more times than it should have been.

The circumstances were usually something like this: With 30 minutes of daylight left, I would hear the unmistakable sound of deer tromping thorough the woods. A few minutes later, I'd glimpse of three, four, maybe five deer feeding towards me, just out of range, moving slowly and randomly. That would remind me that deer really have nowhere they have to be and no deadline for getting there.

As the final moments of daylight gave way to darkness, those deer would just be getting into shooting range. By the time it was pitch dark, they would be feeding right underneath me. Occasionally, I could wait them out. But more often than not, I would have to spook them before I could climb down.

Of course, just seeing deer is a lot of fun. But if your goal is to actually shoot one, then a better approach would be to intercept them before they get to their feeding area at dark. Obvious enough, but sometimes easier said than done!

That is where a hillside bench comes in. It's not always easy to predict from which direction deer will approach a feeding area. But if that feeding area lies atop a hill, they will almost surely travel along a hillside bench for at least part of the way up.

As white oak acorns become scarce, deer focus their attention on the acorns of both red oak and water oak.

Of all terrain features, a bench is my favorite. While flats and bottoms can be hit or miss, a bench seems to be a whitetail's consistently preferred route through the woods. The bench can be as wide as 30 to 40 yards, or barely as wide as the trail.

When choosing a site for my stand, I tend to look for the place where the bench becomes defined. It will tend to fade out where the hill gives way to flatter ground and might pinch down very narrow if the hillside gets steep. If you can find the spot where it becomes defined, you'll likely be just far enough from the feeding area to avoid getting treed, and just far enough from the bedding area to avoid getting busted.

Set up above that bench within your comfortable shooting range.

Much can be said about acorn production in general terms, but there are very few absolutes. Oak trees with large crowns generally produce more nuts than smaller oaks. Excellent acorn years are sometimes -- but not always -- followed by poor ones.

Rainfall, wind, frost, disease, and many other factors can influence acorn production. But depending on the species, the effects might not be seen for two to seven years later. Similarly, one tree might produce an abundant harvest while a similar tree a few yards away might be barren.

Of the many different varieties of oak trees in the South, three species are of primary importance to deer hunters: the white oak, the southern red oak, and th

e water oak. All of them bear varying degrees of significance, depending on which is most abundant on a given hunting property.

In general, the white oak is by far the most important. A white oak's acorns are less tannic and therefore, more palatable than the other two types. Deer prefer them over the acorns of other varieties. White oak acorns are typically the first to be eaten and as such should be the focus of hunters during the early season.

With last year's heavy white oak crop, many acorns remained on the ground all through the winter. In fact, many went uneaten and became rotten and moldy, though in most years they get devoured fairly early.

White oak trees can be identified by their scaly or shaggy bark, as well as by their leaves that are multi-lobed and rounded on the edges. White oaks get hit hard by deer, and the evidence they leave behind can be easily seen -- cracked shells and a ring of trampled leaves around the tree.

As white oak acorns become scarce, deer focus their attention on the acorns of both red oak and water oak. Red oaks' leaves have pointed lobes, while water oaks' leaves are kind of spatula-shaped. Through deer may browse on the acorns of these two trees opportunistically, they really focus on them starting in about late November.

Early-season bowhunting in the South often means hot weather and dry conditions. Succulent browse is scarce, fall food plots havent't come in, and white and red oak acorns have not yet fallen. This is when a planting of sawtooth oak trees can be of benefit to both hunters and deer.

Sawtooth oaks are an Asian variety that have become naturalized in North America and do very well in the South. The advantage of having these trees on your property is that they produce heavy acorn crops and the acorns are huge. Given a choice between white oak and sawtooth acorns, deer will still take the white oaks, but sawtooth oaks produce much earlier in the season than any other variety. Consequently, they are deer magnets during those first few weeks after opening day.

These trees also produce much earlier in their life than the other varieties. Sawtooth oaks produce acorns in as little as four to five years is they have plenty of sunlight, are watered well after transplanting, and are given fertilizer once they are established. Fertilizer application should not be done until the second growing season's leaf-off period. A 10-10-10 fertilizer is generally suggested for landscape trees like sawtooth oaks.

I have cultivated many sawtooth oak trees by collecting the acrons in the fall, planting them in milk jugs and potting soil and transplanting them in the spring when they are already 12 to 16 inches tall. You can also buy seedlings from nurseries. A relatively quick return on your investment and a sure way to attract deer during the early bow season make sawtooth oaks worth of a second look.

This is when it becomes important for hunters to set up an ambush based on this food source. It's easy to tell when deer have been feeding on these acorns, as nearly every dead leaf around the trees will be tuned over.

Since these oaks' nuts are much smaller than white oak acorns, they fall in between the leaves and become buried. Deer and other wildlife scavenge on them voraciously.

Many sources of food and natural browse are important to a deer's diet. In the South, planted food plots certainly have their place, but acorns offer a great natural forage base.

If you take a few hours to identify the various species of trees on your property and plan a strategy based on their location, you'll surely be in a better position to score when deer season rolls around.

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