It’s no secret whitetails love acorns. Here’s what you need to know.
I grew up in southern California, where no whitetails existed. There were some scrawny California mule deer, and during hunting season, we knew where we could find them: Under the oaks, munching acorns. When I decided to hunt whitetails in earnest, it was only natural the first question I asked a hunting buddy or landowner was, “Are there any acorns falling?’ ”
Hunting over acorns has paid off with filled tags everywhere I hunt that has oaks. Even when deer are feeding heavily on food plots early in the season, they seem to know when acorns start to drop. They gravitate there until the crop is mostly gone.
While many hunters know oaks and acorns can be part of a great setup, there are many misconceptions about how to best utilize this key food source.
RED OR WHITE?
In the days before the white man settled North America, acorns were an important food source not just for wildlife, but for the Native Americans, too.
Where I grew up out West, acorns were gathered by poor people, who leached them in streams and creeks to remove most of the acidic taste. Next, they ground them like wheat into flour and used it to make crude bread.
Likewise, deer and other wildlife migrate to stands of oaks when the acorns start to fall. They are easy to digest and high in fat and carbohydrates. The size and quality of an acorn crop will vary year to year, and there can be acorns available long into the winter.
Exactly when acorns begin to drop, and thus attract deer in significant numbers, largely depends on the latitude at which the oaks are found and the type of oak tree involved.
There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 oak species in the United States, but, generally speaking, they fall into two main classifications: white oaks and red oaks.
Common white oaks include the white oak, overcup oak, post oak and chinkapin oak.
Common red oaks are the southern red oak, northern red oak, blackjack oak and pin oak. Of course, there are many others.
While all acorn types are important, whitetails seem to prefer acorns of the white oak family. That’s because white oak acorns contain less tannin than red oak acorns. Tannin is the bitter tasting compound that causes the dry, puckering feeling you get in your mouth if you’ve ever eaten an acorn.
If I can find a group of white oaks dropping acorns in decent quantities, I put at least one treestand somewhere in the neighborhood. However, that doesn’t mean red oaks should be ignored. When their diminutive acorns fall en masse, deer vacuum them up, too.
WHICH TREE IS IT?
The best way to tell one type of oak tree from another is by looking at the leaves, bark and acorns. Generally speaking, the leaves of a white oak are bigger than those of a red oak, but there are many variations.
White oak leaves can be quite large, often 5 to 6 inches long, with rounded lobes and a wedge-shaped base.
Many red oak leaves are shaped more like a paddle, while others are long and narrow. They have seven to 11 points that come to a sharp end, and the lobes have course teeth.
The white oak gets its name because its bark appears light gray to white. Also, the bark of the white oak tends to be comprised of broad, scaly plates. Bark on a white oak also seems to be constantly peeling off the tree, like paint on an old house, while the bark of the red oak is wrapped more snugly around the trunk.
Red oak bark can look anything from charcoal to a sun-faded gray, with shallow fissures as small as your finger tip.
It is more difficult to try to identify the type of oak by looking at the acorn itself. However, acorns from a white oak are usually larger than those from a red oak. White oak acorns also can have large, pronounced cups, which often remain attached to the acorn after it has fallen to the ground. Red oak acorns tend to be smaller, often no larger than the tip of your little finger. They tend to have small, tight cups.
ACORNS & DEER HUNTING
The first thing to remember is the acorn crop in a given area is not consistent. The size of the crop will vary from year to year and from tree to tree. In fact, there can be years in which the acorn crop is so small it might not be a factor in your hunting strategy.
While many things impact acorn production, two stand out: Weather and the individual tree. Some oaks are just better producers than others. Experts say high humidity and frequent rain when the trees are flowering cause a smaller acorn crop. Expect a smaller crop in drought years and those with frequent spring frosts.
The other thing to remember is only older oaks produce acorns that amount to anything. Most species of both white and red oaks will not start yielding significant acorn crops until they are at least 20 years old. Maximum production doesn’t begin until around age 50, and they will continue to produce good acorn crops until the end of their life. Oaks can live as long as 200 years or more.
How to best use acorns for hunting is pretty straightforward. The first thing to do is scout your hunting property for oaks. Topographic maps and aerial photographs are great for getting the lay of the land, but locating individual trees or stands of oaks can only be done by walking the ground. Spring is a great time to locate oaks, as it will minimize your impact on future hunting and help you begin to plan a fall strategy.
To some degree, you can influence which of your oaks produce the best acorn crops. You can selectively fertilize some trees and not others. Of course, you should choose to feed your best-producing trees, as well as those where you can place a good stand for hunting.
When summer rolls around, scout the area and check the trees, looking for emerging acorns. Binoculars can help you get a good look at taller trees’ acorns. That’s a good time to select and prepare treestand sites and trim shooting lanes, too.
Not all oak stands yield good hunting spots. There has to be a way to access and exit the stands, and the prevailing wind needs to be right. If you can’t set up directly in a hot stand of oaks, look for an ambush point along a travel route.
In the fall, you’ll need to know when acorns begin to drop. It could be a date on the calendar when your oaks have traditionally started dropping their bounty, or you can watch trees on the fringe of the property. Another indicator can be when all the deer that have been frequenting fields suddenly disappear.
If you think the acorns are dropping, slip in to your hunting spot to check. If you have lots of oaks spread over a large area, you’ll want to know which trees are dropping the most acorns.
As the season progresses, you’ll find some trees attract more deer than others. If the hot trees aren’t close enough to your setup, consider a temporary move.
I like to hunt oak groves early and late in the day. I have had good early and mid-morning success in areas where productive oaks are located between greenfields or food plots and bedding thickets. Deer like to stop by on the way to bed for a quick acorn fill-up. In the afternoon, they’ll do the same thing in reverse.
When the rut approaches, I’ve had good luck hunting the edges of oak flats. Bucks like to troll the edges while looking for does feeding on acorns.
WHEN IT ALL COMES TOGETHER
One year I was hunting in western Kentucky in mid-October. The property was full of oaks, and a large crop of acorns was dropping so fast you could hear them hitting the ground all day long.
We put a stand on top of an acre-size oak flat. In the center of the flat were three old white oaks loaded with acorns. The ground underneath looked like a feed lot, pockmarked with deer tracks and droppings.
The stand was within bow range of these trees, overlooking a well-worn trail coming up from the bottom. In three days of hunting, I saw countless does and young deer come and go, greedily gobbling acorns. The third afternoon, a big-bodied 8-pointer made his way to my little treasure spot. He didn’t leave under his own power.
I love to hunt when the acorn crop is strong. Since that’s not the case every year, I shift the majority of my pre-rut hunting strategy to take advantage of the situation when it is.
If you haven’t added acorns to your hunting strategy, perhaps it’s time you did.
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