Author: Emily Courtney
When I ask fellow hunters, “How’d your deer season go?” there’s one response I get far too often from far too many people that never ceases to amaze and disturb me. They’ll say “Oh it wasn’t too good, there were too many acorns in the woods.” You may have heard this excuse before, or even said it yourself. My question is, how is that a bad thing? If the deer are sticking to the woods to eat, then get off the food plots and get in the woods with them. If you wait to see whether deer are coming to plots or not, you’re too late. Now is the time to be scouting your oaks to plan your hunting strategy accordingly.
If you know what to look for, you can get a relatively good idea about your property’s acorn crop before any even hit the ground. It’s important to understand that crop quality/size and drop times are variable and dependent on many different factors. Although there is a somewhat “standard” time frame for each species of oak, those are loose estimates at best. Species drop times can vary from state to state or region to region, or can even be altered by weather conditions. Drop times can also differ from tree to tree within a species. Each individual tree is unique, with its own genetically determined potential and behavior. You can have twenty Cherrybark oaks on the same ridge, and each one may produce and drop its acorns at a slightly different time. Individual trees are usually quite consistent in their timing from year to year, though, which can allow us to learn their patterns.
September is the ideal time to begin acorn scouting. The early season droppers (such as water, willow, and other red oaks) should already have green acorns on their branches that are large enough to be seen. You of course will need to be able to identify the different species, so if you’re not already familiar with them, consult with a biologist or invest in an ID book and teach yourself. Once you know your species, go out with your binoculars and take note of which individual trees are loaded and which aren’t. Also pay attention to past patterns of deer movement and current sign. When it comes to food sources, deer select what they prefer and need the most. If acorns are available during the early season, that’s where the deer will be. They don’t provide much protein, but they help deer pack on carbs and fats before winter. If there are trails to a particular tree or grove of trees year after year, you can infer that those trees are good producers. When you identify high traffic areas with loaded oaks, go ahead and hang a stand there now so you’ll be ready to sneak in and hunt that spot as soon as they start to drop. Even on public land, this kind of scouting will give you an edge over other hunters. Figure out where the deer will want to be before the deer themselves know.
Weather conditions and other factors can affect your strategy as well. Rainfall plays a role in productivity. A storm with high winds can strip a tree of its acorns that normally may not have fallen for a few more days. Pay attention to these kinds of activities and how they affect the resources on your property.
As with any individual resource, acorns are only one part of the ecosystem and should be considered along with all of the other resources deer need, and their availability on your property. If you start scouting and see that the acorn crop looks to be light, then you can focus your strategy more on other resources. However, even in a low yield year, some trees will produce more than others, which only makes it easier to hone in on a particular tree. Persimmons are another great early season food source to pinpoint. They are the last soft mast available for the year, which makes them a highly desired commodity. If you don’t have any naturally occurring on your place, consider planting some. Introducing new species to compliment existing resources can be a highly effective management strategy. Get to know your woods, and identify any lacking resources or gaps in food availability. Then have a biologist help you choose a custom blend of species to fill those needs. Create sustainable drop times on your property by matching the proper species to your site.
Hunting food sources in the woods holds a completely different dynamic than the food plot hunting experience. Both have their advantages, and I’ve spent many enjoyable hours sitting on food plots. But I feel unsettled when plots and supplemental feeding become a crutch and strip away the skill and anticipation that should be an inherent part of the hunt. Using those traditional skills like scouting and learning the woods only enhance the experience and make the reward that much sweeter.