Fall Deer Hunting | Understanding the Acorn

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It never fails that my phone rings about 10 times a week before and during bow season; Friends and family calling with questions on where I would be this hunting weekend or what I would do in their specific situation. Should I hunt that food plot I planted this august? Should I hunt on that big white oak ridge? While I don’t have the answer to where that buck will be opening morning, I always like to give the tips from my experience, then they can decide where they want to hunt. One thing that I have learned from experience hunting, getting a degree in wildlife, and working my way up in the deer and deer hunting industry is that you can know a lot, and I mean a lot! But that doesn’t mean you’re going to kill a big mature buck every year! Yet, knowing the simple knowledge behind the when, what, and where of the deer world can make a heck of a difference. Every bit of knowledge you get about whitetail habits can help steer you in the right direction.

So let’s start with the when. Its fall, hunting season is here! While our focus has been on beans and velvet for the majority of the summer, those of us who have late hunting seasons need to face reality. Many states have their bow season starting on September 15thand maybe even earlier. For a lot of us Midwest guys (Hoosier boy speaking), the season might not start till the first weekend in October, crushing any dream of harvesting a velvet buck. All summer the deer have been hammering beans, native browse, and our mineral blocks. They were concentrating on highly nutritious food sources and protein; Bucks using that protein to fuel antler development, does for lactating to prepare their fawns for the harsh winter ahead. With shorter photoperiods being the alarm clock and beans beginning to turn, the deer begin to work their way into the hardwoods where fall has already started. Early season hunting can start to get a little tricky. Why? Our possible friend or foe, the acorn!

To the Woods

Anywhere from the last week of September through early November, the hardwood forests experience a rain of acorns. These small bundles of carbohydrates hitting the ground are like a dinner bell, calling deer into the woods. Need for protein becomes a need for carbohydrates to build up fat reserves. When the acorns are falling you can count on your deer herd spending a majority of their time under those trees. However, those trees (Oaks) can be a very loose term, especially related to deer hunting. Different species of oaks have higher preferences, even some trees of the same species have higher preferences above others. Without knowledge of oaks or preferences in acorns, hunting deer in the hardwoods becomes a guessing game. Just knowing the difference can increase your chance of success considerably.

Oaks (around 58 species) are an extremely important hardwood species. Twenty or so occurring in the Midwest. The two groups of oaks are the red and white oaks.

Round lobed white oak leaf (left) and bristle-tipped red oak leaf (right)

White Oaks

The white oak (Quercus alba) is the most common species encountered out of the white oak group. The white oak group acorns are preferred among deer and other wildlife over red oaks due to less tannic acid resulting in a less bitter taste. Chinkapin oaks also common in the Midwest have even less bitter acorns than white oaks. White oaks can be identified by the rounded lobes. The bark is light gray/tan with overlapping plates that look like overlapping shingles. Acorns are characterized by the thick warty scales on the cap. White oak acorn production is unpredictable usually having one bumper crop of acorns out of three of four years, with other years showing little to no production. White oak acorns take around 3 months to mature.

Bark of the white oak characterized by gray overlapping plates or shingles

White oak acorn characterized a by thick, warty, scaled cap

The Red Oaks

The northern red oak (Quercus rubra) and the black oak (Quercus velutina) are the most common red oak trees in the Midwest. The northern red oak can be identified with bristle tipped leaves, and dark brown/gray ridges looking like ski tracks running up the tree. The large acorns of the northern red oak are characterized by a shallow cap with flat pointed scales. They often have unpredictable production of bumper years, but seem to have some acorns every year even when the white oaks do not. Unlike white oaks red oak acorns take around 15 months to mature, often resulting in a mix of immature and mature acorns on the tree. These acorns have higher tannic acid levels, resulting in a bitterer acorn. If white oak acorns are not falling in your woods, check other oak species such as northern red oaks to see what your deer will be feeding on.

Bark of the red oak characterized by black/brown/gray ski track running up the tree

Observation is the key to hunting, especially relating to acorns. Success during this time of year will be found in first identifying what type of acorns are dropping, where they are dropping in relation to bedding areas and travel corridors, and if the deer are using those particular trees. This may sound very general and it is to a point, so let me sum this up with a hunt I had last year. I’ll give you the quick details, my family owns around 80 acres of hardwoods located on a section of a ridge in southern Indiana.

Red oak acorn characterized by a large acorn with shallow cap with flattened pointed scales

This hardwood ridge is made of an oak/hickory forest with white, red, and chinkapin oaks. Last year my pre-season scouting and squirrel hunting observations led me to believe that the white oaks were very sparse on acorns. I knew the property would lack draw without the white oaks. My only hope was a section on the far end, dominated by northern red oaks situated about 130 yards from a bedding area on the neighbor’s recently logged property. As I put my binoculars up to the branches it didn’t take long to notice a plethora of mature acorns ready to drop. When October rolled around the only trail camera picking up heavy use was in that section and it wasn’t too long before I had venison in the freezer after a couple afternoon hunts.

Just by knowing the preferences deer have in acorns can change a hunt. Take this knowledge to the woods with you this October and November to increase your chance of success. Instead of asking a question, take time and learn for yourself, make careful observations, and pay attention in the woods. Pay attention when hunting to the when, what, and where to increase your chance of success!

Weston Schrank is a senior at Purdue University pursuing a degree in Wildlife Management hoping to attend graduate school next year. He is currently interning with The Buck Advisors. Look for more articles by Weston as he broadens his knowledge and experience as part of The Buck Advisor team.


Originally published at www.buckadvisor.com on November 25, 2014.

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