Chase Mast For Better Deer Hunting Success
Nature provides deer with lots of food they love to eat and are drawn to. Learn to chase the preferred mast, and see more deer.
If you’ve been deer hunting for more than a few years, I’m sure that you have some experience chasing deer that are eating mast. Many hunters curse years with heavy acorn crops in particular, as deer that were feeding in food plots in September seemingly disappear as acorns begin to fall. October in particular is often the month when most consider hunting around mast sources, but how many hunters are still targeting mast in November, December or even January?
I would bet that many are unaware of the opportunity that various mast sources can provide for savvy hunters. Large blocks of forest that are filled with mast-producing trees can seem daunting to hunt, as hot mast sources today may be cold tomorrow.
I hope this article will shed some light on the variety of mast producers that can be targeted throughout the year, and how to decide which locations are worth hunting.
Oaks are either cursed or loved by most deer hunters, and with good reason. Hunting near a productive oak tree with the sound of acorns raining around you can be the recipe for an exciting hunt with lots of deer in close range.
On the other hand, bucks that have been consistently hitting a food plot or crop field for weeks can suddenly disappear as the first acorns begin hitting the ground. Part of the frustration stems from a lack of understanding how species of oaks vary in attraction and how to locate trees that are worth hunting. It takes time to learn how to target acorns throughout the fall, but a few key points can get you started on the path to succes
Let’s first take a minute to discuss oak ecology. Most know that oaks are separated into the red oak and white oak groups, but fewer realize that these groups include many species of trees. The white oak group includes white oak, post oak, overcup oak, chestnut oak and swamp chestnut oak.
The red oak group includes southern red oak, northern red oak, scarlet oak, cherrybark oak and water oak. There are variations in acorn size, production and attractiveness between the species, but there are some commonalities among those within each group. For example, white oak species flower in the spring, and these flowers form acorns that fall to the ground in the same year. Red oak species also flower in the spring, but their acorns do not drop until the following fall. Thus, red oaks often have two ages of acorns on their branches at any given time. This variation gives wildlife an option if all white oak flowers are killed by a late frost in a given year, as red oaks will likely still produce acorns that year if their flowers were not killed the prior spring.
Another difference in these groups that is important to hunters is the timing of germination. White oak acorns germinate soon after they hit the ground, whereas red oak acorns do not germinate until the following spring. This means that red oak acorns will be available for deer—and squirrels, turkeys, and countless other species—to consume for much longer than white oak group acorns. To prevent all of their acorns being eaten, red oaks produce higher levels of tannins in their acorns, which makes them less palatable to wildlife, so white oaks are preferred.
Understanding oak reproduction is all well and good, but how do we turn that knowledge into additional meat in the freezer? First, being able to identify the different species of oaks (and not just the two major groups) allows you to target those trees at different times during the season. If you notice that deer are starting to hit water oaks in one location, for instance, you could seek out other areas with that species instead of simply targeting hardwood forests in general. Second, differences in palatability and availability throughout the season strongly influence deer use. White oak forest stands are great locations to hunt during October and November, but they will likely lack deer activity in December and January. On the other hand, the acorns of red oaks are likely to be available much later, and can provide action all the way until the season closes.
Most hunters don’t consider hunting near oaks late in the season, but I have had great rut and post-rut hunts from November through January by targeting various red oak species that have feeding sign around them.
Hunters often fail to consider mast other than acorns, and this is a mistake for those wishing to take advantage of natural food sources throughout the fall. There are many other mast crops that attract deer during hunting season, but two of those that I often target are persimmons and honeylocust pods. Persimmon trees are great early season locations, and honeylocusts can provide an overlooked late-season food source.
Persimmons are commonly found in a variety of locations, but they are typically located in greater densities in moist, bottomland sites. One of the locations that I commonly seek them out is around sloughs, oxbows and drainages. They can easily be recognized from a distance by their dark, scaly bark. Their fruit is usually available just at the start of bow season in the South, but some trees will hold fruit well into the month of November.
Persimmon trees are dioecious, meaning that each tree is either male or female. Only the females produce fruit, so it is important to carry binoculars if scouting during summer to ensure the tree you wish to hunt near has fruit. Saving the location of multiple female trees can allow for flexibility to scout each before the hunt, as it is vital to time the hunt when fruit is dropping. Persimmons are sought by everything from coyotes to raccoons, so the fruit doesn’t last very long once it falls.
Honeylocust trees are not common in many areas of the South, but they are found around some old home sites, fencerows and barns. They are most well-known for their thorn-covered trunk and branches, and for the long, twisted pods that contain their seed. I’m not aware of many hunters who hunt around these trees, but deer readily eat these pods when they fall in November and December.
I first learned that deer used these pods when I opened the rumen of a mature buck that my buddy had taken in the middle of November— he was completely full of honeylocust pods. Since then, I have taken advantage of these pods as a food source to hunt over after many white oak acorns have been consumed on properties where they are present. These trees are especially exciting to find on public land, as you can bet that almost no other hunter will be seeking out honeylocust trees to hunt near.
Location, Location, Location
Locating either hard or soft mast that is available to deer is one thing, but it is a completely different matter to actually find locations that are productive to hunt. This task can be especially difficult when you are dealt with high coverage of mast-producing trees, where a deer could choose to feed in nearly any location. I take a two-prong approach to this issue, by first focusing on the big picture and then looking for sign on the ground while I hunt.
Finding probable locations to hunt around mast first starts with considering the time of year and which food sources are available, as well as where these mast sources are most commonly found. For example, if it is early season I may consider trying to locate persimmons around swampy areas.
On the other hand, in late season I often seek out water and cherrybark oaks that are commonly found in bottomland hardwoods and wider drainages in pine stands. During the middle of the season, I may look for white oaks that are most common on south-facing upland hardwood forests. There are times that there will not be any mast producers in these likely locations, but most of these tree species grow in fairly predictable spots.
After locating a few areas, I look for nearby thick cover where deer could be bedding during the day. I want to hunt near mast right next to (or even within) heavy cover, and I believe many hunters fail to succeed in their efforts because they fail to consider cover while hunting near food. Attractive food sources like acorns concentrate deer, but if the food is far from cover, deer often will not visit the location until after dark.
Once I have picked out an area that contains mast-producers near heavy cover, my favorite strategy is to scout as I walk in with a portable tree stand. I do this on both public and private land, as I find it is far more effective when hunting around mast even if lock-on or ladder stands are in place on the property. This is most effective on afternoon hunts, but I have successfully scouted and hunted mast producers on morning hunts as well by using a dim flashlight.
I simply sneak through the area, and use my binoculars to identify the tree species that I am targeting. I will also stop and listen from time to time, as I have often located heavy producers at a distance by listening for their acorns or fruit falling from the canopy. Once I have located the tree species I am looking for, I look for feeding sign around the base. I seek out trees that have disturbed leaf litter, cracked acorns and fresh droppings around the base. If possible, I try to check for these with binoculars before I approach the tree, as I prefer to set up without leaving scent right at the base of the tree where deer are eating.
It is important to note that many individual oaks don’t produce many acorns, that most oak species only produce heavy acorn crops once every few years, and that the woods are full of male persimmons that will never produce a single fruit. If an individual tree doesn’t have available mast that deer use, keep moving!
Settling for locations just because there is a white oak in the area is a good way to be skunked, which is why I always have plenty of spots to check when I am hunting locations around mast producers.
There may be hunts where I don’t get set up until later than I would like, but staying mobile and refusing to hunt areas without fresh sign has ultimately led me to many more exciting hunts than just going to a few pre-determined locations.
Hunting deer around mast can lead to either frustrating or exciting hunts, and it all depends on the approach that you take. Carefully consider the timing and location of your hunts, and take some time to learn about the biology of the trees where you hunt.
Gaining a better understanding of the natural world is rewarding, as are all of the extra backstraps you will have by effectively targeting acorns and other mast producers!
Editor’s Note: Mark Turner recently graduated from Auburn with a MS in wildlife science. He studied hardwood forest management for deer and wild turkeys. Mark now works at the University of Tennessee studying the influence of forage availability on deer antler and body size.
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