An abundance of food doesn’t have to mean tough hunting.
A puff of wind rattled the oak leaves high above Steve Giles, sending another shower of acorns to the ground. The young, naive Ohio school teacher reached for the bow hanging next to his treestand and waited for the buck that would surely come running. But two hours later, the sun set on another deerless afternoon in the October woods. Giles was stumped.
“I figured the sound of acorns hitting the ground would be the dinner bell for every deer in the woods,” he said. ”I just knew I was going to get my first bow kill that afternoon.”
As it turned out, his tree wasn’t the only one dropping a shower of mast with each breath of wind. Much of his home state was in the midst of an epic acorn crop, one of the best in years.
A relative newcomer to bowhunting, Giles had no idea the sound of acorns hitting the forest floor everywhere meant something else: tough hunting. With so much food, whitetails don’t have to travel far to fill their stomachs. As a result, they are less vulnerable to hunters.
That’s one reason Virginia’s deer harvest dropped significantly in 2014. A bumper crop of acorns resulted in a 22 percent decrease in the harvest. It’s a pattern that plays out everywhere whitetails and oaks overlap. An abundance of acorns spells a tough season for hunters.
But it doesn’t have to.
The deer are still out there, and although they might move less, they still have to eat. And when they do, odds are they’ll be eating acorns.
GO TO BED
For Virginia firefighter Eric Sandiford, the solution for too many acorns is relatively simple: Find bedding areas near oaks. He lives and hunts in southeastern Virginia, where pine plantations often border mature hardwoods.
Those younger pines are ideal bedding cover, and the hardwoods provide abundant food during a productive acorn season.
“I’m a big fan of edges, but when there are lots of acorns, the edges between planted pines and hardwoods can be great places to hang a treestand,” Sandiford said. “The deer don’t have to move far to feed. They basically just step out of the pines and into the oaks, and that’s it. They have the security of the thick cover close by, and they have all the acorns they could want right there.”
However, he doesn’t hang a stand anywhere along that edge. He spends time walking adjacent to cover in search of obvious trails that lead into and out of the thick stuff.
Now with more than 25 years of experience, Giles also has learned the importance of hunting near bedding areas during a heavy mast crop.
Like Sandiford, he’s watched deer step out of thickets and into oak stands where they fill their stomachs just a few yards from their bedding areas. That’s why he gets as close to the bedding area as he can without spooking the deer.
That can mean hanging a stand right next to the thicker cover. That’s why Sandiford doesn’t hunt much in the morning, at least not until later in the season.
“It seems like I just run deer off as I walk to my stand in the mornings when they are feeding close to their bedding areas,” he said.
Giles, however, hunts a farm with isolated oaks. There are lone oak trees scattered about field edges, and there are a few places with small clusters of white oaks within the forest. A few of these spots are close to bedding areas. Others are a hundred yards away or more. He can effectively hunt mornings if he’s confident the deer are feeding some distance from their bedding areas. He simply locates trails that lead to and from those oaks and hunts mornings and evenings in an attempt to catch deer as they transition between bedding and feeding areas.
“It’s not a slam dunk by any means,” Giles said. “Even though the oaks are somewhat isolated, there are enough around that deer don’t have to come to the trees where I happen to be hunting. There’s no question it’s tougher when there are lots of acorns, but if you can be in the hot area, you see plenty of deer.”
FIND THEM FIRST
The only way to determine where the deer are feeding is by spending time in the woods. Some hunters refuse to scout during hunting season under the premise that any human activity is detrimental to deer activity. Sandiford agrees, but when acorns are abundant, mid-season scouting can reveal a vital piece of the puzzle.
He’s learned whitetails focus on certain trees, or at least certain spots within an oak forest, for a few days at a time.
“I look for the freshest sign, and then I hunt that spot that afternoon,” Sandiford said. ”You don’t want to wait. It seems deer will work on the acorns in one spot and then move to another spot as fresh nuts fall.”
Mobility is key.
Hunting from a fixed ladder stand limits your ability to go where the deer are. Sandiford relies on a climbing stand so he can hunt the spot where he finds the most fresh sign.
That’s exactly what he did during a late October hunt in Iowa a few years ago. He knew little about the spot until he decided to take a quick scouting trip through a block of timber.
Red oaks were abundant, and they were dropping acorns by the truckload. However, it wasn’t until he found a handful of white oaks with lots of acorns under them that he started seeing abundant deer sign. Fresh rubs, scrapes, droppings and tracks told him all he needed to know.
“I picked out a tree and went back the next morning with a climber,” he recalls. “I saw a couple of does come straight to the tree I was in. Not long after, a real nice buck walked in.”
After a tense wait, the buck stepped in range and Sandiford made a perfect shot. It ran less than 100 yards before piling up. The buck measured 176 inches, Sandiford’s best ever. He didn’t know where it was bedding, but he knows whitetails prefer white oak acorns over red oaks.
“Finding those white oaks was key,” he said. “They eat red oak acorns, but it’s pretty common knowledge they prefer white oak acorns.”
Giles agrees. Like Sandiford, he scouts during the middle of the day, paying close attention to wind direction as he walks near likely bedding areas. If the wind isn’t favorable, he looks elsewhere.
DON’T ABANDON OTHER FOODS
There’s no question deer migrate to oaks when acorns start falling, but even when a majority of their diet consists of acorns, they eat other food.
"I have a couple of food plots adjacent to some mature white oaks,” Giles said. “I see deer feeding in the plots all the time, even when there is a good acorn crop. They don’t spend nearly as much time in the food plots when there are lots of acorns, but they will certainly stop for a few bites of clover or oats on their way to or from acorns.”
The edges of bean fields also are worth hunting, but find an oak dropping acorns on the edge of that bean field and you’ve found a potential hotspot. Isolated fruit trees, native and planted, draw deer throughout the early autumn, too. Sandiford likes to find fruit-bearing persimmon trees near oaks.
“If you can get a combination of foods in a small area, you’ve got a real good place to hang a stand,” he said.
Hunting during an epic acorn crop can drive you nuts, but the sound of them hitting the forest floor really is the dinner bell. You just have to figure out where to set the table.
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This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.