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VERY FEW HUNTERS would argue about whether harvesting a deer in the big woods is a challenge. Unlike many areas in farm country that possess countless edges and funnels, finding nondescript honey holes in a continuous acreage of woods is always challenging. Harvesting a mature buck in the big woods can take years of accumulated

So many times, hunters leave the woods disappointed because they're not seeing any deer. The purpose of this column is to help hunters understand the role of acorns, and how to focus this knowledge into stand selection while hunting oaks.

Back in college, my dendrology professor told us the oak family could be broken down into two groups: white and red oaks. If you're not good at identifying trees, each species of oak can be identified by the shape of its leaves. Although there is a lot of variability among the two oak groups, red oaks have bristle-tipped lobes and white oaks have rounded lobes. To help us remember this general rule, my professor told us, "'Red' man shot pointed arrows, and 'white' man shot rounded bullets." Generally, a red oak's bark is tighter, more furrowed, and darker than a white oak's. The bark of a white oak also tends to be more flakey.

Because oaks are so cyclic in acorn production, relying on them on a yearly basis is senseless. In fact, going one to two years without any acorn production is not uncommon. Obviously, many factors influence when and where acorns could be dropping. As a hunter, you must know that variability in acorn production is always a given, and you need to be willing to adapt to these changing conditions.

Rainfall, temperatures, cold winters, and whether the wind blows in the right direction for the 10 days when pollination occurs, will affect acorn production. A late-spring frost can completely wipe out an entire acorn crop. And depending on whether an oak tree is located on the north or south-facing slope, acorn production could be present on one side of a mountain but not on the other.

As a hunter, your knowledge of the types of oaks, their location, and when they drop acorns, can be invaluable information for years to come. Ideally, walking your woods with binoculars during the late-summer months observing mast production in the crown is your best way to determine your stand placement for the upcoming bow season.

Many hunters don't realize that once a red oak flower is pollinated in the spring, it takes over a year and a half for the nut to mature. Whereas, white oak acorns will mature the following fall after a spring pollination. It's not uncommon for white oaks to hardly produce, yet the previous year's germination could have been very good for red oaks. The end result from a hunting standpoint is a very good acorn year. This buffer effect between red and white oaks helps not only deer but all kinds of small mammals.

There's also significant germination differences between white and red oaks. Germination is when an acorn turns into an oak seedling. Depending on soil conditions, white oak acorns can germinate within a few days after falling to the ground. This is significant, because the seed is now basically inaccessible to deer. On the other hand, red oaks will stay on the forest floor and germinate the following spring. To survive during the fall and winter months, the majority of red oaks contain more tannins than white oaks.

Hunters who have been focusing their attention on white oaks during the early bow season are wise to move to the red oak stands during the late season. The timing of an acorn drop is paramount if you're hunting over food sources. For whatever reason, I've found that hunting over acorns during evening hunts and bedding areas during morning hunts can be beneficial. Additionally, it's not uncommon for deer to completely abandon one oak for another acorn-dropping tree within a day's time. When this happens, moving your stand a few yards closer to the active tree can mean the difference between a shot and no shot.

Another reason to move your stand is because one study in Tennessee and North Carolina showed about 33 percent of all white oaks produced 75 percent of the total crop. Does specific tree genetics play a role in these numbers? Yes. As a hunter, being able to identify high-producing or genetically superior individual trees is paramount to finding great stand locations.

Many hunters spend a lot of time and money fertilizing existing oak stands. The purpose is to increase the number of acorns, and to make them sweeter and bigger. Although this sounds reasonable, does it work? Dr. Craig Harper, professor of wildlife management and extension wildlife specialist at the University of Tennessee, has been collecting data to answer this question for the past 10 years.

Like the big woods many of us hunt, Harper found many of these forested woods have a closed canopy. This prevents sunlight from reaching the forest floor and significantly reduces the amount of nutritious foods deer need throughout the year.

By implementing a "crown release" around specific oak trees, Harper found you can greatly increase the available forage around a tree. Crown release is when you kill or remove all the competing trees around a specific tree. This forestry treatment allows more growing space, which increases the tree's crown for more acorn production. At the same time, a crown release also increases the total biomass of nutritious vegetation on the ground level. This one-two punch provides newborn fawns and adults with ample amounts of ground cover to hide in and feed on.

Harper also compared the benefits of increased acorn production to three scenarios within an oak stand: fertilizing, crown release, and crown release with fertilizer. Unlike many who would guess fertilizing would have the greatest positive impact, Harper found that crown release increased acorn production, whereas fertilization did not.

Harper stated, "Allowing more sunlight into the forest and releasing the crowns of these trees is the only way to increase acorn production. Allowing as little as 30 percent more sunlight into a previously closed-canopy forest typically increases deer forage seven to eight times in those areas where canopy coverage was reduced. And the crowns of those trees you release from competition often increase 25 percent in the first year following treatment, which allows them to produce greater than 50 percent more acorns per tree." This data makes you wonder why some hunters spend the time and money on fertilizing oak stands.

C.J.'S SUMMARY: During the early bow season, white oaks are a deer's favorite food source. Although this time period doesn't last long, all kinds of wildlife feast on them. A bumper crop of acorns can determine a doe's health during the winter months and the survivorship of her fawns the following spring. Dr. Harper's research determined acorns have six times more energy than corn, two times the amount of carbohydrates, and 20 times the amount of fat. Research has shown white oaks produce a bumper crop two out of every five years, and some years are a total bust. Are oak trees an inconsistent producer? You bet! And remember, only a small portion of all oaks are responsible for the majority of the acorn crop.

Caption: This woodland managed for deer provides more than 1,000 pounds (dry weight) per acre of selected deer forage. Cover for fawning is optimal, and acorn production has been increased by allowing mast-bearing trees to grow larger crowns. All standing dead trees were killed by girdling and spraying the wound with an herbicide mixture.
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Title Annotation:Hunting whitetails
Author:Winand, C.J.
Date:Oct 1, 2019

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