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HUNTING THE SOFT MAST.

To put them on your table, first team what's on their table. Florida's a little unique in that regard.

One archery season, I was invited to hunt for an afternoon on some unfamiliar property. I walked into the wind with a stand on my back hoping to find a promising site and stumbled upon six low cabbage palms laden with ripe berries. The tallest had about eight feet of trunk exposed below the fronds and I began to fasten my climbing stand on its base. A doe ran up to the clump and began searching for fallen berries below a tree nine yards away. My longbow was on the ground, but I managed to pick it up undetected, draw, and let an arrow fly that slipped through her chest. My hunt was over before the tree was even climbed!

Recognition of the drawing potential of the cabbage palm mast, coupled with a good bit of luck, was the key to the successful outcome.

Animals may bed or roost in a wide variety of locales. Most such sites are dense and chosen specifically to hide and shelter the animal. Intrusion into the area is seldom possible without giving forewarning to the game. However, feeding is a priority for all animals. Hence, hunters are advised to "hunt the food source" and consistently successful hunters heed this advice. Florida's main three larger game species, whitetails, hogs and turkeys have differing, variable and extensive possible food sources, but the foods that brings in all three are mast products. Acorns are a prime example and all hunters know how alluring game finds them. Florida has other mast foods as well, termed soft mast, and while less famous than acorns, they can be very effective draws for game.

Several fruits--palmetto berries, grapes, gallberries, blackberries, and blueberries, for instance--are enticing to game, but are eaten primarily from the plants themselves and, therefore, are not considered mast. Mast accumulates on the woodland floor below the plants or trees that produce it and so lures game in either by the sheer bulk of available food or because of the desirability of checking often for new fruit to have fallen.

Cabbage palm berries are actively sought by deer, hogs and turkey. Birds, squirrels and raccoons relish them as well. These berries are small, about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and a dark brownish purple. Down in the creek bottoms, cabbage palms grow very tall, competing for light and striving to breach the dense canopy. Out in more open terrain, many cabbage palms grow thick in the trunk without a lot of height. Both patterns, when mature, can produce huge volumes of fruit and are game magnets.

One afternoon, deep in Central Florida's Bull Creek swamp bottom, I sat on a stand amid towering cabbage palms, each with an abundance of berries. Deer came by, but only does and it was during the firearms season. Raccoons made the hunt memorable for, in total, eight showed up and climbed the tall palms and worked way out into the clumps of berries causing more fruit to shower down than they ate. Two different raccoons fell from the trees, probably 50 to 60 feet. One fell into the water with a loud splash and was almost instantly back up the tree and feeding again. The other one landed on the ground with a heavy thud. She also scampered back up the trunk, but once she made it about ten feet up she remained still for fifteen or more minutes. Eventually, she scooted back up and resumed feeding. Turkeys arrived a bit later, but their sharp eyes discovered me at once and, after a "puck" or two, they were gone.

Most mast foods are seasonal, but cabbage palm berries seem to ripen throughout the year. Often the palms in a certain area are in synch yet other ones 400 yards distant may fruit several months later.

Tupelo is another soft mast common to our Florida woods. While I have found it on occasion in the stomach contents of deer and have seen hogs eat it, by and large for these animals it is not much of a draw. Turkeys, however, are very attracted to these trees when they are dropping. Several tupelos are found in Florida, but where I hunt, the black tupelo is most common. Its fruit is less than an inch in length and green with a rosy blush.

Persimmons are another common Florida wild fruit. Again, raccoons climb the trees to get to the ripe persimmons, but deer and hogs investigate the underlying ground regularly for mast. These fruit have smooth skin and are colored halfway between an apricot and a peach. Most range from an inch and a half to two inches. Before they are super ripe, a bite of one might turn your mouth inside out, tasting bitter and dry at the same time. Once they are mushy soft, the flavor is sweet and enjoyable. The trees generally are in groves or at least small groups. When a grove is dropping it is an ideal place to set a stand because whitetails, hogs and coyotes will likely patrol the trees.

One group of five large persimmon trees, all with branches bowed from the weight of the fruit, that I watched one morning attracted seven different bucks. Another morning, I sat on a larger grove of smaller trees and a doe came by early. Shortly later, a small six point checked the trees out. A couple hours later the doe reappeared. She was still making the rounds from tree to tree when the six point returned and cut to some trees ahead of her. Each time she tried to investigate a tree, he would walk quickly to the tree before she could reach it. Finally, he chased her away and leisurely fed below the remaining trees.

Oranges are a truly Floridian soft mast and one of my personal favorites for a few reasons. Firstly, they become ripe late in the season when, for the most part, acorns have diminished in volume or maybe even completely stopped dropping and deer have been hunted long enough to be hard to find. Secondly, the wild oranges are usually found deep in the thick swampwoods where deer feel relatively at ease moving in the daytime. Thirdly, the reward for the deer is a big and sweet fruit that entices the animal to be the first to reach the spot. Lastly, the wild trees grow in small groups only here and there in the woods so each small grove draws deer and hogs from a fairly large surrounding area.

Most wild oranges are sour and utilized very little by wildlife. These are descendants of the sour oranges planted originally by the Spaniards who, during their days of exploration, were instructed to carry at least a hundred orange seeds abroad and plant them wherever they visited in order that a supply of scurvy-preventing fruit would be available for later travelers. As world travel and trade increased, sweeter oranges were discovered from the Orient and somewhere along the line some of these were planted and tended in Florida. Grafting twigs from these onto sour orange rootstock produced sweet trees. Also, there is some evidence that the commercially grown sweet trees may have cross-pollinated with the sour trees and resulted in sweeter wild trees. When sweet trees are found in the woods, the reason is either from cross-pollination or it is a location where early settlers lived and grafted trees. Some areas I have hunted definitely showed evidence of man's hand, while others are so remote that grafting seems less probable. Regardless, for oranges to attract game, they must be the sweet variety.

Determining whether oranges are sweet or not by looking only at the tree is not easy. Both varieties have the glossy, dark green leaves and long, sharp spines. Several ways to be sure a tree has sweet oranges are open to the hunter. One is as simple as tasting the fruit. The difference is enormous. Sour oranges are nearly kerosene harsh while the sweet oranges are pleasing to the palate. Also, sour oranges have thick rinds and a beautiful, rich orange color with few blemishes. Sweet oranges are thin skinned, paler in color and seldom look uniformly perfect. The worse a wild orange looks, the more likely it is a sweet one. Sour oranges linger longer on the tree so they may drop nearly anytime of year and it is not unusual to see green and ripe fruit on the same tree. On sweet trees, the oranges are a little more synchronized in maturing and finish dropping in January or February most years. Raccoons eat the oranges from either on the ground or in the tree itself. When they eat from the tree, they leave the hollowed shells of the rinds hanging. These empty sack-like skins are a dead giveaway that the tree bears sweet fruit.

The reason the trees are found primarily in the swampwoods is that they are susceptible to freezing temperatures and the thick canopy of the woods in concert with the warmth the waters hold protect the orange trees from our occasional hard freezes. While freezing weather is bad for citrus, a decent cold snap helps sweeten the fruit and the wild trees become a much better draw after the first cold spell. I've seen fallen fruit ignored by game and allowed to rot beneath the tree when our cold weather is delayed. Once the temperature drops for even a day or two, no fruit accumulates below the same trees.

Once again, hogs, raccoons, opossums and coyotes all share the whitetail's passion for the fruit, so any hunter who places a stand in the vicinage of sweet oranges is entertained by a lot of wildlife. I've seen opossums chased away from fallen oranges by hogs, deer race one another from tree to tree to claim fallen fruit, coyotes climb fallen, leaning palm trunks to scan the area below several orange trees at once, and raccoons performing acrobatics to reach hanging oranges. When raccoons paw at the fruit they sometimes knock it to the ground. In these cases, the raccoon usually searches the fallen orange out and easily gains access through the tough skin once the ground under it prevents the orange from retreating. The entry point through the rind is fairly small and the hungry 'coon scoops out the pulp. I once saw such a hollowed out rind left on the ground and a doe encountered it. A wee bit of pulp or perhaps just some juice must have remained and the doe repeatedly thrust her mouth and nose into the rind. It became stuck on her nose and when she raised her head, her serious eyes were peering about in a perplexed way over a large, bright orange nose! My friend Don once saw a young buck, I can't recall if he was a four point or six point, bite a fallen orange and the juice erupted into a stream that squirted the deer in the eye and, although I couldn't help but sympathize with the little buck, Don's description of his subsequent antics had me chuckling.

Late in the season after being pursued by archers, muzzleloaders and rifle hunters for three or four months, deer and hogs can be difficult to find at all, much less to pin down. Sweet wild oranges are a real help to a hunter at this time.

Sour oranges are not good for drawing game, but are useful to the successful hog hunter. The juice from sour oranges makes an excellent marinade for pork. Also sour orange juice can be substituted for lime juice in key lime pie recipes to make a unique and delicious dessert.

Hunting the food source is key to regularly connecting with game and Florida's soft mast foods are worth searching out from archery season through the last days of modern firearm season.

Caption: Hog drawn to wild oranges. Above: Persimmons, another common wild Florida fruit used by game.

Caption: Wild oranges come in two flavors: sour, above; sweet, right.
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Author:Lewis, Tim
Publication:Florida Sportsman
Date:Oct 1, 2018
Words:2020
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