two bucks
New York bucks chow down on white oak mast.. Charles Alsheimer

Acorns are the ultimate early-season game changer. When fall’s first hard mast hits the ground, bucks that were hitting alfalfa fields like clockwork seem to disappear. Whitetails that were food-plot regulars vanish. And those trail-cam setups that only a week ago were packed with enough pics for a highlight reel? You got it: dead as the proverbial hammer.

Many hunters lose valuable time adjusting to the acorn shift. That’s too bad, because it’s entirely possible to anticipate not only when deer will switch to acorns, but also the best spots to kill a buck. Here’s how.

Glass the Tops

Binoculars are a valuable tool for so many deer hunting applications, and that list includes scouting for acorns. Visit all the oak stands on your property in late summer, stopping under individual trees to glass the boughs for clusters of acorns. There is no more surefire way to know the exact status of the fall crop.

Read the Barometers

Deer only get to eat acorns when they hit the ground. Other critters scarf the nuts before they fall, which makes them an excellent forecaster of the impending acorn drop. When I scout the big woods with my hunting buddy Tom VanDoorn, we walk between oak stands, listening for blue jays, grouse, and squirrels—all species that love acorns. Other worthy indicators are black bears, which are so impatient to chow on acorns that they’ll climb to the top of oaks to dine, breaking off limbs as they go. If you find an oak with broken limbs beneath, bears are forecasting an acorn honey hole.

Get the Timing

As a rule, trees in the white oak family drop their acorns first, and deer (and other wildlife) prefer them over acorns from red oak trees. If you can’t classify oaks in your area into these two basic groups, learn to do so as quickly as possible. White oaks usually drop in the last weeks of August and first week of September, whereas red oaks typically go a few weeks later. Knowing oak species and the timing can simplify your scouting and hunting efforts.



Red oak acorns drop after those of white oaks.

Fine-Tune Your Scouting

In most areas of the country, bucks are shedding velvet the last week of August, and they start rubbing trees immediately after. If you can’t tell which oak trees deer are favoring over all others in your hunting area (some “ice cream” trees simply produce sweeter-tasting nuts), make a scouting run right after velvet shed. Bucks invariably rub saplings close to their preferred feeding trees, and these rubs will tip you off to the best oaks. Hint: Don’t get caught up in the big-rub-means-big-deer theory. Mature bucks create this sign earlier than young ones, so any rub you find at this time of year usually means a good deer.

Set the Stage

Once you’ve identified the best oak stands in your area, it’s time for some prep work. Choose a stand tree (or better yet, two, so you can adjust to varying wind directions) close to the feeding area. Using a pole saw, eliminate limbs that would interfere with a climber or hang-on stand, and clear a few shooting lanes. Then make a mock scrape or two within bow range of your stand tree. Bucks will investigate scrapes even while in velvet, and will likely make more of their own as they continue to visit the area. And you’ll be there waiting for them, since you’re one of the few hunters who prepared in advance for the acorn drop.