by Scott Bestul
There was a cornfield bristling with waste grain on one side of the woodlot and an apple orchard loaded with frozen fruit on the other. I’d have bet my bow that the big 10-pointer I’d been hunting was filling up at one of these two obvious late-season food sources. That is, until I walked into the woods on a midday speed-scouting mission and saw the heavily pawed snow and tossed leaf litter beneath a stand of red oaks. With all the other prime food just steps away, the deer were digging for the last remaining acorns.
At the time, I considered these nuts an early-fall food–many hunters do. Now I know better. After the rigors of the rut, with winter weather moving in, late-season whitetails seek acorns because they provide lots of fat, are easily digested and, unlike corn and bean stubble, are located within the security of the woods–which is critical to pressured deer. In some heavily forested habitats, acorns may be the only substantial high-energy food source at this time of year.
Whitetails prefer the sweeter acorns of white oaks to those of reds. And in part for that reason, I’ve had better luck hunting stands of the latter now. White oak acorns typically drop early, and the deer are on them first and fast. Most are eaten by this point. So the deer turn to red oak mast, which drops in mid-autumn and commonly stays available well into winter.
Look for disturbed leaves, bits of half-chewed acorns, and fresh deer droppings to identify a hot oak ridge or flat, as well as the choicest tree or cluster of trees therein. Set up downwind, overlooking the feed.
If there’s snow on the ground, abundant tracks and dug-up leaf litter will make the hotspot obvious. Here, however, you should identify the largest hoofprints and backtrack them a short way off the feeding area toward thicker bedding cover. This will give you a better chance at intercepting a late-rising buck while there’s still shooting light.
When the weather turns very cold, bundle up and get into your stand by noon. Even wary late-season deer will show up for an early dinner then–like the ones that came to the oak ridge where I was hunting the 10-pointer. Barely settled in my perch, I spotted a small group of does picking their way toward me, big buck in tow. I was just clipping my release on the bowstring when a coyote charged in, spoiling my chance. Apparently this predator also knew that oak stands are a great place to hunt late-season deer.