by M.D. Johnson
Across much of the whitetail’s range in the U.S., the month of October, from a food standpoint, is a time of plenty. Here in Iowa, where my huntress wife, Julia Carol, and I currently make our home, October is a time of essentially a 24/7 buffet. When a buck’s not standing in head-high corn, he’s munching on alfalfa. Or he’s wallowing belly-deep in soybeans. Or, he’s… you get the picture.
October, too, sees many states’ archery, early muzzleloader, youth and special-permit deer seasons opening for business. So, with the proverbial table spread high in a typical year when it comes to whitetails and their daily caloric desires, where’s a hunter to start the scouting process? Why, in the candy store, of course.
Like after-school 5th-graders are drawn to the corner market and the 5-cent BIG SALE bubblegum bin, so, too, are whitetails attracted to early season out-of-the-ordinary food sources. These objects of interest—persimmons, for instance—often come in the form of a short-lived or highly competitive edible. Others, such as the wild apples found in abandoned orchards or reverting homesteads, are simply uncommon; thus, when and where they are available, whitetails will go to great lengths to take advantage of them. Lengths that can, and often do, translate into them lowering their normally Code Red level of awareness to that which a hunter, you, can capitalize upon.
What are these deer candy magnets? Those spotlighted below are some of the more familiar; however, different parts of the country may present equally attractive alternatives to this short list. Too, it’s important to remember that favored food sources, i.e. deer candy, can change, and with surprising rapidity.
In some states, the sound of acorns hitting the ground is akin to a dinner bell, regardless of what’s already set upon Mother Nature’s table. Most whitetails I’ve encountered will walk through an alfalfa field and two bean fields to stand underneath a persimmon tree and wait for the next ripe fruit to touch down. Staying up-to-the-minute, then, is just as vital to success as knowing what candy stores the local whitetails might frequent.
I am by no means an expert on hunting whitetails over falling persimmons, having done it but a handful of times over the past three decades. Extremely productive outings, they were; however, just not that many numerically. Those who have ready access to a fruit-bearing tree—or better yet, several trees—tell me that whitetails will cross all 18 lanes of Atlanta’s Interstate 285 at rush hour simply to stand in line for the next available small orange globe of goodness. Yes, these avid deer hunters say, whitetails like persimmons that much.
Marked by their green shiny leaves pockmarked with black when the fruit is ready, and incredibly edible round orange fruits, persimmons can be found roughly east of a line from Nebraska south to Texas, and then widespread from that marker east to the coast. That’s not to say you won’t find a tree in southeastern Iowa. You just might, and if you do, take good notes or better yet, latitude and longitude coordinates. But persimmons are most common in the American southeast, and there in the damp bottomlands and fertile soils of the Mississippi basin.
Persimmons ripen in late autumn, and, once fallen, remain on the ground but briefly before being eaten by any number of woodland critters, including whitetails.
Apples gone wild
Set back into a hidden and forgotten part of an old pasture, the two neglected and now-wild apple trees on Miss Keller’s property were like tractor beams to the dozens of suburban whitetails roaming hers and the adjoining acres. Each night, right about dusk, the floodgates would open, and deer, like cottontails, would come from all directions to scrounge up any of the red fallen orbs that had dropped during the day. From my seat 60 yards away, those chosen provided chip shots for the .50 caliber Knight Long Range Hunter I had rested upon the split rail fence.
Whitetails and wild apples—or the fruits of groomed orchards, for that matter—go together like 1 April and Opening Day of Major League Baseball. And not just whitetails, but most forms of venison will exhibit a hankering for apples.
“I have several old homesteads here locally,” said Tony Miller, “that see simply red-hot action come September and into October when the wild apples fall. These old trees are like magnets. I’ll set a trail camera at a half dozen or so,” he continued, “just to get an idea of what’s using that particular tree or group of trees.”
A resident of southwest Washington state, Miller focuses his efforts on blacktails, a diminutive and oft-nocturnal subspecies of mule deer.
“Whitetails, blacktails, mule deer, elk. It doesn’t seem to matter what when it comes to apples,” he said. “Find a good tree, hang a stand, and put your time in. More often than not, it’s going to happen.”
The smaller wild crabapples common in the South are also deer candy, and they’ll hang on before dropping until later in the fall than most apple varieties. Find a crabapples tree or two, and keep that secret—you’ve found a whitetail sure thing.
Whitetails are so hypnotized by the allure of acorns that some enterprising hunters, notably archers, have taken to dropping some pebbles from their treestands to simulate the sound of ripe nuts hitting the leaves. Whether or not this actually works, I’m not certain; however, there’s no denying that a mature white oak, heavy with mast, draws deer from afar like moths to a flame. A big flame.
As patrons will plate their favorites from the many choices at a Country Kitchen buffet, so, too, will whitetails travel out of their way for a preferred stand of oaks. Containing the least amount of bitter-tasting tannic acid, white oak acorns head the list of hard mast deer candy, followed closely by red oak varieties, black oak and burr oak.
It’s interesting to note that different species of oaks bear mast at various annual intervals. White oaks, for instance, will produce a heavier crop every third year, but will carry mast every other season. Pin oak, red, and black oak, likewise, produce every other year, while the burr oak will produce every season. Burr oaks, incidentally, carry the largest acorns of the aforementioned quintet; however, they are rated as having a medium to high tannic acid content, and thus aren’t as preferable as are the smaller but sweeter white, pin, and red oak acorns.
Honey locust seed pods
Looking quite like 7- to 10-inch-long flattened string beans, the seeds or pods of the honey locust can be quite attractive to whitetails, particularly during the late fall and throughout the winter as other food sources decrease in scope and variety to a premium. Honey locust are particularly a draw in areas where cultivated food plots are sparse.
Here in Iowa, honey locusts are widespread, with most I’ve encountered found either along any of the small tributary rivers to the Mississippi or in reverting pastures. There’s something quite laughable about watching a bruiser whitetail munch on a foot-long honey locust pod; something—and with my apologies to the late comic—almost Groucho Marx-esque. But that’s not to say I’ll be laughing when the bowstring draws taut and that red fiber optic ball settles on his shoulder.
No, sir. The candy store just got a lot more serious, thank you very much.
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