The Deer Know About These Trees — You Should Too…

Armed with our short range bows and arrows, bowhunters are always scouting for a place where they can expect deer to approach within easy shooting distance. That “place” is often a seasonal food source that is attracting deer on a regular basis, even if only for a short time period. It’s important to be familiar with these seasonal food sources and be prepared to hunt them when the time is right.

Following are five trees that every bow hunter should learn to recognize and take advantage of during the fall hunting season.

Oak trees are known for their massive trunks, thick bark and long lives, often counted in centuries. Of interest to bowhunters is the fruit of the oak tree, the acorn. The oaks are naturally divided into two groups, white and red. White oaks, including the bur and swamp oaks, produce acorns which are relatively sweet and edible. Red oaks, including the black and pin oaks, produce acorns that contain more tannin and are usually very bitter tasting. There has been cross breeding, or hybridization, among the species of oaks which sometimes creates problems in identification.

#1 White Oak

Outstanding among trees, the white oak is probably the most sought after of the oaks due to its sweet acorns which, when falling, attract deer like a magnet.

White oaks can be recognized by their glossy leaves with 5 to 9 rounded lobes. The ash-gray colored bark on the trunk of the tree shows scaly plates and deep cracks. The nut, or acorn, is usually less than an inch long with one-quarter to one-third of its length enclosed in a shallow cup. The cup, or cap, has a scaly appearance. The acorns mature and drop to the ground in late summer and early fall.

I don’t know why, but I’ve noticed that deer often prefer a certain white oak tree and will pass by others to feed on the acorns of the chosen tree. When I scout an oak ridge in early fall, I’m looking for that preferred white oak tree. It will be the one with the most fresh deer sign under it in the form of tracks, droppings, and freshly turned leaves.

Deer, as well as squirrels and turkeys, often clean the acorns up daily during the time period when they are dropping. On an all day stand near a white oak, I’ve noticed the same deer returning every few hours to check for fresh acorns. Unlike some food sources where a buck may wait until dark before feeding, white oak acorns are so irresistible that they might draw in a buck anytime of day.

The “snip, snap, plop” sound of acorns falling from high in the tree will attract deer to a tree that is actively dropping nuts. During a bow hunting seminar, the late, Ben Rogers Lee, told of “chumming” deer into bow range by carrying a pocketful of “acerns” to his tree stand. When a deer came into sight, he dropped them one by one. Hearing the sounds of dropping acorns the deer fed toward the sound until it was right under Ben’s stand.

I can’t vouch for that story, but I can vouch for the sweet tasting meat of a whitetail deer that has been gorging on white oak acorns all fall.

#2 Bur Oak

This massive tree is also in the white oak family and is very similar looking. It is a slow growing tree and is not considered mature until it reaches 200 years old. Bur oaks grow singly or in small groups in damp bottomlands.

The leaves are similar to the white oak but are wedge shaped at the base and usually larger, reaching 6 to 12 inches long. The upper half of the bur oak leaf is wider than the white oak leaf. The bark is similar to the bark of the white oak. Bur oak acorns are relatively sweet and usually larger than those of the white oak. The cap covers one-third to one-half of the acorn which is easily identified by the bur, a conspicuous fringe around the rim.

I personally have never seen a heavy acorn crop on the bur oaks where I hunt, but the acorns are sought out by deer just as white oak acorns are. I keep an eye out for bur oaks and always check them for acorns in the fall.

#3 Northern Red Oak

Unlike the white oaks which have sweet, edible acorns, the red oaks have very bitter acorns. There are records of poisoning, especially of livestock, by red oak acorns.

The red oak has glossy leaves with from 5 to 11 pointed, bristle tipped lobes. They are from 5 to 9 inches long. The bark on the trunk of this tree is thinner and smoother than that of the white oak. The acorns are large, an inch or more in length and nearly an inch in diameter. The acorn cap is flat and saucer shaped, only enclosing the base of the nut.

Squirrels must have a poor sense of taste because they devour red oak acorns. I’m told deer will consume the acorns of the red oak after the white oak acorns are gone, but I’ve rarely seen them actively feeding under red oak trees. Although they are the largest acorns in our Michigan forests, I seldom bother to hunt over them. I include them in this list of trees to know because they are a possible food source late in the season.

My dad’s favorite treestand was in a large red oak tree on a high bank above the river flats. Although he killed several bucks there, I think he liked the spot because of the nice view. I once took a buck there myself but that deer wasn’t interested in acorns…he was chasing a doe.

#4 American Beech

This tree is common over most of Michigan and is easily identified by its thin, smooth, light gray colored bark which is often marked by carved hearts and initials. The coarsely toothed, oval leaves turn to a light brown color in fall and usually stay on the tree throughout the winter. The fruit is the beech nut, a small, triangular, reddish-brown nut which is sweet and edible. In autumn, a bristly cover splits open to release the nut. In a good year the ground under the beech tree will be covered with beech nuts.

Deer love beech nuts and will feed heavily on them when they are available. I’ve seen where deer have pawed large donuts in the snow under beech trees looking for the nuts. The problem is, it is usually 3 to 5 years between good seed crops.

I keep an eye on the beeches in my hunting areas but seldom have I seen enough beech nuts to hang a stand over. A large stand of beeches, however, will usually produce enough nuts to at least draw deer into the area.

#5 Mulberry

Several years ago, while Denny Sturgis Jr. and I were videoing a bow hunt, we noticed deer going out of their way to eat the yellow leaves which were falling from a certain small tree. We have good video of both bucks and does sucking up the yellow leaves like a vacuum cleaner. We later identified the little tree as a mulberry.

Since then, I watch for mulberry trees during my scouting and try to hunt them during the short period when the leaves are dropping. I have seen the same does and fawns return to a shedding mulberry bush for several evenings in a row to eat the leaves. Although I have not taken a buck using this tactic yet, I think it can be done.

The mulberry is a native of China. It was cultivated in North America as food for the silkworm when the silkworm industry was established here. In June and July the sweet berries, which resemble a blackberry, serve as food for many birds and animals. Today, the mulberry is being rapidly spread throughout Michigan by birds by carrying the seeds in their droppings.

The mulberry can be a tree or a bush. The leaves are medium sized with coarsely serrated edges. A tree will have a variety of shapes of leaves, from oval and unlobed, to one lobe or even double lobed leaves. The variety of leaf shapes on the same tree can make the mulberry a little hard to identify. Another clue is the milky white sap when a twig is broken.

While videoing noted whitetail bowhunter, Roger Rothhaar, in Iowa, for our Masters Of The Barebow DVD series, he pointed out a big bush and said, “I’ve seen deer go to that bush just to eat the leaves.” It was a mulberry bush. During early fall, deer love the soft, yellow, freshly fallen mulberry leaves. If there is a mulberry tree in your hunting area I guarantee that the deer know about it…and you should too.