4 Lessons for Deer Hunters from Summer Blackberry Picking

I love foraging for blackberries. Every June in Georgia, I suit up in permethrin-treated, bramble-proof Carhartt overalls and wade into the briar patch with my bucket. I wear an old right-hand work glove with the fingertips cut off that protects most of my hand from thorns as I reach for the best blackberries. Since I was born in June, I’ve probably blown out more birthday candles stuck in blackberry cobbler than any other kind of dessert, and my wife makes fantastic blackberry jelly – perfect for preserving a taste of summer to be spread on a hot biscuit on cold, winter days. But despite my being a veteran blackberry hunter, I recently noticed for the first time ever that the largest, juiciest, sweetest berries are more often found separate from the deepest, densest thickets of the briar patch.

Like a lot of the country, we had ample winter rains in north Georgia this year. Then in May, when blackberries were green and growing, the rain quit for four weeks. As the time arrived for blackberries to begin ripening, I noticed brown patches in the thickest areas of most briar patches, where berries and even parts of the plants dried up for lack of moisture. But there were still berries to be picked, and as I searched I noticed the biggest, juiciest berries tended to be found on lone blackberry plants growing separate from high numbers of other plants.

The explanation is pretty obvious. In the dense clusters, more individual plants were competing for sunlight, soil moisture and nutrients. A sudden dip in rainfall was all it took to stress these plants first. Meanwhile, plants located away from the crowd had more resources available. They were doing exceptionally well despite moderate drought conditions and were still able to put energy into fruit production. Thus, fat berries.

Picking blackberries is a stress-relieving, meditative activity for me. My thoughts wander as I methodically fill my bucket, and in this case I started thinking about the lessons deer hunters can learn from this simple observation.

Don’t Overseed Your Food Plots

I’ve seen some food plotters talk about producing thick carpets of fall cereal grains (rye, wheat, oats) where no dirt is visible between individual plants, as if this is a good thing. It’s not. These folks achieved thick carpets by exceeding recommended seeding rates. I’ve heard some folks say they spread two to four times the amount of seed per acre recommended by agronomy experts. Don’t do this. You will only create the situation I observed with stressed blackberry plants: soil moisture and nutrients will be inadequate for the number of plants competing for it. You’ll also waste your money.

A single blackberry plant can be more productive when it isn’t sharing a crammed patch of dirt with dozens of other competing blackberry plants. The same is true of deer.

Recommended seeding rates come from agronomic research aimed at determining a plant density most likely to lead to optimal performance of each plant. When you overseed, you are overshooting the sweet spot of optimal performance. When you underseed, you leave too much space and sunlight for competing weeds.

There’s only one way to go: Spread the right amount of seed. Recommended rates vary depending on plant species, whether you are broadcasting or drilling the seed, whether you are planting a pure stand or a blend, and which species are combined in the blend you are using. Refer to your seed supplier’s guidelines, or review the crop profiles on this website. Next, measure the plot area using an app like onX Hunt, Google Earth, or by pacing off the dimensions and doing the math, knowing 1 acre is 43,560 square feet. Then measure out the correct amount of seed by weight for that area. Distribute it evenly over that space using your chosen planting method or equipment. Give each germinating seedling everything it needs to produce forage to its true potential.

Whether broadcasting or using a grain drill (seen here), planting food plots at the right seeding rate ensures each plant has the resources to perform to its potential.

Don’t Plant Trees Too Close Together

When you’re planting an orchard of wildlife trees to produce fruit or acorns, give each tree ample space for its future growth. Imagine the large, round, healthy crown of limbs that will appear one day, and prepare space for it by avoiding conflicts with existing trees, future trees, or man-made objects like power lines. If you don’t, then the branches of your tree seedlings will soon grow into contact with one another or with other objects competing for space and light, and this limits their growth and the amount of fruit they can produce. Fruit comes from flowers, and flowers appear on the ends of branches, so more branches equals more fruit.

Use the 30-20-10 rule as a general guideline. Allow at least 30 feet of space between individual oak trees, 20 feet between smaller fruit trees like pears and persimmons, and 10 feet between shrub species like plums.

Thin Your Forest

Just as you can plan ample space for trees you are planting, you can reverse-engineer an existing forest of older trees. When a forest has regenerated naturally without guidance from a human manager, trees tend to be crowded. They are tall and spindly with only a few branches at the top, because instead of branching out they have all been racing each other to be first to reach the limited openings of sunlight above. Selecting some of them for removal gives more space and light to those you leave, allowing them to be more productive. Foresters call this “crown release,” and research by Dr. Craig Harper and Jarred Brooke at the University of Tennessee showed crown-released oaks produced 65% more acorns than oaks that were not released.

Crown-release can involve removal of low-value trees that are crowding a valuable species. It can also involve cutting a valuable tree species when too many of that species are crowding each other. Don’t be afraid to cut a white oak if some of them need to go. When white oaks or any other valuable wildlife species crowd each other, none of them perform to their potential – just like with blackberries. Select a healthy individual tree at that site and remove the rest.

As a bonus, sunlight reaching the ground at the thinning site will fuel growth of understory forage and cover. That’s right, more blackberries!

A bonus of habitat diversity is production of quality cover and forage, like blackberries. But you don’t have to give all the fruit to the wildlife.

Balance Deer Numbers With Nutrition

A single blackberry plant can be more productive when it isn’t sharing a crammed patch of dirt with dozens of other competing blackberry plants. The same is true of deer. When a local area has too many deer for the amount of food and cover available, none of the deer achieve their potential in body size, fawn production, antler growth, disease resistance, and other measures of health. Such deer have a low tolerance for adversity, like when a drought, blizzard or acorn failure hits. They are easily stressed, just like crowded blackberries.

When you suspect deer density is too high for the local habitat quality, it’s time to take action. This is a balancing act between deer and habitat. Through doe harvest, you can take away deer numbers on one side of the scale to bring balance, but you can also add habitat quality on the other side of the scale. This allows you to support more deer in healthy condition than you could before. Do this by following NDA’s habitat management tips… like planting the right density of seeds in your food plots, establishing fruit and mast orchards, and thinning existing trees for forage production and increased mast crops.

There are also many fringe benefits of creating diverse habitat with abundant understory plants, like more blackberries for you to pick. So, break out the tick repellent and the briar-proof pants and get busy enjoying the fruits of your labor. Complete that meal of grilled venison with fresh blackberry cobbler for dessert!

About Lindsay Thomas Jr.

Lindsay Thomas Jr. is the editor of Quality Whitetails magazine, the journal of the National Deer Association, and he is NDA's Chief Communications Officer. He has been a member of the staff since 2003. Prior to that, Lindsay was an editor at a Georgia hunting and fishing news magazine for nine years. Throughout his career as an editor, he has written and published numerous articles on deer management and hunting. He earned his journalism degree at the University of Georgia.