It was mid-December 2020 in southern Indiana, and my deer season was slipping through my fingers. After two hard months of hunting and over a hundred miles put on my boots, my buck tag was still just as empty as day one. I had hunted hard through early November, the midst of the fabled Midwestern rut, and according to the local hunting forums it appeared everyone in the county and their cousin had killed their buck already. I was hunting pressured public lands, and while I had run into scores of hunters during early season, now it felt like I was the last hunter in the woods. But I wasn’t ready to give up yet because I had one last trick up my sleeve – red oak acorns.
A Natural Late-Season Food Source
While late-season hunting can feel like a desperate attempt to rectify an unsuccessful season, I have begun to look forward to this part of the season more than the rut. The reasons are simple: There are fewer hunters in the woods in late season, which can vastly improve deer movement on public land; foods are limited on the landscape, concentrating deer; and red oak acorns begin to hit their peak attractiveness to deer after the rut.
The goal of this article is to share in detail my strategy for late-season hunting so you can effectively locate red oaks, scout these trees, and finally kill a buck off this dynamite late-season food source. Since we are going to focus on late-season strategies, we will not be discussing white oaks because these acorns germinate shortly after falling and are only available a few weeks. Red oak acorns do not germinate until spring, so they are available to deer all winter long. For more information on the differences between the red oak and white oak groups, read my article in the August/September 2019 issue of Quality Whitetails.
When the amount of deer sign under a tree gives me an eerie feeling because I feel deer are super close by and could walk up at any instant, I know I need to hunt it!
This is also an excellent time to note that when I refer to red oaks, I am referring to all red oak species, including northern red, southern red, scarlet, black, Shumard, nuttall, and other red oaks. Just the same, when I refer to white oaks, I am referring to many species, including white, chestnut, post, swamp chestnut, chinquapin, and more.
Why Red Oaks?
When most hunters talk about late season, the conversation is normally around a corn, soybean, brassica, or cereal grain food source. These food sources can be effective but may not be available on the land many of us hunt. Whether you have private property without agriculture fields or are confined to public land, the truth is many people don’t have access to standing crop fields to hunt in December and January. Does this mean we just hang up the bow and rifle when the rut ends? Absolutely not! Rather this is the time to return to the oaks you abandoned in mid-October.
Red oaks often get a bad rap from hunters who feel they are inferior to white oaks simply because they have higher tannin content levels on average than most white oaks. What most hunters fail to realize is tannins are found in much of the forage deer eat, and their bodies are adapted to consuming foods containing tannins. Deer food selection is much more complex than simply tannin levels. Deer diets change throughout the year, and deer seldom if ever consume just one type of food in a day. In fact, when deer are heavily consuming acorns in early fall, they are still subsidizing this hard mast with other foods like forbs and woody browse. As seasons change, the deer’s gut microbiome and energy demands shift, which along with availability of foods drives seasonal shifts in deer diets.
There is ample evidence that red oaks are an important winter food for whitetails. A 1985 study in southern Michigan found that over 90% of deer fecal sample matter was acorn matter. This same study noted that snow did not slow acorn consumption because deer dug through the snow to access this food. Similarly, during my master’s thesis research in northern Mississippi, I found deer use of red oak trees peaked in late January and then tapered off afterward. Similarly, many studies have noted deer searching out acorns when they are scarce and consuming them until they are gone. If you can find one of the last trees in the woods to have acorns, your hunt is made!
Now let’s talk about how to find THE tree to hunt late season. I stress the importance of finding the right tree because this can change weekly and sometimes daily as acorn availability changes. My process for narrowing down a deer killing tree is never ending. In early season I’m merely making observations of what trees are producing. By late November I am keeping tabs on which of these trees still have acorns, and late in the season I am narrowing my efforts down to THE tree where I can kill a buck.
Before you can be an effective red oak hunter, you will have to be able to identify oak species. To learn these, you will need a good guide. I suggest the Virginia Tech Dendrology Factsheets Database for learning basic oak identification characteristics and the free iNaturalist app for identifying trees in the field. As a starter for which species to learn, my favorite late season red oaks are northern red and scarlet oaks in upland forests and Shumard and cherrybark oaks in bottomland forests.
Observe Tree Behaviors
The more you observe oaks and their behavior, the more you will learn their habits. This may sound crazy, but with a little bit of experience you can confidently predict what species will be occurring in what landscape features in your area. For instance, in south central Indiana I most commonly find northern red oaks on easterly or northerly facing slopes. They most often are not on the ridge top but rather on the sides of slopes. Using these behaviors, I look at aerial imagery to find stands of deciduous trees in these types of areas to identify spots that I should scout.
Just as much as you can predict the behavior of a given species, individual trees are unique, particularly in the timing of when they drop acorns. I’ve observed northern red oaks dropping acorns as early as Labor Day and as late as Christmas week. Just like some deer or people seem to operate on different schedules, so do some oak trees. This is why scouting is so important, because without boots on the ground, you do not know when individual trees are dropping acorns! I particularly like to find red oaks that drop super late in the year, because deer seem to be attracted to the only oak in the woods still dropping acorns.
If you notice that the scarlet oaks along the grocery store parking lot are dumping acorns, your next step will be to reference your map and find all your pins for scarlet oak clusters on your hunting grounds.
Look and Listen
Oaks do not consistently produce acorns every year, but rather a given species tends to produce a large mast crop every few years. For red oak species, these mast years occur more frequently than white oaks that generally have bumper crops every five years or so. However, since there are so many species of red oaks there is usually at least one species that will be masting, regardless of the year. For instance, 2020 in Indiana brought a bumper crop of northern red oaks and a decent crop of scarlet oaks. In this same area, 2021 looks to be a bleak year for both species, but southern red oaks are having a good year!
There are clues all around as to what is happening in the deer woods if you pay attention to acorns around you. Start looking under the oaks in your yard, in the parking lot at the store, or along the parking lot at your work to see if they are dropping acorns. When you see acorns raining down, investigate to determine the species. Knowing what’s producing acorns each year will allow you to know what trees to target before setting foot in the woods.
Never Stop Scouting
Every time you are in the woods, pay attention to the oaks around you regardless of the time of year. When you find clusters of oaks that are of good acorn producing size, generally 12 to 30 inches in diameter, drop a pin on your map. Make a special note if there is fresh or old deer sign under these trees which could be clues as to their attractiveness when they do produce acorns.
After you have compiled map pins of oaks in different locations you will be steps ahead for future hunting seasons. This comes in handy when combined with your observations of oak masting cycles in your area. For instance, if you notice the scarlet oaks along the grocery store parking lot are dumping acorns, your next step will be to reference your map and find all your pins for scarlet oak clusters on your hunting grounds. Now, you have an excellent clue to the likely locations of acorns you should be hunting.
Narrow it Down
Simply because you have found acorns doesn’t mean deer are eating them, and it doesn’t mean you have found THE tree you need to hunt. First, take an inventory of as many oaks in the area as you can, if there are only a handful with acorns, then your job will be easy. If there are many, then it will take a while.
Throughout the season, check back in with these red oaks to monitor activity under them. Many species of squirrels, raccoons, foxes and coyotes will chomp acorns and sometimes leave pieces of half-eaten nuts on the ground. But the sure sign that an acorn was munched by a deer is the tell-tale molar marks left when an acorn is smashed between a deer’s upper and lower molars and then dropped to the ground. As deer activity heats up, the leaf litter under these trees will be overturned from deer searching for acorns. Tracks will be abundant, scrapes will be nearby, and if bucks are using the tree there will probably be rubs too.
The hardest thing to know when scouting oak trees is how much sign is enough to pull the trigger and start hunting a tree. I spend a lot of time walking past good-looking deer sign in search of a tree that gives me an overwhelming feeling that deer are nearby. When you find this tree, the intensity of deer sign under it will make your hair stand up because every leaf will be overturned, there will be crunched acorns scattered everywhere, still plenty of fresh acorns left to eat, and deer tracks will be visible in bare soil. When the amount of deer sign under a tree gives me an eerie feeling because I feel deer are super close by and could walk up at any instant, I know I need to hunt it!
Does All This Really Work?
Back to my 2020 Indiana hunting season. My December strategy was simple: walk oak ridges and find northern red oaks where deer were still feeding. As I walked the spines of ridges, I glassed the bark of trees as far as I could see and looked for the trademark long pale grey stripes down tree trunks, the easiest long-range identifying characteristic of northern red oaks. I searched the ground for deer-chewed acorns and overturned leaves under each northern red I found.
After finding a ridge with 10 or so northern red oaks that were covered in hot deer sign, I set a few trail-cameras and started hunting the trees. During my first few hunts, I saw several small bucks and lots of does, but none of the big bucks that were frequenting my cameras. While hiking into the ridge late one morning, I glassed a big buck feeding on the ridge where I was heading to hunt. I waited until he left and then slipped onto the ridge and climbed a tree, settling into my stand about noon. I watched several does and fawns around me on the ridge early in the afternoon. About 4:45 I looked down the ridge to see two bucks feeding under a northern red oak just 80 yards away. I steadied my muzzleloader and dropped the first buck that presented a shot. He tumbled down the slope and came to rest in the creek bottom below.
I left several trail-cameras running under these oaks through the end of winter, and the amount of buck activity blew me away. There were over a dozen nice bucks using this ridge in daylight, including some real studs. The red oaks were hammered by deer until mid-February, long after hunting season had closed. To really put the icing on the cake, I found the matching set of sheds from the big buck I had seen on the ridge as I walked in for my last hunt that morning. Both sheds were lying under a northern red that had been hammered by the deer, just 150 yards from where I had seen the buck.
I’m Sold on Red Oaks
The late-season power of hunting red oaks is a strategy I’m still learning, but every single year I become a little more surprised by how great of a hunting hotspot these trees can be. Red oak acorns’ attractiveness to deer is powerful and lasts until they are gone, which is really highlighted by my hunt and the big set of sheds I found last year. You can bet I will be re-scouting that ridge in December of 2021 in hopes of catching up with that big buck again under a red oak!