Look Inside Acorns to Find Deer Hunting Success

October 11, 2023 By: Cole Gander

Focusing on the best food source is an important part of every deer-hunting strategy. This time of the year, acorns are often key for most whitetail hunters. Follow along as I run through the science behind the acorn cycle and how you can put together a hunting strategy to capitalize on them this fall.

Acorn production cycles vary every season, and regardless of the oak species, every tree is not equally valuable to a hunting strategy centered around acorns. It’s also essential to understand how acorn availability, oak family, and nutrition impact the level and timing of deer sightings. Finally, I wouldn’t send you to the woods without a quick guide to identifying the two major oak families based on leaves, bark, and acorn caps.

Prevalence of Bumper Acorn Crops

As many know, oaks have evolved to produce acorns in an annual boom or bust cycle. During boom years, trees can produce an abundant, or bumper, acorn crop. During bust years, acorns can become very scarce. This means the number of acorns on the ground and available to deer and other acorn predators is heavily dependent on the year, and identifying the groups of trees that are producing in your hunting area is crucial to your hunting success.

Acorn productivity of five common oak species in the eastern United States used in a study by the U.S. Forest Service to develop predictive models for mast production.

As hunters, we cannot rely on a consistent acorn crop. In fact, trees in the white oak family (such as white, bur, chestnut, chinkapin, swamp white, and post oaks) are known to only produce an abundance of acorns every two to five years, according to the University of Tennessee. Some years, white oak trees will not produce a single acorn. Bumper crops of red oaks are even fewer and farther between at every five to seven years, according to Purdue University. However, it is rare for a tree in the red oak group (such as black, blackjack, cherrybark, pin, red, scarlet, shingle, and willow oaks) to not produce a single acorn, and good acorn crops can be expected every two to five years.

Source: University of Tennessee

So, how can you use this information to punch your tag? Get out and find the trees that are producing in your area. Once you find a couple trees that are dropping, be sure to identify them as red or white oaks (keep reading to learn how). Doing so will give you a good idea of how successful the acorn crop was for that oak group in your region, as well as if it is a boom or bust year. Combined, this intel will help identify specific hunting opportunities for different portions of the season.

For example, during years with low acorn production from white oak trees, you’ll want to identify and focus your hunting efforts on the best-producing red oak trees, particularly for late-season opportunities. A little more on this later, but the moral of the story is that a robust acorn scouting strategy can be the ticket to filling your tag, and vice versa. Plan your hunting strategy accordingly.

Individual Oak Tree Production

Within the two oak families, not all trees are created equally either. Some oak trees are good or excellent producers that produce a large quantity of acorns during bumper crop years. Others are poor producers that never produce an abundance of acorns, even during a cyclical bumper crop year. To give yourself the best chance of success this fall, it is also important to understand a bit about oak ecology, including being able to focus our scouting/hunting efforts and identify the conditions necessary for a particular tree or stand of trees to attract deer. After all, we are supposed to see the forest for the trees, right?

Well, one University of Tennessee study evaluated the yield of over 100 white oak trees over a 10-year period. The results were astonishing, as the researchers found that 39% of the white oak trees produced 69% of the total acorn crop.

Data Source: University of Tennessee

A similar study out of Mississippi State University’s Deer Lab evaluated the yield of over 160 trees in the red oak family. Over the course of the three-year period, 6 to 11% of the red oak trees produced over 50% of the total acorn crop

These studies allow us as hunters to visualize how a disproportionally small percentage of trees from the white and red oak families produce a majority of the acorn crop. Using this knowledge and a little leg work, you can focus your attention on identifying and hunting the oaks that are excellent producers year after year. 

How Acorn Crops Affect Hunting Success

Every fall, acorns seem to take the entire hunting community by storm, with scores of hunters relying on and setting up near acorn-producing oaks as their annual go-to hunting strategy.  When acorns are scarce, deer and other wildlife are forced to look elsewhere for alternative food sources. Their movements become concentrated, making them easier to pattern and more visible to hunters during this time. It is this increase in the concentration of deer that likely leads to an uptick in hunter success, which fuels the efficacy of the strategy.

However, statistics from numerous state agencies have shown that hunter success decreases during years when acorns are abundant, as seen in the chart below from Connecticut. And as I stated above, boom years only happen every few seasons. 

Relationship between the hunter success rate on private lands and fall acorn crop productivity in Connecticut (1993-2018). Source: Connecticut Wildlife Division.

As the data shows, finding success during an abundant acorn crop is difficult. Deer have access to the human equivalent of an all-you-can-eat-buffet on the forest floor. Because there are plenty of producing oaks to choose from, deer are able to spread across the landscape. It is during this time that even the most experienced hunters can have difficulty identifying the exact tree that deer are using.

Which Acorns Are Most Attractive When

We’ve discussed where to hunt, but what about when? If you are going to capitalize on the acorn drop this fall, you must be in the woods at the right time.

Once on the ground, white oak acorns germinate relatively quickly and become unpalatable to deer. Naturally, the peak drop of trees in the white oak family is thus very brief and occurs early in the season, thereby flooding the landscape with as much seed as possible to ensure maximum regeneration. In fact, at a Georgia study site, 64% of the total white acorn crop fell in a one-week period, according to the University of Florida Deer Lab. So, if you were not in the woods during that short period when the white oaks were dropping heavily, you likely missed out on the best chance to capitalize on white oak acorns! Be sure to identify when this peak drop occurs in your area and plan your hunts accordingly.

Source: University of Florida Deer Lab

If you missed out on hunting the earlier peak of the white oak acorn drop, don’t worry! Trees in the red oak family are likely just beginning to drop, as their peak is prolonged and occurs later in the hunting season. Once on the ground, these acorns will not germinate until the following spring, making them a viable food source for deer through the entire hunting season. So, while there is a slight overlap and the exact peak drop date for both oak families will vary depending on your location, a general pattern exists and holds true; focus on white oaks early while deer are hammering them and then shift your focus to identifying and hunting red oaks for mid to late season. 

Estimation of acorn drop timing for common trees within the white oak and red oak groups, by the Mississippi State University Deer Lab.

How Acorn Nutrition Affects Attraction 

As we’ve discussed, acorns can be key during the fall hunting season. In fact, up to 28% of a deer’s diet during this time is composed of hard mast, most of which are acorns, according to MSU Deer Lab. Because of this, many hunters regard acorns as the “be all and end all” of their hunting strategy. And, while there is no denying the power of the acorn during the fall, they may not always be present due to their cyclical nature. During bust years, a nutritional gap can arise and deer are forced to exploit other food sources. Even during years with an excellent acorn crop, their abundance fades and they become unavailable during other crucial aspects of a deer’s life cycle. Due to their inconsistent nature, acorns might just be the deer nut that isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. 

When they are present on the landscape, acorns serve as a key energy source that is high in digestible fats and carbohydrates. But, like the wide differences of individual trees and cycle years, not all acorns are created equal from a nutritional standpoint. Believe it or not, the fat content of a red oak acorn is 13 to 15% higher than that of a white oak acorn. This is crucial during the fall and winter months, as deer and other acorn predators are able to consume fewer acorns to build up their energy reserves. Even when compared to corn, acorns are known to contain two times the amount of carbohydrates and up to 10 times more fat, according to the University of Tennessee. When present, it is this high nutritional value of the acorn that deer find attractive, causing them to leave even the lushest of food plots completely untouched.

White OakRed Oak
Fat5 to 10%18 to 25%
Crude Protein4.4 to 5.9%4.6 to 5.9%
Source: University of Tennessee and U.S. Forest Service

The final piece of the puzzle is tannic acid and taste. Red oak acorns contain three to five times more tannic acid than their white oak counterparts. This high tannic acid gives the red oak acorns a “bitter” taste and will play an additional role in deer preference. During the brief time that both acorn groups are available together on the landscape, deer will seek out white oak acorns first and then turn to red oak acorns when the others have disappeared. For more information on how to capitalize on the two families of oaks, read “Turn Oak Ecology into Backstraps” by Moriah Boggess.

How to Identify White Oak Trees

The leaves of those trees within the white oak family have smooth rounded lobes. The bark is light in color and has a flaky appearance, especially as you move up the trunk from the base of the tree. The cap of white oak acorns covers approximately one third of the nut. If you examine the top of the cap, you will notice that it has a bumpy or knobby appearance.

How to Identify Red Oak Trees

Unlike white oaks, the leaves of members of the red oak family have lobes with a well-defined bristle protruding from the tip. The bark is dark in color and is more tightly furrowed than white oaks. Finally, the cap of the red oak acorn covers slightly less, as it only encapsulates approximately ¼ of the nut. The top of the cap appears to be scaly and you can often peel off the “scales” with your fingernail. 

Put a Cap On It

Having a better understanding of the cyclical nature of our oak trees can be the key to filling your tag this fall. Using your newfound knowledge on oak ecology, you should be able to develop a strategic hunting plan that will meet your specific goals. However, know that the work won’t stop there. With the proper management of these oaks, you can ensure that you have a healthy deer herd and adequate acorns year after year.

About Cole Gander:

Cole Gander is NDA's Deer Outreach Specialist for northern Missouri.