The first time I experienced FOMO (the fear of missing out) was at eight years old when I realized the off-key tune of the ice cream truck was fading into the distance. Nothing was more exciting than the arrival of that rusting freezer on wheels and nothing was more demoralizing than racing to the road only to see it heading out of sight around the corner.
This is exactly how a whitetail deer feels about fruit trees.
An orchard is to a whitetail buck what an ice cream truck is to a sugar-crazed pre-teen. For this reason, it’s important to have a basic understanding of how to hunt near orchards, active or abandoned, and how to design one for hunting if you have the opportunity. Whether it’s apples, pears, persimmons, or plums, every whitetail hunter worth their salt needs to know how to deer hunt an orchard.
Active Orchards It’s reasonable to look at large commercial orchards as being similar to agricultural fields of corn or beans. Deer will come to them to feed in the evening and leave them again in the morning. Hunting somewhere between this food source and nearby bedding is a simple and effective strategy. The difference lies with the timing of attractiveness and what the harvest process entails.
While an ag field or food plot might provide food for months at a time, orchards are much stingier with their produce. These trees might only drop fruit for a week or two before it’s wiped out or harvest begins.
The harvesting process varies between species and regions but keep a September or October timeframe in mind, at least for apples. The first time I experienced an apple harvest I was set up about 50 yards from the fruit trees in a narrow strip of timber that ran between the orchard and an adjacent corn field. It looked like a slam-dunk transition area for an early October buck—that is, until the trucks arrived. Doors slammed, dozens of farm workers piled out, and the hoopla began. While deer might happily feed in a cornfield while it’s being combined, you’re unlikely to see something similar with the much more human-centric orchard harvest.
Creating Your Own If you’re planting an orchard of your own, it’s a different story. In this case, neither harvest nor people are an issue, and you reap all the benefits of an attractive, time-sensitive food source. In this situation, Rob Haubry of Whitetail Properties recommends considering several unique designs to improve your hunting odds.
One approach he suggests is to space your trees with extra-wide rows, allowing room for a second crop, such as soybeans or clover, in the gaps between while also having generous shooting lanes.
“I would space the trees 25 to 30 feet apart in the row and then plant the rows 30 feet apart,” said Haubry.
In this situation, it’s important to be careful with how you manage the second crop to ensure your trees aren’t damaged. “You want to make sure you no-till between the rows as the trees get bigger so you aren't damaging the tree roots with tillage,” he said. “Fruit trees are also very sensitive to herbicide drift, so great care should be taken when spraying.”
The second design that Haubry recommends is a turkey foot. “The rows should be extending out in the shape of a ‘V.’ Your blind or stand would be at the back or palm of the turkey foot or at the wide end depending on the wind direction,” he explained.
Whatever design you choose, hunting these orchards can be thought of similar to hunting a small food plot. Determine when your trees start dropping fruit and monitor the area to see just how long they typically last. In areas of high deer density, or if there are few other food sources, the fruit can go fast. The trick then is to identify the short period when this fruit is available and hunt it hard. Just like that kid tracking down the ice cream truck, local deer will be trying to take advantage of this tasty treat during the short time it’s there.
Don’t forget that all the same downsides of hunting food plots exist with orchard plots too–mainly the risk of spooking deer out of your orchard as you walk into or out of your hunting locations. Do this too often and those deer will quickly switch to nocturnal patterns.
Abandoned Orchards Fruit trees are not just a private land management consideration. Many old homesteads and orchards have been abandoned over the years, leaving remnant patches and isolated trees to be discovered on both private and public lands.
In you have access to an old overgrown orchard, Haubry recommends looking at them as both a bedding area and a food source.
“Mature or old orchards are great sanctuaries for mature whitetails. Most of the time the trees are very ‘bushy’ and have low hanging limbs, making them a perfect hideout for monster bucks,” he said. With this being the case, he recommends hunting the edges and planning to catch a buck coming in and out at dawn or dusk.
“For a morning hunt, I like to look for pinch points leading into the area with the ability to exit my stand without busting deer,” Haubry continued. “If you are hunting in the evening, don't crowd the orchard. Remember, he could be using that area for bedding. If he is leaving the orchard in the evening, look for funnels and pinch points in the adjacent area so you don't get busted heading to your stand.”
Isolated Trees Isolated orchard trees, while serving no bedding purpose, act as the ultimate short time-frame food source funnels. Deer come to a very specific area at a very specific time to eat from these trees, which is why bow hunting legend John Eberhart looks at these them as some of his best options for early season hunts.
Above all else, remember that not all isolated fruit trees produce mast every year and some years will be heavier than others. To ensure he doesn’t waste a hunt on a non-producer, Eberhart conducts what he calls a “speed scout” just prior to hunting season in which he quickly and carefully visits each fruit-producing tree he located in past off-seasons. “If I see apples or some kind of buck sign, like scrapes or some rubs, that’s a spot I’ll probably hunt the first day or two or three of the season,” he said.
One final consideration for this scenario is the surrounding cover. For Eberhart to prioritize these set-ups, they absolutely must amidst good security cover. A loaded fruit tree or two, if in a heavily hunted area, is virtually worthless for deer hunting if it’s out in the open. Take those same trees and place them deep in a thicket and you have a daylight buck magnet.
Conclusion Farm fields, food plots, old fields, and oak trees rightfully garner a lot of attention in the whitetail world of groceries. You might call them the meat and potatoes of the big buck menu. But if you’re like me, or like an orchard-loving whitetail, you know the tantalizing and fleeting pull of dessert. Never forget it.
Feature image via Matt Hansen.