The sound of falling acorns crashing into the forest floor is music to any hunter's ears. These small-but-powerful fruits can be one of the hottest primary food sources readily available throughout hunting season. Oak trees are extremely hearty, can be found throughout all of North America, and are generally broken down into two families, white oaks and red oaks. However, all oak trees are not created equal, and by doing a quick investigation on the oaks in your hunting area, you’ll have better intel on when and how to hunt certain areas.
The easiest way to identify the family of an oak tree is by inspecting its leaf. The red oak family has sharp or edged lobes, while the white oak family has rounded lobes. A secondary method is examining the bark. The bark of a red oak is much smoother and has much shallower furrows than that of the rough-barked white oak.
There are over 90 species of oaks in the continental US, so I’d suggest using a tree identification guide to help you dial in the exact species, if you’re interested. But in most cases, knowing the family of oak should suffice.
Both oak families drop acorns every fall, but the process is quite different. The acorns of the white oak family mature in six to seven months, meaning they flower in the spring and drop when they mature in the fall. Later springs can force a tree to flower later, making it drop its acorns later. However, this seems to vary increasingly the farther north you are.
Even though white oaks produce acorns annually, they usually cycle and produce a bumper crop every other season. The white oak acorn is much more palatable than the red oak, causing them to be of much higher priority to deer.
But the red oak family produces acorns every fall as well. The maturing process, however, takes triple the time. Moreover, red oak will produce flowers in the spring but will hold the fruits until the following fall, roughly about 17 to 19 months. A red oak tree can hold two seasons of crops at a time, which can lead to much more variance in mast production and maturity. The red oak acorn is more acidic, causing it to have a much more bitter taste than the white oak, even though they have very similar nutrient values.
The strategy of hunting oaks seems simple but can change from year to year. Furthermore, clusters of oaks in your hunting area can have adjacent crop productions. Since white oaks produce the preferred acorn of the whitetail deer, they seem to be more commonly hunted, and rightly so. In most areas of the Midwest, white oaks drop their acorns first and fairly quickly—a majority dropping in a one- to two-week span. Finding an oak cluster that is producing a bumper crop is one of the greatest finds a hunter can discover. This often requires you to hunt mobile or have a host of treestand locations.
In Wisconsin, where public land is abundant, I often walked into a totally new parcel with my stand on my back not knowing where I was going to set up. I'd use intel from e-scouting and then would scour the woods until I found the ideal stand of white oaks. When I found them, they were almost always loaded with fresh pre-rut rubs and scrapes. Using your scouting app, set up between the oaks and the projected bedding area, using the wind in your favor. It doesn't always lead to the ideal tree, but this high-risk/high-reward strategy has paid off a handful of times. It’s my main tactic from about October 20 to the first week of November throughout the Midwest.
Hunting red oaks is less common for the average hunter, but I believe it is an underutilized tactic. Yes, the red oak is less of a priority for deer when there is an abundance of white oaks and other food sources nearby, but in areas with few white oaks or an underperforming year of mast production by white oaks, the red oaks can be dynamite.
Many factors can lead to hot feeds on red oaks. As fall progresses, white oak acorns will be cleaned up by various wildlife, agricultural fields will be harvested, and green plants and foliage will die off due to frost and snow, leaving the red oak acorns ripe for the picking. Use the same tactic as explained before and you might just find yourself nocking a late-season arrow. This is a great tactic to save until after Thanksgiving to the end of the season. Even on heavy-yield white acorn seasons, deer will still travel through and use red oaks as a transitional browsing area.
Consequently, the red oaks might not be the final destination, but deer will often congregate through them on the way to another food source or bedding area. In October, mature bucks often move to the primary food source much later in the evening than other deer and this can often make them seem nocturnal. By hunting closer to the bedding area and using a patch of oaks as a food-source funnel, you can catch a shooter on his feet before shooting light closes.
Next time you take a walk through your woods and do some investigating on what trees your property has to offer. One of the biggest mistakes I’ve seen hunters make is being stagnant, not scouting their property on a yearly basis, and hunting the same three trees year after year. By better understanding your mast-bearing trees and learning how they can affect deer movement, you will gain invaluable intel on the elusive whitetail buck. Find the acorns and you'll find the deer.