November 15, 2010
Just because the whitetail experts say deer prefer one acorn over another doesn't necessarily make it so.
The mast crop in central Maryland had been phenomenal. Nature's bounty flowed with acorns of every kind, and we all know how much deer love acorns. So, in September, when I looked over the hardwood ridge in the back section of a farm I hunt, my focus wasn't on the adjacent field of standing corn but on the abundant oaks. I knew the corn certainly would attract deer, but as all wildlife tends to be opportunistic in feeding, I figured deer would be in bow range at the first sound of dropping acorns.
Large, majestic white oaks are the predominant mast producers on the ridge, along with some red oaks and chestnut oaks. As I walked the area looking for the perfect stand location, I noticed a huge chestnut oak 100 feet from the standing corn. The tree was literally dumping big, plump acorns on the forest floor. The entire area under the tree was littered with chewed nut caps, shell fragments, and fresh deer droppings.
Not wanting to be rash by placing my stand at the first good sign, I moved on out the ridge about 60 yards to a small flat surrounded by big white oaks. This spot had been good to me in the past. The white oak acorns were just beginning to drop, and there was some evidence of deer feeding on them.
Now, here is where I thought I was being clever, but in reality it's at this point that I outsmarted myself. I had always read that white oak acorns were the variety favored by whitetail deer. So, I reasoned that by the time I got around to hunting this ridge, the white oak acorns would be falling like rain and the deer would want nothing to do with the chestnut oak. I was going to hunt smart for a change, and so I set my hang-on stand in a multitrunked maple in the midst of the white oaks. Being a seasoned whitetail hunter, I took pride in my decision as I slipped from the woods to let things cool off a bit before I returned to hunt.
A week later, on a Friday afternoon, I returned to hunt my new stand site, fully anticipating an exciting evening ahead. As it turned out, I saw plenty of action that evening, but it was a real eye-opener to sit helplessly and watch the parade of whitetails feeding some 60 yards away below the huge chestnut oak I'd eschewed. From 4:30 p.m. until dark, not a single deer sampled the white oak acorns below me. Right then and there it dawned on me that I had made a big mistake. I'd overlooked obvious sign based on my assumption that the deer would prefer white oak acorns.
Regardless of what we've all learned about deer behavior, the prudent hunter is guided by what the clear evidence at hand indicates. Based on the substantial sign, I should have been set up on that chestnut oak.
To my surprise, this chestnut oak turned out to be the right place.
Hoping to salvage something out of my embarrassing mistake, I came back two days later and hung a second stand in a large hickory adjacent to the chestnut oak. The deer were still feeding heavily beneath the chestnut oak. Maybe I wasn't too late.
I returned to hunt that stand the next afternoon. The deer began to appear around 5 p.m., and at various times throughout the evening I watched as many as six different does and a spike buck feed below me. The spike fed for nearly an hour, and he offered numerous shot opportunities that I declined. One of the mature does also offered a tempting broadside shot, and I'm still not sure why I decided to pass.
It had been a perfect early fall afternoon, and I was just enjoying being close to undisturbed feeding deer when, seemingly out of nowhere, antlers appeared as a nice buck stepped into the clearing under the oak. I watched for 10 minutes as the eight-point fed along with a mature doe. Shooting light was winding down, and the buck had not offered me a shot. Finally, when it looked like he was going to walk to the far side of the oak, he turned and walked towards me. The buck stopped at 18 yards, quartering just slightly toward me, his head down feeding on those chestnut oak acorns. I decided to take the shot. I released as my finger touched the corner of my mouth and watched my arrow disappear through his chest. He jumped about five yards and stopped again broadside, looking back.
I could see my arrow sticking in the ground beyond where he'd stood at the shot. Knowing that I had hit him, but concerned that I might have gotten only one lung, I nocked a second arrow and sent it into the buck. He bolted at the shot and was instantly out of my sight. I heard him crash away, and then quickly all was quiet.
After waiting about five minutes, I climbed down in the fading light and quietly retrieved my first arrow. I slipped out and walked back to my truck and called my favorite (not just because he is my only) son-in-law, Gary. I would need help getting the buck out to my truck.
A half-hour later, Gary and I walked back to the chestnut oak. About five yards from where the buck had stood at my second shot, we found where he'd fallen and recovered the bloody back half of my second arrow. As I pushed my broken arrow into the ground at that spot, Gary called from another 10 yards down the trail where he was standing over my buck. As we admired the beautiful buck and held his eight-point rack, I thanked the Lord for this blessing.
The long drag out was a labor of love, at least for me. I'm not sure Gary viewed it the same way. It was a memorable hunt, and one from which I learned a simple but invaluable lesson.
The author is a diehard traditional bowhunter and whitetail "nut" from Woodbine, Maryland.
Author's Note: I killed my buck with a 45-lb. Black Widow PSA take-down recurve, Beman MFX Classic carbon arrows, and a two-blade Zwickey broadhead.