Whitetails and Mast

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By: bowhunting biologist Wade Nolan
By: bowhunting biologist Wade Nolan

This week in the whitetail woods, something significant is happening. A big change is taking place concerning food sources. Knowing how to plug into this switch is critical to your success. Right now whitetails are adding soft and hard mast to their diet. Understanding this switch can make you more successful this season.

All winter deer fed by browsing on stems, twigs and shoots of deciduous trees and shrubs. All summer deer focused on eating grasses and forbs (grazing). This is how deer were created to feed; their diet follows the changing seasons. However, there is this transition period, which may be the most important feeding time of the entire year. It is the mast/agriculture time. Mast describes the fruit of trees be it soft or hard. At this time, they change-up from grazing to browsing and focus on mast. They know to bulk up when the banquet table is full. Fall is mast time.

Way prior to the rut bucks are bulking up on mast.
Way prior to the rut bucks are bulking up on mast.

So what do you need to know to plug into what is happening in the fall whitetail woods? There are regional variations but largely you must discover your soft and hard mast hot spots and focus your attention there.

This takes boots on the ground in your hunting area. The forest of trees now takes on a new identity as some of those trees produce acorns and others apples. Deer do their most important weight gain and put on important fat reserves across the three months of fall. Mast is extremely high in the protein and carbs that build fat reserves deer. These reserves are critical for a deer to thrive all winter.

When the corn turns golden the mast, on the woods edge, is peaking.
When the corn turns golden the mast, on the woods edge, is peaking.

Today I walked around my Pennsylvania farm and took notice of a few big mast winners. It was a good winter and spring to encourage mast production and my farm is overflowing with attractive soft and hard mast.

Poke berries are among the easiest soft mast to recognize.
Poke berries are among the easiest soft mast to recognize.

This is an easy one and a whitetail favorite. Although I have a lot of tall poke berries on the woods edge on my Pa. farm it’s nothing compared to my Ohio farm. Out there, we have acres of purple stalked poke berries lining the woods.

I have a number of apple trees that I planted but the biggest producers are a few old antique trees that are drooping with big sugary apples.

Apple trees may drop bushels of hi-carb apples to the ground across a 30-day period. Find a late apple and you have a whitetail hot spot.
Apple trees may drop bushels of hi-carb apples to the ground across a 30-day period. Find a late apple and you have a whitetail hot spot.

Not only are the sweet apples attractive to deer but the crab apple trees out by my gas well are also loaded with shiny green apples. These will lie on the ground until Christmas and still be edible by deer. I’ve often seen the snow pawed-up under crab apple trees. Same goes for pear trees. The best thing about pears is that many are late droppers.

Pears are a whitetail favorite. We have two pear trees on the farm and all resident deer know their location.
Pears are a whitetail favorite. We have two pear trees on the farm and all resident deer know their location.

Another tree that is often overlooked for its mast is the hawthorn trees. The red fruit is soft and creamy after the first frost and high on the deer’s list of treats.

Persimmon fruit is a sure draw for deer bulking up for the winter.
Persimmon fruit is a sure draw for deer bulking up for the winter.

If you’re not familiar with persimmon trees get on-line and read about them. They grow well in the mid-west and into Pennsylvania. Plant one now and within ten years you’ll have a hot spot.

Out by the food plot I came across one of the persimmon trees I planted with my dad. This tree is overloaded with persimmons that will ripen after the first hard frost and turn a translucent butterscotch color. I first hunted fall whitetails over persimmons in Illinois a decade ago. Deer traveled every evening to the persimmon grove to sample the few that had dropped during the day. I in turn dropped one of those deer.

Acorns are the first choice for whitetails. Know your oaks. Red oaks leaves with pointy edges and rounded edges are found on white oaks.
Acorns are the first choice for whitetails. Know your oaks. Red oaks leaves with pointy edges and rounded edges are found on white oaks.

I’m fortunate to have both white and red oaks in my woods and although they have just now begun to drop they will be raining down within a few weeks. Get your boots laced up and spend some time scouting your woods for hard and soft mast.

And this is what is happening in the whitetail woods this week.

This Week in the Whitetail Woods teaching moment has been brought to you by the scent suppression specialists at Atsko Products  and today’s most intelligent broadhead Swhacker Broadheads  and Whitetail University. Wade Nolan is a whitetail professional and biologist who has been working with deer since 1981. Wade Nolan