Helping Mother Nature Develop a Deer Feast Tree

Helping Mother Nature Develop a Deer Feast Tree
By J. Wayne Fear

Oak Tree Deer Food
Fertilizing selected oaks can encourage a bumper crop of acorns in good years.
J. Wayne Fears
J. Wayne Fears

Pottstown PA –-( It was raining pieces of white oak acorns, so loud that I was concerned that a buck would walk up and I wouldn’t hear him.

I was on my climbing stand in a large pine which grew on a brushy fencerow some 20 yards from the “noisy oak”.

The big white oak was loaded with acorns and every squirrel in the area had gotten up early to feed in the tree.

I was proud of this oak, and its bumper crop of acorns, as I had something to do with abundance of mast this tree produced.

As it became light enough to see I watched two doe ease out of the woods and under the big oak. The oak was growing in the edge of a pasture and was not crowded with other trees. It was near enough to the woods line deer and other wildlife felt safe feeding under the tree during years it produced acorns.

J Wayne Fear Fertilizing
J Wayne Fears applys granular fertilizer all the way from the drip line in to within three feet of the tree’s trunk with a hand held seeder/fertilizer spreader.

The last two years it yielded a record harvest of acorns and deer, wild turkey and squirrels had enjoyed the feast. The previous year, I had taken two above average bucks feeding here and I had high hopes of doing better this year.

As the does begin to feed, they kept looking up and staring at what appeared to be the base of the pine I was in. Suddenly a long tined nine-point buck jumped the fence and trotted under the big oak and started feeding. I waited to draw my bow, looking for the perfect broadside shot. As I waited, four, then three more wild turkey hens sailed out of the woods behind me and landed at the feet of the buck. Like a flash, the does and the buck ran into the woods. The “feast tree” was paying off and it was only the beginning of the season. I knew it was only going to get better, and it did.

Selected Oaks Respond to Fertilizer
The large white oak in this article didn’t have a track record of producing acorns every year in abundance. In fact, some years it didn’t produce acorns at all. I had selected the tree and others similar to it to fertilize annually to increase its acorn production and after a period of time it paid off and it is still paying off.

Research by foresters have proven that carefully selected oak, and other mast producing trees, can be helped nutritionally by following a fertilization program and after a period of time, if other conditions are favorable, the tree will produce a high yield of mast. To the hunter this can mean having a number of trees he has selected and with the use of fertilizer and other improvements we will discuss, have several stand sites that hold a lot of potential for attracting bucks. Developing the project is a fun spring activity and, while it takes time, sometimes years, when the “feast trees” do entice a buck, there is a lot of satisfaction knowing you teamed up with Mother Nature to have a successful hunt.

Here are the steps to having your own secret “feast trees”.

Selecting Trees to Fertilize
The word “select” is the key word in fertilizing oaks for deer. I have seen many hunters go out and pick out a large oak and fertilize it with little or no results. It is a lot more to it than that. The first thing that is necessary is to get to know the kind of oak you are going to work with. Since there are about 80 different oaks in this country I am going to use the white oak as an example in this article.

The white oak is my favorite oak to fertilize because it is found throughout much of eastern U.S. and it is a favorite food of deer. The reason it is sought out by deer in the fall when acorns are falling is because the white oak acorns have less tannin than the red or black oaks. Tannin causes acorns to be bitter to the taste. Indians and early explorers and settlers ate white oak acorns and made them palatable by boiling the meat of the acorn. I have eaten acorns prepared that way and it is not bad. It is even sweeter to the taste when the acorns are from an oak that has been fertilized a few years.

Deer Hunting
Having a few secret oaks that you fertilize does not guarantee hunting success but it helps put the odds in your favor for quality bucks.

It comes as a surprise to some hunters to learn that many white oaks, as well as other oaks, do not produce mast every year. Some do not have a record of ever producing acorns. Individual white oak trees tend to have either a very good or a very poor seed crop and are consistent in seed production from year to year, be it good or bad. Trees growing free of competition, with ample sunlight and growing in fertile soils have been known to produce acorns as young as 25 years of age. Other trees growing in thick forest conditions with lots of competition, poor sunlight and in poor soils may not produce acorns until they are well over 50 years of age or older. Some may never produce acorns.

All of this to say that just picking a white oak tree and fertilizing it is not the answer. You must take a lot of time and select white oak trees that you know produces acorns and then go to work to make it even more productive. Sometimes this takes a couple of years or more. Once you find a good seed producer mark the tree so you can find it again. It is a good idea to mark its location on your topo map and to store its location in your GPS.

I like scouting for good seed producing trees in the early fall when squirrels are feeding in white oaks. Find a white oak full of feeding squirrels and you have probably found a good “feast tree”. Also, you will have the makings of a squirrel stew.

Keep in mind that even the best acorn producing white oaks can have a bad year. White oaks, and many other oaks, flower when the leaves begin to emerge at the first of spring. Dry winds or freezing temperatures can be detrimental to flower development and that year’s acorn crop is lost.

For this reason, and the fact you don’t want to hunt too hard around just one tree and cause the deer feeding there to become nocturnal, it is a good idea to have several trees in a variety of settings to fertilize. At the present I am working with six trees, three are in bottomland setting and three are on a mountaintop setting. If a late frost gets some of them there is a chance the others will not be damaged. In good seed producing years I have six good places to hunt without putting too much pressure on any one.

Reduce Competition
As I stated above, to be good seed producers oaks must be as free of competition as possible. Tall oaks with crowns reaching above the upper level of the forest canopy receive a lot of sunlight and are usually among the best acorn producers. Oaks out in the open even better. The best “feast tree” I ever developed was the one I wrote about in the beginning of this article. It was just out of the woods in the edge of a pasture. It still is known as the “buck tree”.

If the oak tree you have selected to fertilize has other trees crowding it you need to eliminate as many as practical. This is especially true with those which touch the crown. The more open the tree, the better as far as potential acorn production is concerned. Studies have shown that acorn producing white oaks growing in thick woods may produce 10,000 acorns in a good year, a tree in a more open environment may produce 20,000 or more.

How to Fertilize
Fertilizing a selected oak is more than a matter of scattering a handful of fertilizer at its base. There are two methods of fertilizing your selected oaks. The first is the use of 13-13-13 granular fertilizer. This should be applied in early spring. Apply it at a rate of 2 pounds per 1000 square feet of crown. A mature white oak with a crown measuring 80 X 80 feet, or 6400 sq. ft., would require about 13 pounds of fertilizer.

You want to apply the fertilizer from the edge of the drip line, that is the outer edge of the further most tips of branches from the tree trunk, to within three feet of the trunk of the tree. If there is a lot of leaves and limbs on the ground in the fertilizer area than you will want to take a rake and rake them away so that the fertilizer comes in contact with the soil quickly. I like to lightly disc up the soil where I am going to fertilize under an oak with an ATV pulled disc. Use a Cyclone-type hand seeder/fertilizer spreader to distribute the granular fertilizer uniformly.

A second method is to purchase a box of fruit or shade tree fertilizer spikes at a nursery or garden supply store and follow the instructions on the box. They are more expensive than granular fertilizer but easy to carry into the woods for use.

Whitetail Buck Feeding
Deer enjoy the less bitter taste of white oak acorns and are attracted to trees which produce a good crop of acorns.

Results Takes Time
While this is a good way to increase the acorn production of a selected oak don’t expect to see bushels of acorns appear on the tree the next fall. Based on my experience it is usually the third year, all other things going right, such as no late spring frost, that you can see a significant increase in the acorn crop. Like most habitat management, it take time and this is a long term project that requires fertilization every year.

This is not only a good habitat improvement project for deer hunters but it is a good technique for squirrel hunters and wild turkey hunters as well. On my farm in Heflin, Alabama I had a friend who was an avid coon hunter and he found two of my “feast trees” by accident. Every time he turned his dogs loose near the trees they would tree a coon in them and often there were several coons in the trees. Not knowing I had been fertilizing the trees for several years he once ask me why those two trees always attracted so many coons in the fall. He will know when he reads this.

Be sure to select and fertilize several oaks in the area where you hunt. I have known hunters who developed only one “feast tree” and they hunted it almost every weekend during the deer season. The trees worked great the very first few days of the season but it didn’t take long for the bucks, and does, to catch on and they fed only at night.

Also mark the trees you fertilize or have a way of finding them when the hunting season opens. I have seen hunters put a lot of effort into fertilizing oaks only to not be able to find them opening day. However, keep your trees a closely guarded secret. Share your “feast tree’s” whereabouts to one or two and soon there will be a parade coming to your tree to watch the acorns grow, or fall.

This same method of fertilizing oaks can work just as well on almost any mast producing tree, whether it is soft mast or hard. I use it on selected persimmon trees, old apple and pear trees, and saw-tooth oaks. It is not a guaranteed buck, but it sure adds to the odds in your favor.

Check out J Wayne Fear’s Book How to Manage Native Plants for Deer for more info on deer habitat management.