Identifying Feed Trees for Early Season Whitetail Hunting

By Beau Martonik

Most of the videos and media you see surrounding whitetail hunting are based in the Midwest with beautiful farm fields planted with corn, soybeans, and other crops that deer love to munch on. The reality for most deer hunters is that many public land areas are vast landscapes covered by timber, making primary food sources challenging to identify. In the big woods, deer hunters rely on mast crops, fruit trees, and browse as food sources. Browse is available across the landscape and hard to pinpoint, but locating trees such as oaks and apple trees can be highly beneficial in October. Even in farm country, once the acorns start dropping, the deer usually pull off those fields and stay in the timber to feed first. Each year can provide different results with hard and soft mast trees. Some years are bumper crops, resulting in every tree raining acorns and dropping apples, whereas others are very sparse. You can take advantage of this and stay on top of it before the season to prepare for opening day.

Identifying Food Sources

Before seeing if the mast trees have food, you must know what type of trees you are looking for. Identifying oak trees on a map can be problematic in the midst of all of the other hardwoods. Oak trees tend to change colors and lose their leaves later than other hardwood trees. Utilizing fall imagery online can help you find the oaks since they may still be green, whereas the other trees are colorful.

"In areas with a mixture of oaks, I first seek out the white oak trees, as they seem to be the filet mignon of the deer woods, whereas the red oaks are more like burgers and fries."

You can identify oak trees by their leaves, bark, and acorns. White oak trees have leaves with rounded lobes and usually light brown acorns. Red oak has leaves with pointed lobes with a small bristle on the tips and dark brown acorns. Apple trees have oval-shaped leaves, coarse and serrated with thorn-like spurs along the branches. The trunks are relatively wide, with branches spreading out. There are other fruit trees that deer love, but are dependent on your geographic location. If you still aren’t sure, you can use free plant and tree identification apps, such as PictureThis, to help confirm.

Glassing for Acorns

After identifying some hard mast trees, such as oak trees, you must confirm that they will have acorns that year. Every year, in late August and into September, I head out to predetermined locations with oaks and/or apple trees to see what’s producing. You may start to find some on the ground from rain and wind storms, but most of them should still be hanging from the branches at this time.

I recommend carrying a set of 8x or 10x binoculars to scan the branches above, searching for the trees with the most (or any) acorns. In areas with a mixture of oaks, I first seek out the white oak trees, as they seem to be the filet mignon of the deer woods, whereas the red oaks are more like burgers and fries. The acorns can be challenging to see (especially in August) before they are fully grown, and having a set of crystal-clear optics will make your job much easier. High quality optics are especially important since the more you glass, the more likely it is for a headache or eye fatigue if you’re not looking through good glass. I prefer the Maven B.7 or B.3 binoculars for such a task - I want small and compact binoculars and I always have them on me. I’ve been using the B.3 8x30s for six years and recently got a set of the B.7 10x25s. You can’t go wrong with either option, but I will say that the ten power makes it slightly easier to identify acorns earlier in the year, but you sacrifice minimal field of view. When looking at apple trees, it’s easier to see hanging apples since they’re rarely over 20 feet tall.

Making a Game Plan

Once you identify the mast in your area, it’s time to make a plan. Your job is easy if you only find a few trees with acorns or apples! I mark them in my mapping application and create a journal log with additional details. If it’s a banner crop year, I try to find the trees with the most acorns and the ones closest to bedding cover to hone in on. Documenting what you see is crucial. Whether the old-fashioned way in a notebook or using a fancy phone app, jotting down this information will help keep you organized once hunting season starts. 

Get a jump start on this hunting season and make the most of your precious time in the woods by getting out early and finding the food sources to capitalize on.