Posted on Oct 20, 2020 by Chad Sylvester
At some point in your deer hunting your career you've probably heard these marque words...Deer must be on acorns! But what does that really mean to you as a deer hunter and how can you capitalize? The answers to those two simple questions can and will change the way you hunt, hopefully for the better. So let's dive in and look at how to identify oaks, what acorns deer prefer, and when....from a deer hunter's prospective.
How to Identify White and Red Oaks
All Oaks can be categorized into 2 different major families or classifications, White or Red, and then further identified into subspecies. Identifying specific oaks into intermediate classifications or subspecies can get to be fairly tricky and honestly quite confusing with over 200 subscpecies across North America. Oak trees will vary from region to region and there's numerous variables that will impact how a tree, it's leaves, and acorns look. Anything from soil type, weather events, disease, maturity, etc can alter a tree's or acorn's appearance. So we're going to keep it simple and establish a solid foundation by simply learning the difference between the two major classifications.... White or Red?
White or Red By Leaf - First Priority
Using an Oaks leaf to identify which family it belongs to is always first priority for me. Since 9th grade biology class, telling White Oaks from Red Oaks has always been the easiest by looking at the leaves. While there are a few differentiations between leaf types we're keeping it simple...K.I.S.S. White Oak leaves have rounded lobes, Red Oak leaves have pointed lobes with a needle or bristle at the end. There are subspecies of oaks, for example a shingle oak member of the Red Oak family, that carry leaves without lobes but generally speaking you can determine which family it belongs to by whether or not the leaf carries a bristle at the tip of the leaf.
As seen in the photo above, this leaf has rounded lobes or edges which is the telling sign of a White Oak. This specific leaf is from a Swamp White Oak found in Northeast Ohio.
In the photo below, you can see sharp or pointed lobes/edges signifying a tree from the Red Oak family. Also note the bristle on each lobe.
White or Red by Acorns - Second Priority
Boots on the ground scouting throughout the season will often lead you into oak stands and acorns on the forest floor. As a general rule of thumb, if you were to compare White Oak acorns vs Red Oak acorns, acorns from White Oaks are going to be longer in length but smaller in diameter. Red Oak acorns will be the exact opposite shorter in length but be larger in diameter. So think Red for girth and White for length. There are a few other characteristics that differentiate the two but again K.I.S.S.
White or Red by Bark - Third Priority
Bark identification can be a lot more confusing, thus we turn to this last and only if needed. Things like soil types, tree maturity, even the height at which you are referencing the bark can give you different visual appearances. Keeping it simple, Red Oaks will generally have a smoother and a darker colored bark. While White Oak bark will have deeper grooved bark with a lighter grey color.
The Acorn - Find Them and Find the Deer
So know we have a basic understanding of a few ways to identify the two oak family groups. Let's talk about about how each relates to a whitetail's diet through out the year and why.
This might be hard to imagine or believe, but give deer a choice between acorns or corn/ag and acorns are the preferred food source. Not exactly what the industry preaches. Generally speaking, acorns are low in protein (6%) but high in carbs (42%) and fats (52%). Because acorns are easily digestible and readily available deer can consume a large quantity relatively easy. I believe this contributes to the October "Lull" theories (which I believe to be a total myth). Deer just don't have to travel far to food while the forest floor is serving an ample buffet. Find that food during hunting season and you'll be in business.
What Acorn Deer Prefer In The Early Season
Generally speaking, White Oak acorns have the lowest tannic acid levels which provide them with a sweeter flavor over Red Oak acorns. Thus this nut is what deer prefer when available and will continue to consume them throughout the year while they are still edible. Mast drops will vary across the United States but as a general rule of thumb White Oak acorns will start falling late August/early September and lose their acorns relatively quick. Typically, by mid winter any White Oak acorns still laying on the forest floor have either rotted or started the germination process. White oaks produce acorns every year and it's common for every 3rd year to be a heavier crop for the specific tree.
What Acorn Deer Prefer In The Late Season
With Red Oak acorns having a higher level in tannic acid they have a more bitter taste making them less preferred by deer. Red Oaks will start dropping acorns a few weeks after White Oaks and the falling is much more prolonged. So with White Oak acorns being preferred, Red Oak acorns falling later and slower they become a solid food source for whitetail deer in the late season. Red Oak acorns take 24 months to mature, so there will only be a crop every other year.
A big shout out to Chris Creed, from Afflictor broadheads, for helping us put this Youtube video all about identifying oaks. If you watch and have any feedback be sure to leave a comment!
Scroll through any social media group or internet forum and it's almost a guarantee you'll see some thread or comment about the lost art of woodsmanship. Having a basic understanding how to identify the two major Oak families definitely aids in woodsmanship and goes a long way in the whitetail woods. We put great effort in all of our content here in hopes it provides value to you as a whitetail hunter, all we ask in return is that you pass it on!