Bow and Arrow Hunting
August 1990

Hunt The Soft Mast- By Don Kirk
Little Known Whitetail Foods May Attract Large Trophy Bucks

I AM AWAKE five nights a week
devising new ways to take bigger
and better Whitetail bucks. Except
when filling out income tax
forms, boning up on how these
animals live, move about, forage and
breed is my only diversion from thinking
about hunting whitetail.

Acorns long dominated my bowhunting
strategies. Being an Easterner, this is
understandable. But these marble—sized
morsels are an unpredictable food
source. Their relative abundance ebbs
and flows from year to year. It took too
long for me to discover how the many
alternative foods used by whitetail when
hardwood mast is scarce can be used to
my advantage.

It is impossible for whitetail hunters
to know too much about what this
quarry dines on. Wildlife researchers
have identified more than six hundred
items in these animals’ diet. One area
many whitetail enthusiasts know too little
about is other important whitetail
foods, especially the so called soft mast
food group.

Acorns, the fruit of the widely distributed,
diverse oak family, are what is
referred to as hardwood mast. Although
usually less important to whitetail than
acorns, buckeyes, pecans, walnuts,
hickory, beechnuts and chinkapins are
other examples of hardwood mast.
Generally, hardwood mast is summarized
as nuts.

The soft mast food group is more
loosely defined than that of the
hardwood category, although many trees
that are hardwoods produce fleshy, soft
mast. The soft mast category includes
such easily recognized items as wild
grapes, persimmons, peaches, apples and
plums. It also includes lesser known
items like fungi — mushrooms — eaten
by deer, plus legumes such as soybeans
and corn.

Many hunters mistakenly believe the
rut is the only primary behavioral pat-
tern worth considering when formulating
whitetail bowhunting strategies. The mt
is the most driving force in the animals’
life cycle, but it is short—lived. Other
longer, seasonal patterns also exist and
even coincide with the rut. Do not
overlook the fact deer are cyclic, or
seasonal, feeders.

During the summer and winter
months, the whitetails’ food intake is
relatively modest. Socalled feeding
binges are uncommon at that time.
Feeding activity greatly accelerates during
the spring and fall months. The need
to recoup body weight following the lean
winter months explains their increased
interest in nourishment during spring.
Building up body fat reserves to help
them endure the rigors of winter is the
impetus for autumn preoccupation with
feeding.

Deer require diversity in their diets,
almost as much as humans. When
acorns are available in large numbers
during autumn, they account for fifty to
eighty—five percent of a whitetail’s daily
intake. When consuming soft mast, like
ripe persimmons or apples, these
animals may not get the same hefty shot
of protein or fats obtained when foraging
on acorns. However, they do receive
many otherwise difficult—to—find vitamins,
as well as complex carbohydrates
whitetail can easily convert to energy.
Soft mast food covers an incredibly

diverse group of whitetail foods. Contrary
to what many hunters believe, soft
mast augments the food needs throughout
the winter and they are not important
just during the summer and early
autumn months. Identifying the key soft
mast sources and ones used only
incidentally by deer is not simple. Many
of the soft mast foods utilized by deer,
like the beefsteak fungus and oyster
mushrooms, are scattered and considered
incidental to their diet needs.

Other types of soft mast food are
unknown to many hunters. During
autumn, deer eat large quantities of still-
moist, freshly fallen leaves of the flowering
dogwood for the digestive roughage
they provide. When available alongside
the brownish-colored leaves of oaks and
hickories which are high in bitter, tannic
acid, dogwood leaves are much preferred
by deer. Their deep scarlet
coloration gives a clue to the dogwood
leaf s sweet, high—sugar content.
Although they relish dogwood leaves
when feeding on acorns during the fall,
the location of these trees appears to
play only an incidental role in deer feeding
movements.

Many times, soft-mast-producing
plants are only locally important as deer
foods and easily escape notice by
bowhunters. Other soft mast feeding
areas, like a soybean field, are easily
identified by everyone. Cultivated grain
fields certainly concentrate deer, but so
do wild grains. However, success taking
deer from these open expanses requires
special tactics, different from those
available to long—range rifle hunters.
Bowhunters must identify travel routes
to and from these often heavily utilized
feeding sites.
During early winter, the seed—filled
heads of the green amaranth —— a tall,
weedy-looking plant commonly found in
cut·overs, along fence rows and sessionary
fields —— is a favorite deer forage item.
Sometimes referred to as wild wheat,
this widely distributed plant is cultivated
by natives of Central America, who
grind the seeds into flour.
Other sources of soft mast, such as
old apple or pear orchards at abandoned

homesteads, or a backwoods hollow that
is full of fruit-burdened wild grape vines,
can exert a strong concentrating force
on these animals. Whitetail, like
humans, have a sweet tooth. They are
drawn to the fragrant aroma of ripe,
fallen apples on the ground. It is not
uncommon for whitetail to overeat high-
carbohydrate sources of soft mast.
However, when this occurs, they get
rumen overload — or what some old-
timers call “bloat” among domestic
ruminants.

Acknowledging the deer where you
hunt possess remarkably diverse food

lists is the first step to understanding
how to take advantage of the soft mast
factor. In most instances, the importance
of specific types of soft mast is
either localized or important as a food
source for only short periods of time. It
is not uncommon for these two factors
to occur together.

Additionally, the abundance of acorns
where you hunt plays an important role
in deer shifting feeding emphasis from
hardwood mast to soft mast. During the
fall, acorns are the key to building body
fat content for winter. Poor hardwood
mast production forces deer to rely more
on soft mast. Even when acorns are
abundant, soft mast plays a key role in
their feeding, especially where early
bowhunting—only seasons occur.
A few years ago, I was hunting within
bow range of three large, acorn-laden
white oaks. While scouting the area, I
was impressed by the number of large
elderberry bushes that still held their
pungent, bluish-black fruit.
The elderberries would probably have
escaped my notice were it not for
Joann, my wife and photographer. For
years, she has been on a wild edibles
kick, making everything from fiddlehead
stew to her own maple syrup.
Hunting during the first morning near
the white oaks, I did not spot any deer.
At noon, I spied three white throat
patches milling about the dense elderberry
bushes, Although they were within
rock—throwing range of a ton of acorns,
the deer preferred to nibble at these
sweet, little berries.

Once located in significant numbers,
soft—mast—producing flora like elder-
berries, wild grapes, blackberries and
other similar plants can be counted on
to produce fruit season after season.
Called perennials, these plants are either
dormant during the winter, like deciduous trees,
or they will return the
following spring, unless a force such as
forest cutting or plowing changes their
surroundings.

Once the soft, moist flesh of their fruit
becomes dry and hard, many varieties of
soft mast are ignored by all but the
hungriest deer. Others, however, such as
wild rose hips. the bluish·black berries
of common greenbrier or the fleshy blue
berries of the sassafras tree, are
available over most whitetail range for
extended periods of time and they are
out during the hunting season. Such soft
mast items feature thick outer husks
able to retain moisture until spring.
Regions typically sport forests com-
posed of similar species of trees, while
local soft mast plant life varies considerably.
The varieties of soft mast are
maddeningly diverse. One key to solving
the soft mast dilemma is staying alert to
what type forage is locally available
where you hunt.

“Fine—tooth comb” scouting is needed
for acquiring this knowledge. For
instance, a field planted the previous
season in deer food crop, such as
soybeans, may this year lay fallow or be
planted in a crop that is less appealing
to whitetail. Change such as this completely
alters the local soft mast factor
of the preceeding years.
Other sources of soft mast are more
predictable, but they are usually
localized and require scouting to dis-
cover. These include where groves of
persimmon trees are found, or the location
of hillsides covered with tender
honeysuckle, which deer love.

When scouting, the three keys are to
stay alert for soft mast areas, to locate
signs of where berries, fruits or buds
have been nibbled off and the presence
of hoof tracks and droppings. The freshness
of the sign helps in estimating the
current utilization level of this feeding
site. The degree of feeding at a site
enables you to determine how important
this food source is at that time.
Prior to and during the rut, the importance
of knowing what the does are
feeding on cannot be overstated. This is
where quarry will spend considerable
time during the hunting season. It is true
that bucks do not forage much during
the breeding season, but one of the best
ways to locate a trophy-class buck is to
first identify where the does are likely to
spend time.

Does reveal their estrous condition to
bucks, but it is the buck that seeks out
ready-to-breed females. Does choose
where the game will be played. It is
usually near her family group’s bedding
and/ or feeding area. Figuring the soft
mast factor into your strategy can help
you solve problems in projecting elusive
deer movements that stump many archery
hunters.

Does are more challenging to scout
than bucks. They do not leave telltale
rubs or scrapes, indicators of the presence
of a jumbo antlered buck. Determining their
movement patterns includes
following game trails to bedding sites
and exploring forage areas for droppings
and hoof marks. Doe tracks differ only
slightly from those left behind by bucks.
The most reliable difference to distinguish
the sex of the trackmaker is that
the buck often leaves a dragging mark
behind his track.
When a locally utilized soft mast
source is pinpointed, it is hunted much
the same way archers locate around
oaks dropping heavy crops of acorns.
Do not locate a deer stand any closer to
their food source than necessary to
accomplish a clean kill.

If you are using a tree stand, locate as
high up the tree as possible; at least fifteen
to eighteen feet. When the soft
mast you are hunting over is a field,
such as corn or soybeans, locate your
elevated stand a few feet inside an
overgrown fence row.
Scent use confuses many deer hunters
first discovering the soft mast factor.
The inviting aroma given off by wild
grapes, corn, apples, soybeans and other
soft mast partially enables deer to locate
these edibles.

Many manmade scent manufacturers
have expanded their lines of deer urine
and gland scents to include fluids mixed
to imitate many of the most widespread
soft mast items. In this writer’s opinion,
attempting to mask oneself or lure deer
in by using food scents is risky.
Using manufactured food scents differs
from using whitetail urine and gland
scent products. Deer scents are tricky
business, even when using high-quality
deer urine or gland scent products. They
are effective under a narrow band of
conditions, such as applying buck urine/
tarsal gland mixtures to pre—rut scrapes,
or spraying doe estrous urine on cotton
balls when the rut is in full swing.
Deer behavior during the mt generally
is predictable. Manmade food scent
products, on the other hand, vary greatly
in terms of quality and how well they
match local bowhunting conditions.
Using a soft mast food scent such as
honeysuckle at the wrong place or time
can alarm deer. Soft-mast-imitating
scents sometimes work, but sex scents
are more effective in masking human
odor. When used at the right time, they
are less likely to give the wrong
message.
If you are overlooking the subtle soft
mast factor when formulating your deer
bowhunting strategies, think again. They
may not be the most important deer
movement factors around, but like the
old saying goes, every dog has its day.
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