As hunting season winds down in the Panhandle, it’s time to start thinking about how to improve wildlife habitat, and the associated hunting activities on your property.  One of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your hunting area is to add fall and winter food sources.   Hunters often only think of either cultivated annual forages (like ryegrass, oats or clover) or supplemental attractant feeds (like corn) when planning their food plot strategies.

Swamp Chestnut Oak acorn in fall. Photo courtesy Franklin Bonner, USFS,

However, taking a quick look at areas where deer, turkey and other game spend most of their foraging time in the wild can be enlightening.  Across the Eastern U.S., natural stands of oaks and other mast producing trees are the preferred hangouts for game animals, that also provide excellent nutrition sources during the fall and winter months.  But, the concept of attracting animals to mast trees isn’t exclusive to natural areas; it can be artificially replicated by landowners to attract whitetail deer, squirrels, turkeys and other game.  Don’t let the terminology confuse you, “mast” is just a term meaning “fruit from a tree”.  “Hard” mast refers to nut producing trees -think Oak, Hickory, etc. Soft mast is just that, soft-fleshed fruits – think Pear, Plum, etc.  This article will focus on hard mast trees.   Regardless, the takeaway is that planting mast producing trees as winter wildlife attractants have several benefits.

Chestnut from 5 year old ‘Dunstan’ tree in Calhoun County, FL, early October. Photo courtesy the author.

  • Enhanced habitat

    Planting diverse groups of hard mast producing trees provides wonderful cover for deer to browse, squirrels to nest, and turkeys to roost.  Also, groups of trees planted in open areas can help to create desired edge effects, read “Edge and Other Wildlife Concepts,” from Auburn University.

  • Excellent nutritional supplement to annual winter food-plot forages

    If a diversity of species is planted, hard mast trees are a great, season-long (approximately October-January) source of proteins and fats, the high-energy nutrients deer and other critters need to get through the lean winter months.

  • Reduction in time and money needing to be spent maintaining annual food plots

    A well-designed grove of mast producing trees can be as effective in attracting deer and other animals as winter grazing plots, and a whole lot cheaper.  A study done by the University of Tennessee Extension in 2008 found that hunters spend about $200 per acre on winter food plots (seed, fertilizer, equipment, time, etc), an expense that will happen EVERY year. And as many of you know from personal experience, $200 is a VERY conservative number, particularly if you value your personal time at all.  Replacing half an acre of cultivated winter forage with mast trees will likely be more expensive in year one, when you initially buy and plant, but remember, if you do it right, you only have to do it once.

4 year old Nuttall Oak in Calhoun County, FL, November 20, 2019. Photo courtesy the author.

What to Plant

With the benefits of mast trees for wildlife attraction in mind, let’s address what and how to plant. Always select trees with desirable characteristics: long-lived, disease-free, and high-quality mast production at an early age (you don’t want your heirs to get all the benefit!).  In the Panhandle, Oaks (Quercus spp.) fit this bill best.  There are two groups of Oaks to pick from, Red and White.  Red Oaks generally have dark, ridged bark, leaves with pointed lobes, small to medium-sized acorns that mature in two seasons, and tend to crop reliably each year.  White Oaks possess lighter colored bark, leaves with rounded lobes, large, “sweet” acorns maturing in one season, and tend to produce heavily in alternate years.  Plant some of each group to ensure an acorn crop each year, and maximize wildlife benefit!  However, not just any old oak will do; the Oaks that most closely fit all the above characteristics are:

  • Nuttall Oak (Quercus nuttalli) – Red Oak Group.  Rapidly growing, attractive tree, very early producer of good-sized acorns (5-6 years).  Drops acorns late, providing needed fats and carbohydrates for bucks through much of the “rut” in the Panhandle (Late November-early February).  Tolerates flooding and bottomland areas well.

6 year old ‘Gobbler’ Sawtooth Oak planted on a forage plot edge in Calhoun County, FL, December 31, 2019. Photo courtesy the author.

  • White Oak (Quercus alba) – White Oak Group.  Long-lived, stately tree.  Relatively early producer of very large, sweet acorns.  Acorn drop is earlier than Nuttall Oak. Grows best on moist upland soils.
  • Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) – White Oak Group.  Large tree with flaky white/gray bark.  Relatively early producer of massive, prized acorns.  Acorn drop occurs around the same time as White Oak.  Prefers moist upland soils like its cousin the White Oak but will tolerate periodic flooding.
  • Sawtooth Oak (Quercus acutissima) – White Oak Group.  Non-native. Medium-sized tree with heavy branches, often full to the ground.  Very early and reliable producer of large, sweet acorns (begins producing around 6 years).  Acorns drop in September – often the first Oak to produce mast in the season.  Grows best on moist upland soils.
  • Chinese Chestnut and Chinese/American Hybrids (Castanea spp.) – Not oaks but worthy of inclusion.  Non-native or native hybrids.  Medium-sized, spreading trees.  Earliest producer of mast (3-4 years from seed germination).  Highly sought-after by deer.  Tolerates poor soils well but best production is in moist upland areas.  I’m particularly partial to the newer American/Chinese Chestnut hybrids like ‘Dunstan’ and ‘AU Buck’.

How to Plant

It is important to remember that success starts at planting.  Select healthy container, or bare-root trees in the dormant season (December-February) and plant immediately r to ensure the root-ball doesn’t dry out.  Dig planting hole to the same depth plants are in containers, or to depth of topmost root and backfill with native soil.  Do not amend with compost or potting soil! After planting, the trees will need supplemental water, a few gallons per week, unless significant rainfall is received.  Water regularly until establishment (when they no longer need your help, generally three-six months after planting).

4′ tree grow tube attached to PVC support stake in Calhoun County, FL, January 2020. Photo courtesy the author.

Also, recently planted seedlings will need protection from deer browsing.  Unfortunately, deer don’t realize these trees will directly benefit them in a few years, and do their best to destroy young trees by eating the tender new growth or “rubbing” with their antlers, girdling the trees in the process.  I’ve found that both small 4’ tall wire cages, and the plastic grow tubes sold by many wildlife providers work extremely well for this purpose.   If you opt to use grow tubes, secure them with a substantial staking material such as PVC, select tubes that are at least 4’ tall, always carefully look inside when working around the trees as tubes are magnets for wasp nests, and be vigilant in keeping fire ants out.  Ants enjoy building their homes inside the tree tubes. The nests will often reach several feet up the tube, causing major problems for the tree!  Finally, to maximize the growth rate of your trees and to expedite the mast-producing process, remove competition from the base of trees by weed pulling or non-selective herbicide application, and fertilize three times (when growth emerges in the spring, again in early summer, and again in late summer to early fall).

As always, if you have any other questions or want more information, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension Office.  Happy planting!