Acorns are once again in short supply

By Dennis Chastain

For the Courier

A late-spring frost seems to be the culprit in a lack of acorns this fall.

A late-spring frost seems to be the culprit in a lack of acorns this fall.

Here we go again. Early indications are that we are, for the ump-teenth year in a row, headed for yet another hunting season with a poor acorn crop in the mountains. The situation has gotten so bad that I told a friend of mine that the game is going to forget what an acorn is.

I have only made one preliminary scouting trip this year but I had trouble finding any acorns of any kind. As a matter of fact, I only saw a grand total of six white oaks acorns and three or four chestnut oak acorns, which nothing eats anyway. Richard Morton, a DNR biologist in the Clemson office said that he is finding pretty much the same thing. While they have not compiled all the data from their annual hard mast survey, Morton said that he agrees that we are looking at another failure of the acorn crop in the mountains of SC.

Looks like a late spring frost is at fault this time. It certainly is not for lack of water. We had three straight mornings of heavy frost in late spring, right at that critical time when oaks were making the go, no-go decision on whether to produce acorns this year. The end result is few or no acorns to speak of. The one exception may be red oak acorns, which are actually formed the year before they mature and fall to the ground.

There are two ways to deal with a situation like this. You can throw up your hands and hunt down in the central and western piedmont or you can turn the situation around to your advantage. Every year about this time, hunters will stop me in the grocery store or at the gas station and they all want to know the same thing – “Are we going to have acorns this year?” The underlying assumption is that if we have good acorns the hunting will be good, and vice versa. I always tell them what I know about the acorn crop for that year, but what I don’t tell them is that the exact reverse is actually true.

For those game species that rely on acorns as food, an abundant supply means that they can get all the calories they need in a relatively small area, and therefore tend to move less during the vulnerable daylight hours when hunters are on the prowl. When acorns are in short supply, on the other hand, the game has to cover more territory and move more during daytime hours to meet their caloric requirements, giving hunters the upper hand. So, from the hunters’ perspective, few acorns can actually be a good thing.

So, what do you specifically do to turn the situation to your advantage? Well, let’s take bears and bear hunting first. Whether you hunt with dogs or still hunt, you need to do your scouting. Keep in mind that even in bad acorn years there are some acorns. It becomes a matter of finding that Holy Grail sweet spot where there are good acorns and all the bears in the area are coming and going on a twice-daily basis. If you find a place like that, don’t even tell your mama about it. Keep it to yourself and be there at first light on opening day. Also keep in mind that bears eat other things too. In years with few of the highly preferred white oak acorns, bears will switch over to red oak acorns if they are available and hickory nuts. I have killed just about as many bears over hickory nuts as I have over good white oak acorns.

How do you adjust your deer hunting strategy when there are few acorns? Well, once again there are always going to be some acorns of some kind, and by the time the season opens the deer will know where every one of them is. Do your scouting. Secondly, if you just cannot find sufficient acorns and deer sign in your traditional hunting places, focus on travel corridors. For deer in the mountains that means gaps and saddles in ridgelines, funnels, thick places, and ecotones, where two or more habitat types come together, for example, where a pine thicket meets an oak flat.

Finally, here are some tips on looking for that honey hole where there may well be abundant acorns, even in a year of near total failure of the acorn crop overall. When frost is to blame, as it appears to be this year, there are always some areas that for any of several reasons will still have acorns. For example, have you ever noticed that during cold weather a heavy dense fog develops around the lakes? That fog layer can protect those oak trees from frost damage. Check the oaks around the lakes, ponds and rivers. Also as you move north from Highway 11, the oaks flower a little later the farther you move north. If the trees had not begun flowering at the time of the late spring frost, they could, in fact, have very good crops of acorns, given that we have already had a year’s worth of rain in the first six months.

Good luck with your hunting. Be safe and wear plenty of orange whether it is required or not.