Mountains suffering from acorn shortage

By Dennis Chastain

Like most hunters, sometime around Labor Day I start wondering if we are going to have acorns or not. After all, whether you are going to be hunting anything from gray squirrels to black bears, it is the acorn crop more than anything else that determines how the season is going to go.

Early indications were that we were looking at a pretty good acorn crop this year. I had checked some older age-class white oak trees in the Easley area, and they were literally drooping with big green fleshy acorns, and we have had white oak acorns falling on the roof of our house near Table Rock for two weeks. But a recent scouting trip revealed that this is going to be a year of boom or bust. Some areas, particularly south of Highway 11, have good to great crops of acorns, but what I found in the mountains north of the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway is not nearly so promising.

On a recent Thursday, I left out from my house and spent three hours scouting on Pinnacle Mountain. I searched up high and I searched down low. I followed game trails that I have followed for 30 years. What I found (or rather did not find) almost defies explanation. I only found one fresh deer track and no bear sign whatsoever, not even any old bear sign from the summer. And here’s the reason why — if I had brought home every acorn that I saw it would not fill a coffee cup. I know that sounds incredible but on my entire three-hour walkabout I saw exactly two white oak acorns, one chestnut oak acorn, and two northern red oak acorns.

I was so upset by this near total failure of the white oak acorn crop that I called the DNR office in Clemson to see if they were finding the same thing on their annual hard mast survey. The answer I got was, yes, they were seeing the same thing, at least in the area around Camp Adger that they had just surveyed the day before. I was told that of the trees they had surveyed that had any acorns at all, somewhere around 20 percent of the crown had acorns. That’s pitiful. And it gets worse for hunters planning on hunting in the vast area north of Highway 11. I found no more than a handful of hickory nuts and absolutely no muscadines — not one.

So, what would account for a near total failure of the acorn crop? Well, it goes back to late April when the oaks were flowering. Few people probably noticed, but we had two mornings of below-freezing temperatures last spring, right at that critical time when the oak and hickory flowers are getting pollinated. Yes, we are technically in a moderate drought in this part of the state, but the truth is we have had more than adequate rainfall this spring and summer for acorns to mature if they had been successfully pollinated. So the only reasonable explanation is that the late-spring freeze burned the oak and hickory and muscadine flowers and ruined our prospects for a good acorn year, at least in some areas.

If there is any good news it is this — if you hunt smart you can actually take advantage of a poor acorn crop and have a banner year of hunting. After all, when acorns are in short supply the game animals, particularly deer and bear, will have to move more during daylight hours to get sufficient calories to make it through the lean times of winter.

Also, there will almost certainly be acorns in some areas, while fairly large areas may have no acorns at all. The trick is to get out there, do your scouting, and find the areas that do have acorns. Trust me, when you find the acorns, the game will be there, and they will be coming and going from that spot on a daily basis. If you find an area in the mountains with good white oak acorns this year, you probably ought to keep it to yourself and hunt it every chance you get.