Research by foresters has proved that carefully selected oak and other mast-producing trees can be helped nutritionally by following a specific fertilization program. After a period of time, if other conditions are favorable, the tree will produce a high yield of mast. To the hunter, this can mean having a number of trees that offer several stand sites that have a lot of potential for attracting bucks. This is possible with the proper selection and with the use of fertilizer and other improvements.
Following are the steps to follow in order to develop your own secret "feast trees."
Selecting frees to Fertilize
"Select" is the key word in fertilizing oaks for deer. Many hunters just pick out a large oak and fertilize it, with little or no results. There is a lot more to it than that. First, get to know the kind of oak you're going to manipulate. Since there are about 80 different species of oaks in this country, I am going to use the white oak as an example here. The white oak is my favorite oak to fertilize because it is found throughout much of eastern United States and its acorn is a favorite food of deer. White oak acorns have less tannin than those produced by the various red oaks, making them especially attractive to deer. Tannin causes acorns to taste bitter. Native Americans and early explorers and settlers made white oak acorns palatable by boiling the meat of the acorn — I have eaten acorns prepared that way, and they're not bad. The meat is even sweeter to the taste when the acorns are from an oak tree that has been fertilized for a few years. A lot of hunters are surprised to learn that many oaks do not produce mast every year. Some oaks do not have a record of ever producing acorns at all. Individual white oak trees tend to have either a very good or a very poor seed crop and are consistent in seed production from year to year, whether it be good or bad. When they're able to grow free of competition, with ample sunlight and fertile soils, some trees have been known to produce acorns starting as early as 25 years of age. Other trees growing in thick forest conditions with lots of competition, poor sunlight and poor soils might not produce acorns until they are well over 50 years of age or older. Some trees simply never produce acorns. You must spend the time to select white oak trees that you already know produce acorns, and then go to work to make them even more productive. Sometimes this takes a couple of years or more. Once you find a good seed-producer, mark the tree so you can find it again. It's a good idea to mark its location on your topo map and to store its location in a GPS. I like scouting for good seed-producing trees in the early fall when squirrels are feeding in white oaks. Find a white oak full of feeding squirrels and you have probably found a good "feast tree." Also, you will have the makings of a good squirrel stew. Keep in mind that even the best acorn-producing white oaks can have a bad year. White oaks, and many other oaks, flower when the leaves begin to emerge at the first of spring. Dry winds or freezing temperatures can be detrimental to flower development, and that year's acorn crop can be lost. For this reason, and the fact that you don't want to hunt too frequently around just one tree and cause the deer feeding there to become nocturnal, it's a good idea to have several trees in a variety of settings to fertilize. If a late frost gets some of them, there's a chance that the others won't suffer any damage.
To be good seed producers, oaks must be as free of competition as possible. Tall oaks with crowns reaching above the upper level of the forest canopy receive a lot of sunlight and are usually among the best acorn producers. Oaks out in the open are even better. The best "feast tree" I ever developed was just out of the woods on the edge of a pasture. It is known as the "buck tree." If the oak tree you've selected to fertilize has other trees crowding it and competing for sunlight and nutrients, you need to eliminate as many as practical, especially those which touch the crown. Studies have shown that acorn-producing white oaks growing in thick woods might produce 10,000 acorns in a good year. A tree in a more open environment might produce 20,000 or more.
How to Fertilize
Fertilizing a selected oak is more than a matter of scattering a handful of fertilizer at its base. There are two methods of fertilizing selected oaks. The first involves the use of 13-13-13 granular fertilizer. This should be applied in early spring at a rate of two pounds per 1,000 square feet of crown. A mature white oak with a crown measuring 80x80 feet, or 6,400 square feet, requires about 13 pounds of fertilizer, for example.
Apply the fertilizer from the edge of the drip line; that is, the outer edge of the furthermost tips of branches, to within three feet of the trunk of the tree. If there are a lot of leaves and limbs on the ground in the fertilized area, rake them away so that the fertilizer comes in direct contact with the soil quickly. I like to disc up the soil lightly where I'm going to fertilize under an oak with an ATV-pulled disc. Use a Cyclone-type hand seeder/fertilizer spreader to distribute the granular fertilizer uniformly. A second method is to purchase a box of fruit- or shade-tree fertilizer spikes at a nursery or garden-supply store and follow the instructions on the box. Spikes are more expensive than granular fertilizer, but they are easy to carry into the woods for use.
Results Take Time
While the preceding is a good way to increase the acorn production of a selected oak, don't expect to see bushels of acorns on the tree the next fall. It's usually the third year that you can see a significant increase in the acorn crop — that's assuming all other things go right, such as no late spring frost. As is true of most habitat management projects, it takes time. This is a long-term investment that requires more fertilization every year. This is not only a good habitat-improvement project for deer hunters, but it is a good technique for squirrel hunters and wild turkey hunters as well. Be sure that you select and fertilize several oaks in the area where you hunt. I have known hunters who developed only one "feast tree." They hunted it almost every weekend during the deer season. The tree worked great the first few days of the season, but it didn't take long for deer to catch on, and before you know it, those deer were only eating at night. Also, mark the trees you fertilize to find them easily again when the hunting season opens. I have seen hunters put a lot of effort into fertilizing oaks and not be able to locate them on opening day. However, you'd be wise to keep such trees a guarded secret. This method of fertilizing oaks can work on almost any mast-producing tree, whether it's soft or hard mast. I fertilize persimmon trees, old apple and pear trees and saw tooth oaks. It's not a guaranteed buck-killer, but it sure stacks the odds in your favor,