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Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Mother Nature's cupboard is bare this fall when it comes to acorns, a nutritious food that is meat and potatoes for deer, turkey, bear and squirrels. Even grouse benefit from acorns.
The deeper into autumn we get, the poorer the reports I receive on hard mast production. All this follows an excellent crop last fall and decent ones before that. The 2013 edition is shaping up as the worst in a long while.
"I have never seen as bad an acorn failure as we have this year," said Richard Pauley, president of the Botetourt Longbeards Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation. The oaks around his home near Buchanan are bare. Last year there were so many acorns you could scoop them up with a shovel.
There are exceptions, but generally white oak acorns, the favorite of wildlife, are extremely scarce while red oaks acorns are only a little better. "Spotty" is a word being used to describe the hard mast crop.
"Spotty and downright scarce in some places," said David Steger, who lives over the ridge from me Catawba and serves as president of the Virginia Bear Hunters Association.
Just what causes yearly variances in the acorn crop isn't easy to explain, but we try. It is blamed on natural cycles, spring freezes, drought, storms, even weevils.
Billy Leonard, an expert on squirrel hunting, blames this year's demise of acorns on the heavy rains of spring and early summer. He gets support from Steger, who said, "The extremely wet spring and summer was obviously detrimental to acorns."
The abundance or scarcity of acorns has a direct bearing on the behavior of game species. Successful hunters will adjust their techniques to take advantage of that. If you can find acorns, you've gone a long way toward finding game. Wildlife officials in West Virginia report that the most likely place to locate acorns is up high, 2,800 feet and above. Don't expect the meager acorn crop to last long; it will be consumed quickly.
The acorn crop doesn't just impact hunting, it also has a direct bearing on the physical wellbeing of wildlife. The squirrel population, for example, will rise the year following a good mast production and plummet when it is poor. In deer, there is a direct correlation between the mast crop and antler development. Also in the balance is the winter survival of turkeys, and bear cub production next year.
Let's look at how the current mast crop will impact squirrels and bear. We will examine how it will affect turkeys, deer, and the hunters who pursue them next week.
On a recent hunt, John Wright of Amherst discovered "only a very few acorns on the red oaks and none on the white oak." But he did find hickories bearing fruit and they were like a magnet to squirrels.
"There were 10 squirrels in one tree and I stood in one spot and killed (a limit of) six without missing a shot. I was shooting my Ruger 10/22 and for a change it was dead on."
Few species are impacted more by mast than squirrels. Populations are high this fall following an abundant food crop last year and a mild winter that resulted in good spring production and survival.
This explains why you now see squirrels scampering around in search of food and often being flattened on highways. There numbers are high; their food sources low.
This year's poor mast crop is going to mean fewer squirrels next season, so don't miss a chance to go now. The key to success is to do what Wright did, first find a food source, whether it's hickory nuts, acorns, beechnuts, dogwoods berries or pine cones.
"I think the scarcity of hard mast will give early season bear hunters a good year," said Steger.
Kill figures reveal that bowhunting success increases during poor mast years and decreases when acorns are abundant.
"There seem to be plenty of bear everywhere," said Steger. "Bears will be moving, looking for food. The more tracks they make, the more likely they are to encounter an early season hunter."
West Virginia is predicting a record bear kill. It has a new split gun season that is getting bear hunters with hounds into the woods earlier than in the past. In some counties, you can kill two per day.
As for the late season, when hunters like Steger pursue bear with hounds, conditions could be challenging.
"Late season is always a gamble, but an early snow or cold snap, along with scarcity of food, is likely to cause the bears to be denned up during hound hunting season.
Beyond that, the scarcity of nourishing mast this fall crop could have an adverse impact on bear into next year.
"If the sows don't den in good body condition, there will be fewer cubs coming out with them," Steger said.
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Coming up: A look at how the sparse acorn crop will impact deer and turkey hunting.
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