fruit of a chesnut tree

Deer Food | Building Better Mast Orchards For Your Herd

-by Bob Humphrey

People interested in managing their land for wildlife are continually seeking better and more efficient ways to improve the habitat so it can support more and healthier animals, particularly deer. As is so often the case, nature has already figured out the best ways – sometimes it just takes us a while to recognize them.

Let me give you an example.

Hardwoods: Then And Now

Deer hunters head to the woods for many reasons, not the least of which is escape. And most of us, at one time or another, have lamented that perhaps we were born a century or two too late. As we slip through the local woodlot, which is little more than a vestige of days gone by, we wonder what it must have been like before men and metal changed the landscape.

historic american chesnut with settler
The American chestnut, prior to the blight that nearly wiped them out.

The first Europeans that set foot in the New World, and those that followed for several centuries found a forest that, rather than being patchily distributed on the landscape, stretched on unending for miles. Canopy openings that allowed sunlight to reach the forest floor nurturing small glades were sparse, and usually caused by natural events.

The understory beneath ancient towering hardwoods was much more open as less sunlight could reach the forest floor during growing season. But the biggest difference might well be what covered the ground after the growing season ceased. Rather than the carpet of acorns we’re now accustomed to seeing in the fall, the forest floor of 120 years ago would have been littered with green pods that more resemble some spiny sea creature or alien spawn than the fruit of a plant. Inside each, one would find several chocolate-hued nuts.

Chestnut Trees – King of the Forest

Prior to the turn of the previous century, and for millennia before, American chestnuts (Castanea dentata) dominated the eastern hardwood forests of North America, growing 12 stories tall and wide enough that two men could not reach around their base and touch fingers.

The nuts they dropped in voluminous quantities were a vital food source for countless wildlife species, and later for humans, who could shovel up bushel baskets full of them in short order.

Yet in the geologic blink of an eye (roughly 30 years) they were effectively wiped out by a blight.

Oaks ultimately filled the empty ecological niche once occupied by chestnuts, dominating the overstory and providing an abundant source of hard mast.

A 20-year-old chestnut can produce as much as 20 pounds of mast per year. On a per acre basis, that’s as many carbohydrates as corn, but without all the labor and expense of replanting every year.

Research has even shown that whitetails prefer acorns over just about any other widely occurring natural food. The deer don’t know the difference, but as you’ll soon learn, this stand-in source of mast doesn’t quite stand up to their forerunners. Fortunately, like healthy seedlings of the once mighty chestnut, hope springs eternal.

Back to the Future

In the early 1950s, James Carpentar discovered a large and very healthy American chestnut in Ohio that appeared to be blight resistant. He sent budwood to Dr. Robert T. Dunstan, a well-known plant breeder in North Carolina, who began grafting and later cross-pollinating American grafts with a mixture USDA-released Chinese chestnut selections.

Are acorns really a whitetail deer’s favorite? Keep reading!

After selecting individuals with the best hybrid characteristics, Dr. Dunstan crossed them back to both the American and Chinese parent trees, creating the Dunstan chestnut, a breed with the optimal combination of blight resistance and production of large, high quality nuts.

Today, Dunstan’s great grandson, Iain Wallace grows Dunstan chestnuts and a variety of other mast trees and shrubs at the family’s Chestnut Hill Orchards in Alachua, Florida.

The business started largely as a commercial chestnut orchard.

“Until fairly recently, most of the millions of dollars worth of chestnuts sold each year were imported because there were no commercial orchards in the U.S.,” said Iain’s father, Robert Wallace.

And like any start-up, they encountered their share of obstacles.

“We had deer in our orchard every night during harvest season,” he said.

He further elaborated that one of his biggest problems for commercial orchardists is deer eating the nuts before they can be collected. However, the elder Wallace quickly recognized it not as a problem, but an opportunity.

With help from friends in the outdoor industry, Chestnut Hill Orchards formed Chestnut Hill Outdoors as a subsidiary to market and sell trees to people interested in planting them to attract and feed wildlife.

a chesnut compared to an acorn
When compared side-by-side, the nutritional value of the chestnut dwarfs the acorn

The Chestnut… A Better Nut

Trying to compete with the mighty oak might seem a particularly risky business venture, until you learn about the chestnut’s nutritional superiority. They contain 4 times the carbohydrates of a white oak acorn; possess 2.5 times the protein and only a fraction of the fat found in acorns.

Chestnuts also have less tannins, making them a much sweeter, and thus more palatable (no-one ever wrote songs about acorns roasting on an open fire). And though chestnuts have not been present on the land for more than 100 years, the ability to instantly recognize their nutritional superiority and palatability is still permanently encoded into the deer’s DNA. They know a good thing when they smell, and taste it.

There are other advantages chestnuts hold over other mast trees that might be of particular interest to those looking to plant wildlife mast orchards.

Chestnut trees grow faster and bigger, sometimes bearing in two to five years, where a white oak might not bear for 20 years. Eventually, chestnuts can grow a dozen stories tall, becoming prolific producers of the caloric carbs wildlife like deer are so dependent on for their winter survival. They also lack the boom and bust cycles more common to oaks, and their blooms come out later in the spring so they are far less susceptible to broad scale mast crop failures caused by late freezes.

Why Plant Trees For Deer?

Before we go further we should probably back up momentarily as some readers are probably wondering why you would plant trees instead of just building food plots like everybody else. Regardless of what you plant, your goal should be not just to attract animals like deer during a particular part of the year (hunting season), but to hold them there as close to year-round as possible. Why? Because the more time they spend on your property, the more comfortable and habituated they become. And the best way to do that is by providing the optimal year-round habitat, the components of which include food, cover and water.

Building and maintaining food plots with annual or perennial herbaceous crops is a very popular way to increase available nutrition for wildlife, but can result in nutritional gaps during certain parts of the year. It can also be costly and labor intensive, particularly with annual crops that must be planted every year.

whitetail buck under chestnut tree
Mast orchards, like chestnut trees, help provide year-round nutrition for the herd and produce year-after year.

Your property will be far more attractive to, and beneficial for wildlife if you can strive to keep fresh food sources available for as long as possible throughout the year. Mast orchards represent an alternative or complement to your food plots, and after the initial investment and establishment, will provide increasingly more food indefinitely, and with a great deal less cost and effort compared to food plots or even feeders. They also provide a means for landowners to fill potential nutritional gaps, ensuring there is plenty of the right food throughout the year.

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The Chestnut’s Place On The Hard Mast Team

As previously noted, chestnuts offer several advantages over other hard mast sources by growing faster and larger, bearing fruit at a younger age and providing a more nutritious nut. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plant other species, like varieties of red and white oak. Variety is the spice of wildlife, and the more you provide in the way of food, the more attractive and productive your land will be. But don’t stop there.

All too often, landowner’s focus on fall foods and forget about the rest of the year. As previously alluded to, the more deer and other species are present on your property in the spring, summer and winter, the more likely they’ll be there in the fall. Visitors become residents as feeding areas become home ranges, and home ranges become core areas. And it shouldn’t be just about deer either.

Provide Well-Rounded Nutrition

You can further fill the void with species like grapes, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, at the same time attracting a broader spectrum of upland game and game bird species, not to mention non-game animals.

Again, you improve the habit quality over a wider time span by providing greater variety of soft and hard mast plant species, particularly those that help fill gaps in the nutritional calendar.

For example, plums provide fruit as early as May and June in southern regions, and a little later further north. Pears, which ripen from mid to late July through August, depending on variety and location, can fill the next gap as herbaceous plants mature and lose palatability but hard mast has yet to fall.

Which Trees Should You Plant?

persimmon fruit

Planting soft mast species like persimmons widens the window of attractiveness your property provides for wildlife. Persimmons are a prized treat for whitetail deer. (Bob Humphrey photo.)

Next on the nutritional calendar come things like apples and persimmons, the latter of which come in early-drop and late-drop varieties and are an incredibly powerful deer attractant, particularly during ear to mid-autumn archery seasons. By then, hard mast should start dropping and, if you’ve planted enough variety, will continue providing fall attractant and winter survival food at least through the end of the calendar year, and quite possibly through the winter.

Now that you have an idea of the types of mast-producers you’d like to plant, you need to select a variety of species from each group.

Chestnut Hill Outdoors offers an array of both soft and hard mast producers in several different size containers. Furthermore, they will help you select the optimal varieties for your specific site conditions, including landscape level variables like plant hardiness zones and regional climate as well as local variables like slope, aspect and soil type and moisture regimes. And they don’t stop there. In order to ensure you receive the maximum benefit from their products, the Chestnut Hill Outdoors staff also provide sound advice and instruction on proper site selection, planting and care.

They even continue seeking more effective and efficient ways to get products to their customers. Planting larger, and thus older trees helps shorten the waiting period until your mast orchards produce fruit, but large trees can be expensive to ship. That’s why Chestnut Hill Outdoors teamed up with Walmart to provide a more convenient and economical distribution hub for larger trees. They now ship Dunstan Chestnuts and other mast orchard species to Walmart retail locations across the eastern U.S. And they are scheduled to arrive at the optimal time for planting in different regions.

When it comes to planting mast orchards for wildlife, about the only down side is that it will take a few years before you begin realizing the benefits of your investment.

The upside is that with little or no additional input from you, your initial investment will continue paying benefits indefinitely. Short of buying land, it’s one of the soundest long-term investments you can make for yours and future generations of people who appreciate and enjoy wildlife.

For more on Chestnut Hill Outdoors products and how to care for them, visit www.ChestnutHillOutdoors.com, or call (855) 386-7826.

bob humphrey
Bob Humphrey. You can learn more about Bob at BobHumphrey.com
stephen tucker and world record tucker buck

Non-Typical Days | What It’s Like Owning A World Record Buck

It was the second week of September, 2016. My uncle and I had just finished shelling corn in Sumner County, Tennessee.

While I was headed to the truck, my uncle called me and said, “Stephen look at this deer, he’s on your right. He is going to come out from behind the bushes right in front of you.”

I stopped, and the deer walked out, looking at me. I stared at him and could not believe what I was seeing. About 20 seconds went by and then he ran back into the thicket.

tucker buck trail cam pic
Trail cam pic of the Tucker Buck

Over the next couple months, I got some trail cam pictures of him. I had actually seen him twice while hunting.

Then, on November 7, after hunting him off and on, he walked out for the third and final time. But, before I tell you about the day I shot him, let me tell you a little bit about what happened leading up to that special day…

The Months Before The World Record Buck

The first time I had the opportunity to shoot this buck, things did not go the way I had planned. I had everything ready and had been mentally preparing myself for my chance at this buck. 

I saw him coming at about thirty yards away.  He stopped, and I decided this was it!

I called some of my family members to share the news, that it had in fact happened… I had shot “him”.

I went to fire my muzzle loader and… it misfired. I could not believe what had just happened. I thought, “Is this it? Did I just lose my chance? Would he ever show himself again?”

I decided I could not let that setback stop me.  All I could think about was having another chance at him. I couldn’t sleep or focus on too much after my misfire, but I knew I had to keep tabs on him and wait for another chance.

I had not told many people about this buck, but my family and close friends knew.  They kept telling me not to give up, and that he would show himself again. I just needed to be patient and wait. I continued to pray that I would get another chance.

So, then came the morning of November 7, and things started to change.  That morning everything went in my favor. He came out at forty yards after working a scrape. I told myself “you cannot mess this up!” All the while, I was shaking with nervous excitement. My adrenaline was pumping like never before.

A Magical Morning

I saw my chance and I took it. I shot him with my muzzle loader from my ground blind.  All I could see was smoke, and when it cleared, I saw him running back into the thicket. I could not believe I had been given the opportunity again. I sat there for what seemed like an eternity, with excitement and a little bit of anxiety.

tucker buck world record buck
The Tucker Buck was harvested in Sumner County, Tennessee

I knew I was about to engage on my big search and I had to figure where he went. Then I called some of my family members to share the news, that it had in fact happened… I had shot “him”.

Within a few minutes some of my family and a few close friends came to the field to help me begin the search for him. Within thirty minutes, we had found him. A sense of relief and joy came over me, once I was able to lay eyes on him and touch him.

Although I was overjoyed, I still did not fully realize what I had killed. I just knew he was a giant and a special deer… at least special to me.

A Boone And Crockett Buck… And More

That night a TWRA officer that was a certified Boone and Crockett scorer, came and green scored him. We all waited with anticipation to see what this monster would score.  I thought I would be the new Tennessee record holder, but I had no idea what else was in store for me.

When the officer finished scoring, he told me that it would give the world record non-typical whitetail a run for its money.

Finally, they told me they had their final score. It was 312 inches. I was ecstatic!

During the following weeks, I became overwhelmed from all the phone calls, messages and companies that were contacting me. Everyone had an opinion about what I should do or not do.

I received a lot of backlash from animal rights advocates and others. I decided to take a break from social media and let things die down before I re-entered the social media playground. In the meantime, I gave many interviews and traveled a few places while waiting on the drying period to come to an end.

In January, the sixty-day drying period was over. I then traveled to the Tennessee TWRA office to have him scored.

I just remember waiting with my brother-in-law and nephew wondering what the score was going to be. Finally, they told me they had their final score. It was 312 inches. I could not believe it. I was ecstatic!

tucker buck official boone crockett score sheet
The Tucker Buck scored 312 inches Boone and Crockett

The Year After The World Record

The next year I went to nearly twenty shows. Now, I am just a farmer from Tennessee. I was not used to traveling that much, nor was I accustomed to all the attention. However, my appreciation for the outdoor industry grew after every event I went to.

I began to develop many wonderful relationships and grow friendships. Killing this buck also grew my relationship with the Lord. It even prompted me to make the greatest decision of becoming baptized. I also began travelling to speak at churches and wild game dinners.  These opportunities would have never been awarded to me had I not had the chance to take this deer.

Stop Hunting?

Many told me that I might as well stop hunting, because I would never be able to top it. They were wrong… it made me hunt even harder the next fall.

I was so nervous, that when I walked off stage, I knocked over Jimmy Houston’s fishing pole!

You see, to me it is not about the size of the buck. Now, don’t get me wrong I love big deer, but what I love more is figuring them out.

Being able to take a world record whitetail made me look at deer hunting in a different way; not just how I look at hunting for myself, but for others as well. No matter what size a deer is, if it makes you excited or happy, I’m going to be just as happy and excited as you are about him.

Another Year, More Opportunities

The 2017-2018 season came and went with no buck being shot that was close to mine. In 2018, I went to many more shows and speaking engagements.

At one of the appearances, I had to speak in front of 3,000 people at a church’s wild game dinner. I was so nervous, that when I walked off the stage, I knocked over Jimmy Houston’s fishing pole!

During the summer of 2018, I scouted harder than ever before. By November, I had already tagged out in my home state with a bow.

A Challenger Rises Up

On November 1, 2018, I was scrolling on my Instagram and saw a giant buck on a page that I follow. I thought, yeah maybe it could be bigger, but I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t heard many conversations about it.

Then in January 2019, I was on the way to the ATA show in Louisville, Kentucky. I knew that deer would be there and had heard the score would be released. To be honest, I was worried about it, because I wanted my deer’s score to remain number one.

I won’t lie, I was upset. But hey, records are made to be broken. So, I decided to make the best of it.

A New World Record?

I was about an hour from the show and a buddy called me and said North American Whitetail just went live on Facebook. While I was on the phone with him, they announced that the Illinois buck’s net score was 320″.

I won’t lie, I was upset. But hey, records are made to be broken. So, I decided to make the best of it.  

I met the guy that shot the new pending record and he seemed like a great guy. He was also a Veteran, so I couldn’t think of someone more deserving.

We will both take our record bucks to be scored this summer at the Boone and Crockett Big Game Awards. That is when we will both find out what our final scores are and will be given our ranking.

Looking Back

The two years following my world record buck were a whirlwind. So many great things have happened in my life as a result of harvesting this once-in-a-lifetime buck.  Whether or not I remain the number one record-holder, I will always have a buck over 300 inches… from Tennessee.

I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to kill the “Tucker Buck”.

stephen tucker with world record tucker buck
The Tucker Buck officially scored 312 inches, breaking the world record for a non-typical whitetail deer.
rifle calibers

Rifle Hunting: The Best Caliber For Deer

There is often a dispute on what hunting method yields better results; bow hunting or rifle hunting? As long as you have the basic knowledge on how to hunt with either, you will likely succeed. But, if we zero in on rifle hunting for deer, the decades-old (and often heated) debate is, which caliber is best? Well, just like bow hunting vs. rifle hunting… if you know your calibers well, there are many that can be effective.

Best Deer Hunting Caliber?

There is probably no single best cartridge for deer hunting that can be agreed upon by all hunters. However, there are many great deer hunting calibers out there. Many hunters also expand their variety of calibers over the years.

In choosing the best caliber for you, it is important to find a balance between something that is easy on both the shoulder and the wallet. Below are a few of the best.

whitetail buck standing in field
What is best rifle caliber for deer hunting?

.30-06 Springfield

The .30-06 Springfield cartridge is one of the most commonly used calibers for deer hunting. Dr J.Y. Jones had successfully taken all the North American game species with a Remington rifle in .30-06! This alone is a huge testament to the cartridge. The .30-06 is not only popular in taking big game in North America, but it is also one of the most popular cartridges worldwide.

The reliability of this cartridge has remained for many years. It was introduced to the United States Army in 1906 and served the United States in both World Wars as well as the Korean war. The .30-06 was introduced after the .30-03. The case was shortened from the ‘03 case of 2.540” to 2.494” and topped up with a 150-grain flat base bullet at 2,700 feet per second. Rifle hunters often compare other cartridges to the .30-06 because of how famous it still is even after all these years.

The muzzle velocity is 2700 feet per second with muzzle energy of 2719 ft. lbs. It works efficiently within a range of approximately 575 yards. Hence, it is good if you plan to hunt deer from long range. This cartridge has been used in famous rifles like the bolt-action M1903 Springfield rifle, the semi-automatic M1 Garand and many machine guns. The .30-06 is one of the most versatile cartridges as well. Its power and versatility make it a popular choice for rifle hunting in North America, especially for larger game like deer.

To learn about the basic knowledge you need when hunting with a firearm, you can check out this guide.

.243 Winchester

The .243 cartridge has faithfully served its role in hunting game since 1955. It is popular among many new deer hunters today. The .243 Winchester is one of the better calibers that yields excellent results. It has a muzzle velocity of 2960 feet per second with an energy level of 1945 ft. lbs. The most efficient range is within 350 yards.

Since the 1960s, the .243 Winchester has been by far the most widely used caliber for shooting small and woodland deer in the UK.

One of the advantages offered is that it has mild recoil compared to the other cartridges. This is especially good for beginners who are still getting the hang of hunting and is also a good caliber for the experienced hunter, as it helps avoids bruising of the shoulder or cheek.

Since it has gained substantial popularity among hunters internationally, the ammunition and components are universally available which makes it easy to buy. They can be found in almost any gun shop and they are also not high in cost.

The only setback is probably that the maximum hunting bullet weight is up to 100 grains in most factory ammunition. This cartridge produces a velocity of 2960 feet per second with a 100 grain projectile from a 24 inch barrel.

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.270 Winchester

The .270 Winchester is one of the world’s best deer hunting cartridges. It is likely the leading rifle for harvesting whitetail deer and has got the job done for over 90 years with few complaints. It is a classic caliber that can take down deer quickly. The cartridge is based upon the .30-06 Springfield but the case is slightly longer by 0.050.”

The .270 Winchester shoots small diameter bullets at a high velocity with a manageable amount of recoil. The recoil of the cartridge can also be mitigated with the addition of using a reliable recoil pad. The 130 and 150 grain slugs are the most popular choices of projectiles.   

Although the .270 does not have as much power as the .30-06, it is still powerful enough for deer hunting at all reasonable hunting ranges. It also has a very flat trajectory and offers great accuracy in good bolt action rifles. Furthermore, the caliber is available in many different rifles and its affordability and abundance for high-quality bullets are great.

.308 Winchester

Among calibers larger than 6mm, the .308 Winchester is the most popular short-action big-game hunting cartridge among hunters worldwide. Its relatively short case makes it especially suitable for short action rifles.

Short action rifles chambered for the .308 Winchester tend to be lighter in weight than long action rifles. This makes it easier on the shoulder.

The .308 was introduced when Winchester released it in 1952 in their Model 70 bolt-action rifle and Model 88 lever gun. There was instant success following their release. This is because of the accuracy delivered by this shorter rifle with a compact receiver.

Some still feel that the .30-06 is more superior for deer hunting because of the larger case and slight velocity advantages, but others appreciate the lighter weight of a short-action rifle. The accuracy and squat powder column also make up for the slightly slower velocity.

The .308 Winchester has great ballistics. With the right factory load or hand load, this round can reach out 350 to 400 yards in hunting an Eastern or Midwestern whitetail. Within 200 yards, it can deliver a swift and humane deer kill. It is also a versatile caliber with bullets from 110 grains up to 200 grains, depending on the game. For whitetails or mule deer, 150 to 168 grain projectiles are suggested, while 180 to 200 grain projectiles are good for larger game such as elk.

.25-06 Remington

The .25-06 was designed as a “dual-purpose” cartridge and is suitable for hunting all game whether small or big. The one rifle/cartridge combination is designed to cover a variety of hunting and shooting situations. The .25-06 benefits from the newest premium bullet designs such as the Remington Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded, Barnes-X and the Swift A-frame. With these bullets, it becomes adequate for hunting larger animals like elk.

It has a remarkable big game shooting potential with any number of bullets from 100 to 120 grains. This caliber also offers mild recoil. It is hence said to be suitable for women and kids for hunting.

Being a .25 caliber, it also has an effective bullet weight range between 85 and 120 grains. This makes it a perfect rifle for double duty on game.

Having been considered a good cartridge back in the 1920s, the .25-06 is more so a good cartridge today thanks to modern slow-burning powders and premium projectiles. Stiffer projectiles can handle the biggest deer and some rifle hunters use it for hunting elk.

.35 Remington

The .35 is another valuable caliber used in deer hunting. It can be used to hunt deer at approximately 135 yards so it is ideal for taking a mid-range shot. Its muzzle velocity is 2080 feet per second and energy of 1921 ft. lbs. It is good for hunting in the woods and is a pleasure to carry around because it is light.

Remington marketed this cartridge as a superior alternative to the .30-30 Winchester. Though it only produces slightly more muzzle energy, the bullet sported is 18% heavier and has 35% more frontal surface area. This contributes to the difference in power of the cartridges. 

Although it is a powerful cartridge when used under the right circumstances, the .35 Remington is one of the most underrated cartridges in the United States. The sad part is that the ammunition has started to fade away. It seems that there are fewer choices each year, which is bad news for those who love hunting with it.

.30-30 Winchester

The .30-30 was the very first smokeless powder cartridge for sport produced by Winchester. In the modern era of hunting rifles, you would think that a cartridge with the performance level of a .30-30 would have already faded into obscurity because of how long ago it was produced. However, there is a reason why the .30-30 still appears in the top ten of the sales list of many ammunition companies.   

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The reason is that the .30-30 still works well today. In fact, it still remains the favorite of many deer hunters. It still yields good performance with cast lead bullets and generates low recoil, which is suitable for young hunters to hunt with. Some hunters may also continue using it for nostalgia sake. Getting in touch with the hunting rifle heritage and using a lever-gun from our great grandfathers’ era has a special appeal to it.

Though it may be outperformed by other calibers in muzzle energy, the .30-30 Winchester has a high shooting ability. The downside is that it is lacking when it comes to longer range and open field settings. It only has an effective range of 180 yards. But if you hunt in the woods or forests, there is no reason not to shoot .30-30 if you are inclined to do so.

Conclusion

Overall, there is no single best caliber for hunting deer, but there may be one that is best suited to your preference. In choosing the best deer hunting caliber for yourself, make sure to look out for minimal recoil, maximum accuracy, aerodynamics and perfect striking energy. (The standard striking energy is 1000 ft. lbs which will be sufficient to kill a deer.) When these are all in place, you are good to go!

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