Neal Brown chose wisely. A trail camera had revealed a fine buck at season’s end the previous January, and we had been waiting for the right conditions the following October. This particular day was custom-made, and when I called Neal to tell him I was going to hunt the buck that very afternoon, he opted to join me.
The location where the picture was made was a small arm of timber surrounded on three sides by pine plantation. On the other side was a food plot. I already had a stand stationed near that plot, so I went there. Neal decided to move down the hollow and set up in a cluster of white oaks hard inside the three-sided cover of plantation. Those oaks were dropping acorns.
This was a glorious autumn afternoon in Mississippi — chilly, with a steady breeze and a bright sun that hung lazily in a sky of deep azure. Game was present in abundance —12 turkeys out there in the food plot, a squirrel over there scurrying about under an oak. A fat spike, his muscles rippling and his coat reflecting sunlight, tipped along a woods road and came to stand directly beneath my lock-on.
Then the afternoon gradually morphed into that haunting stage well known to hunters, that time and condition when shadows lengthen, senses quicken and expectations elevate. It was that moment of magic in an October wood. I was enthralled by the spike so very close and unaware of my presence, all the while hoping that Neal was being similarly entertained.
And it happened. A crashing from down the hill eased into my awareness, pulling me from the spell I was under. Could it be that Neal had connected, perhaps even with that buck from the trail camera? I waited and listened and hoped.
Within minutes I heard Neal’s approach. “He came from that plantation at the end of the oaks,” Neal said between labored breaths. “I heard him popping those acorns. I had to turn a little to get the shot, but I made it. We won’t even have to track him; I saw him go down. And he’s the best buck I have ever taken.” A big two-blade broadhead riding the tip of a cedar arrow cast by an Osage/bamboo longbow had thoroughly completed its chore. And save some practiced shooting by the archer, those oaks deserved the credit.
There are approximately 70 species of oaks found in the United States. Their varieties are too numerous to list, but they all fall somewhere within two groups: white oaks and red oaks. Among the white oaks are: white oak (Quercus alba), overcup oak (Q. lyrata), post oak (Q. stellata) and chinkapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii). Certainly there are others. And among the red oaks are: southern red oak (Q. falcata), northern red oak (Q. rubra), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica) and pin oak (Q. palustris). And as mentioned with the white oaks, there are a great many others. All can be significant in varying degrees to wildlife.
There is also another oak worthy of mention here — the sawtooth. It is not native to the U.S., but it has been imported and planted in sufficient supply to make it rather common and viable as a wildlife food source. This tree exhibits traits of the red oak grouping.
Identifying oaks can be accomplished by several means. Chief among these are the leaves, bark and acorns. And while some question might still remain following such examination, rare it is for a particular tree to be put into the wrong group.
White oak leaves are generally larger than those of the red oak. The white oak leaf is often hand-sized, with three “fingers” running along opposing edges and a terminus of three additional shorter “fingers.” The red oak leaf tends to be more paddle-shaped than that of the white oak. Some are simply long and narrow. There might also be a terminus of three short, blunt “fingers” on the red oak leaves.
The leaf of the sawtooth is the entity that gives this variety its name. This leaf is long and narrow, with a serrated edge containing tiny spines and a saw-blade appearance. It is easily recognized and identified.
Bark is another indicator of grouping. The bark of the white oak will appear, as the name implies, white. There are obviously darker shades, but light gray to white will dominate. This bark, at least on most white oak trees, also tends to be in larger pieces than that of the red oak. It might even show signs of peeling back away from the trunk in spots. Red oak bark clings tightly to the trunk. Shades will go from almost black to a faded gray, and individual pieces will be in small segments the size of a fingertip. There will be an abundance of raised “bumps” in this bark, and these will generally be a dark color.
When dealing with acorns as a means of identification, things can get complicated. Still, there are some guidelines that remain fairly consistent. White oak acorns are commonly larger than red oaks. They can be as large or larger than the end of a man’s thumb, often in the shape of an inverted pear as the acorns hang from their pronounced cups. And these cups will many times fall with and remain attached to the acorn.
The same can be said for the sawtooth. These acorns are big, often more pear-shaped than round, and they many times drop with the cup attached. But this cup differs significantly from the white oak. There is a highly visible row of “whiskers” protruding from the bottom edge of this cup. There can be no doubt of their presence.
Red oak acorns lean to the smaller side when compared to those from the white oak. They are commonly no larger than the tip of a man’s little finger and possess a small, tight cup. When red oaks produce well, however, they will literally cover the ground with their diminutive offerings. That same ground will crunch beneath each footfall of the hunter.