A few years ago, putting in food plots was something special and would almost immediately attract deer to your property. Now it’s hard to find land managed for wildlife that doesn’t have them.
Deer still use food plots, and they are essential for a sound whitetail management program. But they’re not quite such a novel thing and not an automatic deer attractor anymore.
To make your property stand out, try enticing bucks, does and other wildlife with something sweet — trees laden with plump, succulent, energy-packed fruit.
I’ve watched mature bucks stand on two legs to snatch high-growing pears from trees on my land. And no persimmon or apple tree ever gets neglected when it’s bearing ripe fruit.
Deer will eat virtually all fruits, but for a management program on small properties, these three stand out as good choices for most parts of the country: pears, apples and persimmons. Plant them in groves of six to 12 between deer bedding areas and crop fields, on the edge of clover plots, or just upwind of your favorite treestand.
Prime locations include natural wood clearings, borders of food plots, fallow fields and log landings — anywhere they’ll get six hours of sunlight. Soil pH should ideally range from 6 to 7.5, but only moderate fertility is required.
You can buy seedlings for just $2 to $5. If you’re impatient, commercial nurseries offer 5- to 8-foot trees already bearing fruit for $15 to $40.
Mature bucks seem especially fond of pears. I’ve watched them walk right past ripe apples to get to them. These fruits aren’t native to the country but were imported from Europe and Asia centuries ago. Pear trees that avoid fire blight disease can produce for 50 to 75 years. If you planted a full acre, it could yield potentially over 10 tons of fruit. That will help nourish a lot of deer!
Pear trees can grow 50 feet tall and thrive in wetter areas than apples. Fruits can emerge by the third year for some varieties. Good choices include Anjou, Kieffer, Bartlett, Gio Van, Doc’s Special, Flemish Beauty, Potomac, Magnes, Shenandoah, Burford and Stacey. Most of these drop their fruits in early fall. Big Mamma, Trophy and Gallaway hold their fruit much later, making them good bets for modern firearms and late muzzleloader seasons. Plant several different varieties to ensure the trees get pollinated.
Apples are rich in sugars, starch and fats. They increase a deer’s digestion speed, and that allows them to eat more often and obtain more nutrition to prepare for winter. When these high-energy foods are not available, the animals burn protein and body fat instead, increasing stress, degrading their body, and making them more vulnerable to winter kill.
Amazingly, a single apple tree can produce 250 pounds of fruit. For the best results, plant a variety of species as with pears. Plant some that ripen early for bowhunting, others later during gun seasons. Early types include Centennial, Liberty, Enterprise, Rome, Horse and Magnum Bonum. Honeycrisp, Arkansas Black, Goldrush, Blacktwig and York varieties ripen later in October and November.
As for persimmons, you might have some already. They’re very common in some regions, growing near forest edges and in fallow fields. Only female trees of native American persimmons bear fruit, producing a strong crop every other year.
The 20- to 40-foot trees are extremely hardy, surviving -20 F temperatures and thriving in low-quality soils. Bearing fruit at 5 to 8 years, they can produce for 50 years. I consider myself extremely fortunate that the property I bought and have lived on for the last 23 years has dozens of these trees that help nourish the local whitetail population.
Persimmons contain 25 to 45 percent sugar and are rich in phosphorous, potassium, vitamins and carbohydrates. Wildlife managers like both native trees and the newer grafted versions.
Blue, Craggs, Dollywood, Evelyn, Janet, Killen, Miller and Yates are good varieties of persimmons for whitetails. They’ll ripen as early as August but could hold fruits into December or even later. I’ve watched deer from my office window pawing through snow in January to get the last few fruits that have fallen to the ground.
Where to plant? The best place to locate trees is on gentle slopes. Avoid low-lying areas or bottoms where cold air currents can collect, damaging blossoms in spring. Space trees 15 to 25 feet apart.
Keep roots moist until planted. Dig a hole as deep as the root, twice as wide. Mix in a few cups of lime, cover and tamp firm.
To reduce weed and grass competition, place tree mats or straw around the base. Wrap lower trunks with tree-shelters and if possible, stake a chicken wire cylinder cage 5 feet high around the tree while it’s young.
If you already have fruit trees on your property, here are several steps you can take to improve them:
Prune ¼ to 1/3 of new growth back in winter and remove offshoots.
Spray with pesticide.
Apply 10-10-10 fertilizer in a 4- to 6-foot area around the base.
Finally, remove nearby low-value trees and clinging vines that compete for sunlight, nutrients and water.