Early April found me slipping quietly along the top of a hardwood ridge looking and listening for any sign of wild turkeys. At an elevation of 3000 feet, some of the trees had small green buds preparing to burst with color, but many of the larger oaks still looked as dormant as they did in the dead of winter. As I paused to lean against a large white oak tree I noticed multiple oak limbs covered with shriveled brown leaves strewn about the ground around me. Gazing skyward I found the middle and upper canopy of the tree to be a tattered collection of twisted, brown, leaf covered limbs dangling from their perch 60 feet above me.  Although it had been eight months since a bear had climbed and fed in this oak, the sign was still as evident as if it had been made yesterday.

While there is no substitute for in-season scouting, paying attention to the sign that is visible year-round can provide lots of useful information which an attentive hunter can take advantage of in the fall.  With my attention now focused skyward, I noticed another White Oak just 20 yards away in the same condition.  And just like that I had forgotten completely about turkeys. For as I continued to ease my way down the lead (ridgeline) I would count over 15 white oaks with upper canopy’s demolished by bears last fall.  Based on the destruction, it was clear that one or more bears had spent a considerable amount of time in this small area.

For a couple of weeks in late August and early September the bears of the Southern Appalachian mountains will climb 60 to 70 feet into the upper canopy to attain the coveted white oak acorns that have ripened to the point of being palatable, yet not matured to the point of releasing to the ground.  After climbing, they will chew and twist the acorn heavy limbs snapping many of them as they devour the carbohydrate-rich acorns.  Many of the limbs will fall to the ground below, while an equal number will dangle from the treetops for many months afterwards, long after the season is over and the woods have grown silent. There are many variables that impact acorn production, and while you can’t count on the same tree bearing mast every year, you can usually count on the fact that bears are creatures of habit. While it’s impossible at this point in the year to know for certain if these trees will produce acorns in the coming fall, it is a safe bet to assume that the bears will return to this location the next time there are acorns to be had.

Winter seems to last forever at the high elevations, with many of the new green buds not even leafing out until May. Once the green-up gets going strong, it’s fun to spend an evening watching over a green clover plot on one of the local wildlife management areas to get an inventory of the bears in the area. Bears seem to be very aware of the hunting season calendar, and during late spring and summer they can be observed feeding four hours in some of the wildlife openings planted and maintained by the department of natural resources. As breeding season approaches in late May and early June the large boars will begin chewing, and snapping over trees (usually pines)  leaving a visible sign and scent post of their presence for other bears. Finding this sign in early summer while helpful, doesn’t necessarily mean the large boars will still be around come September, since they can travel great distances in search of a receptive sow before returning to their sanctuaries once the breeding is over.

By late June to early July it is possible to begin determining which oak trees at least had successful pollination, and spending some time scouting just a few days after a thunderstorm in mid-summer can be very productive. The high winds produced during a storm will often snap the delicate Limb tips from the upper canopy of the white oaks which will then fall to the forest floor. Keep your eyes peeled for these little green harbingers as they will often have small BB sized acorns which are all but invisible while still in the treetops. Finding the trees that have acorns in June and July is a good first step, but it is still not a sure thing. This time of year, there are still a lot of variables that can impact the oaks and determine whether or not the acorns make it to maturity. Drought is common in late summer and in some years many trees will abort their acorns prematurely. Late summer is really where the rubber meets the road. By late August we know which trees will have a viable crop of acorns this year and I will often carry my binoculars with me to visually confirm which trees will be dropping they’re hard mast in the months ahead. The Georgia bow season opens in mid-September, and by that time I will hope to have multiple white oak stands predetermined that should have some bear feeding activity.

As much as I love to hunt, I have come to enjoy scouting in the off-season just as much as the hunt itself. Trying to figure out the acorn puzzle that seems to change from year to year is one of my favorite aspects of my hunt preparation. Off-season scouting is not only enjoyable, but it is a great way to get a head start on the upcoming season. So, whether you are looking for turkeys on a high mountain lead in April, or fishing for specs in a remote blue line stream in July, be aware of the ever-present sign that can help you in the fall.