A grand sporting scribe from neighboring North Carolina, Robert Ruark of "The Old Man and the Boy" fame, was fond of saying that "September sings a mighty sweet song."

Such is decidedly the case, and as Ruark noted, this month ushers in another dove season. Once Labor Day has come and gone, the heat and humidity of late summer's "dog days" slowly give way to cooler nights and even bracing temperatures at dawn, fish start biting again, and the "Willies off the pickle boat" - Ruark's description for tourists - go somewhere else.

All of these are welcome developments in the hunter's world, but Ruark never wrote much about one of the special joys of September and October in the Carolinas, namely, the return of deer season.

The reason was simple: whitetails were comparatively scarce when he was a boy, and almost no one hunted them with a stick and string.

How things have changed in that regard!

But by the same token, there are certain constants in the hunter's world. One of those of particular note to Palmetto State bow hunters is the bounty that nature provides whitetails at this time of the year.

While hunters tend to talk about the acorn crop or how food plots are faring, deer enthusiasts in general - and bow hunters in particular - need to be keenly aware of the food factor sometimes referred to as "soft mast."

Another description for this collection of important food sources is "deer candy," and that expression goes right to the heart of the matter. Deer have a sweet tooth that will rival that of any overly energetic, greedy-gut adolescent, and when and where available, they will feast on soft mast in preference to anything else.

Take, for example, the thoughts of C.J. Davis, a skilled, seasoned bowhunter who grew up in Greenwood and still calls South Carolina home. As a man who has hunted whitetails with a bow all over the country and taken more than his fair share of trophies, Davis is a great fan of soft mast.

"When there's a good soft- mast source available," he said, "I'll leave the acorns and browse to someone else. Just give me a stand near a patch of pawpaws or a heavily laden persimmon tree, or put me near some muscadines or a tree dropping apples, and I know there will be deer aplenty around."

Fort Lawn's Roy Turner echoes similar thoughts. "For years, we had a huge persimmon tree on the family farm," he said, "and every year, you could count on two things: that big old persimmon would be weighted down with fruit, and deer would clean up the fruit as soon as it hit the ground. I'll take a persimmon tree over most anything, and when there is soft mast available, the smart hunter will always take advantage of it.

Their thoughts are considerations that every serious bow hunter needs to keep firmly in mind, especially given the fact that, by happy coincidence, the peak of soft-mast availability in South Carolina coincides almost exactly with the advent of archery season. With that thought in mind, what follows is a detailed look at the predominant types of soft mast and some suggestions on how to utilize them in your hunting.

It really isn't a "secret," but given the fact that archers consistently fail to take full advantage of the golden opportunities offered by these delicacies from nature's rich larder, you would think such was the case.

Secret, common sense, or hunter smarts, the bottom line is that the savvy hunter will use soft mast to his advantage. Here's how to do so.

Persimmons

The single most important type of soft mast, thanks to being widespread, predictable in bearing year-in and year-out, and holding fruit over a lengthy period of time, is the persimmon.

Before going into detail about how to incorporate persimmons into your hunting strategy, a mention of two misconceptions or misunderstandings is merited.

First, the persimmon is one of a relatively few tree species that comes in male and female varieties. Only the latter bears fruit.

Second, contrary to popular folklore and generations of country cousins enjoying the misery of their city-slicker relatives when they bit into an unripe persimmon, you do not have to have a heavy frost for persimmons to ripen. It's just that the two events often coincide. Rest assured, deer will know when they are ready to eat, and if the fruit is falling, chances are that it is ripe.

Persimmons can be found most anywhere in South Carolina. They favor fence rows, field edges, and other relatively open ground, and they are often among the first to sprout when a pasture is left to revert to a natural state or when cleared land grows up.

Moreover, they start bearing fruit when quite young - it isn't unusual to see a tree only a few feet tall laden with persimmons - and they are among the most predictable of all trees when it comes to bearing fruit annually. Learn to pick out their distinctive shape and exceptionally shiny leaves, and then try to figure out a good stand placement nearby.

When it comes to persimmons, one anecdote from Edgefield's Gene Smith might be worth sharing as some index to the degree that deer love them. He has a good-sized persimmon tree in a food plot 150 yards or so behind his house. During the season, he gives the tree a good shake every day or two to bring ripe fruit to the ground.

"Invariably, when I next check," Smith says, "every last persimmon is gone."

Along similar lines, I have personally, several times over the years, seen deer intentionally brush or rub persimmon trees in an effort to get a few goodies to fall to the ground.

Wild grapes

Muscadines and various cousins in the grape family, such as fox grapes, are plentiful across South Carolina. Moreover, there are many places where you will find domestic muscadines or scuppernongs that have been abandoned but still bear fruit.

Scuppernongs are actually a type of muscadine - all "tame" muscadines come from three wild cultivars and a long history of nursery work to improve them and develop new types.

One of the interesting things about muscadines is that you are liable to find them anywhere. Thanks to their ability to climb, they can do well even where you would think mature hardwoods might shade them out. They also spring up readily beside abandoned fields, along ditch banks, at the edge of power line rights-of-way, on fence rows, and elsewhere.

Muscadines are not predictable about bearing fruit, but it is easy enough, as summer edges towards fall, to locate vines with fruit. Once the grapes ripen, deer will feast on those they can reach and also scarf up those higher up as the vines as they drop to the ground.

Muscadines ripen over a fairly extended period of time and will sometimes be found clinging to vines well into October. But the peak of their ripening comes in the month of September. Those growing along waterways seem to be particularly fruitful, thanks no doubt in part to ample moisture, and that's invariably where you will find fox grapes growing.

Fox grapes are most prevalent in the upper piedmont and mountain regions; their favorite growing places are along little branches running through pastures or on the banks of small creeks where the overhead canopy isn't particularly dense.

Most anywhere you hunt, there will be some muscadines, and in seasons when they bear fruit, they make for some fine hunting opportunities.

Orchard fruits

Farming, at least the kind that involves one family working the good earth for a living, seems increasingly to belong to a world we have lost.

As a result, there are abandoned farms with fruit trees scattered here and there on the property. They might be at the edge of a former garden, around an old barn or situated in what was once a pasture. You will also often find fruit trees growing in grazing ground.

Most fruit trees are apples and pears, and deer love them. The productivity of trees may drop off, particularly with apples, when they aren't pruned or fertilized, and the apples may be smaller, wormier, and generally inferior. Deer don't seem to mind, and in the case of pear trees, particularly those bearing hard fruit often described as canning pears, neglect doesn't seem to make much difference.

The bottom line is simple: find bearing fruit trees and you will find deer dining there. Most any day in September, I can look out my kitchen window towards a venerable apple tree of the Stayman variety and see deer. They ease in from the surrounding woods, munching on apples in a way that would have done Ben Franklin proud. At times, their reaching for the fruits while standing on their hind legs is downright comical.

I've often thought of putting up a bow stand nearby, and to do so would be perfectly legal. However, since we live in a neighborhood marked by 2- to 10-acre lots, I would almost certainly end up blood-trailing a whitetail through someone's yard. That would not endear me to some living nearby, although others who have suffered garden damage might see matters a bit differently.

But give me an apple or pear tree in a slightly more remote locale, and I know that it presents a bowhunter's delight.

Pawpaws

Although most everyone is familiar with the old folk song's lines about, "Way down yonder in the pawpaw patch," my guess would be that not one deer hunter in 10 could identify a pawpaw, much less the small trees which bear them.

Most commonly found in damp areas along seep branches or around springs, pawpaws invariably grow, as the old song suggests, in patches. Their rich, creamy fruit, perhaps more reminiscent of a banana than anything else, is cherished by all sorts of woodland critters. In addition to deer, foxes, 'possums, 'coons, coyotes, and where present, bears, love the fruit. On a historical note, pawpaw custard was also the favorite dessert of George Washington.

Pawpaws don't bear every year, since they bloom rather early and frost often "bites" the flower, but when they do, you want to make plans to be present at the feast. Deer will certainly have a standing invitation and will, as soon as the ripe fruits fall to the ground, be there to enjoy them.

Unlike the situation that often prevails with persimmons and fruit trees, pawpaws are usually found where larger trees suitable for hanging a stand can be found nearby.

Other soft mast

While the various types of deer candy collectively form the major types of soft mast, there are lesser delicacies that should not be overlooked.

For example, the little fruits or "apples" of the Mayapple, a woodland understory plant whose bright green, umbrella-like leaves are readily noticeable in the leafing-out time of spring, are daintily picked by deer when they ripen. Mark patches of Mayapples you see during turkey season and consider returning there in the fall.

Deer also enjoy the berries of common sumac, and it is impossible to miss these brilliant clusters of fruit or the scarlet foliage which is among the first to change color as fall approaches.

Then, there's the widespread fruit of the honey locust tree. These scimitar-shaped pods cling to their thorn-laden trees long after all the leaves have fallen, making a sweet treat available to whitetails long after other soft mast has come and gone. They eat both the sweet "meat" that fills the pods - and the seeds.

Incidentally, it might be worth noting that there was a time when humans utilized both sumac berries and honey locust pods; the former for a bracing tea and the latter for a home-brewed beer reminiscent of mead.

The above-mentioned types of soft mast are all abundant in South Carolina, and unquestionably, they should be an integral part of any bowhunter's early season plans.

Of course, the same holds true for those using muzzleloaders and modern rifles, but it is the coincidence of the main season nature's soft-mast bounty with the time set aside exclusively for bowhunters that makes deer candy so appealing. It's a part of the whitetail's feeding pattern no serious hunter should overlook.