August 25, 2023
Adrenaline surged as I watched the 6 1/2-year-old, heavy-antlered 8-point enter the food plot. It followed the same trail a 3 1/2-year-old 10-point used just minutes prior. Both bucks exited the bedding area, walked through the Egyptian wheat I’d planted around the plot perimeter and started feeding on brassicas.
I watched motionlessly as they closed within range—50 yards, 40, 30. All the while, they looked straight in my direction as they fed. Then, once inside of 20 yards, the older buck finally turned broadside. I slowly reached full draw, settled the pin and sent the arrow on its way. It struck right behind the front quarter. The buck mule kicked and tore through heavy brush as it dashed back into the thick bedding area from which it came. Then, silence.
I planted that fall plot in hopes of luring a buck into archery range. These small micro kill plots are excellent for targeting bucks, and this one worked like a charm for me. It has numerous other times, too. Here’s the game plan I tend to follow.
Step 1: Analyze Your Hunting Spot
Effective food plots begin with a full analysis and understanding of terrain features on the property or properties you hunt. Otherwise, you’re throwing darts at a world map with hopes of hitting a zip code—all while blindfolded.
You see, hunters often think they can place a plot just anywhere and draw deer to them. While that’s true for plots meant to feed the herd as destination food sources, this doesn’t guarantee daytime usage, especially by mature bucks. In contrast, to effectively place small kill plots requires significant understanding of the landscape. Being able to plant these in exactly the right spot is necessary for getting mature bucks to regularly use them during daylight.
To accomplish this, land managers must know where bucks and does alike bed, feed and water, and how they travel from A to B to C. They must understand how these locations and patterns shift and change throughout fall and winter, too.
Step 2: Think About Movement
Once you know how deer use and traverse a property, think in terms of lines of movement. Do this for afternoon and morning patterns. For the former, think about the routes deer take when they leave their bedding areas and move toward major food sources. In reverse, think about where they travel as they leave major food sources and head back to bed.
It’s also important to realize how these things change throughout the season. Where deer bed, drink, travel and eat can be different from week to week, but especially month to month. Understanding general herd patterns for these periods is crucial when planning and executing an effective fall or winter kill plot.
After all, the goal isn’t to draw a deer to you. It’s to get in that deer’s way as it does what it naturally wants to. Placing the kill plot near or on the fringes of fall-based bedding or staging areas is how you do this. Understanding that mentality is part of what separates hunters who kill big deer every year from those who kill only a few big bucks in their lifetimes.
For those who subscribe to this concept, it’s important to not only know how deer use a property and when they do so but also to be able to sync fall kill plots with these bed-to-feed patterns. Choose a food plot seed that’s attractiveness coincides with the bedding areas and destination food source you’re targeting for the specified period, which is October, November and maybe December.
For example, if deer historically use a bedding area during October or November and travel to a destination cornfield or hard mast stand nearby, it’s important to position the kill plot between the two, and as close to the bedding area as possible without potentially spooking deer along entry and exit routes. Furthermore, planting something that deer want to eat around the same time they’d target these fall-based food sources is important, too. Beets, cereal rye, oats, radishes, soybeans (for the standing bean), turnips, wheat and winter peas are several great options.
Step 3: Time the Plot
Once you’ve studied the property, determined lines of movement, and selected a location for your kill plot, it’s time to gather the necessary items. If you haven’t taken soil samples and know exactly what soil treatment (fertilizer and lime) is needed, the best you can do is apply a healthy dose of 13-13-13 and hope it sticks.
Also, purchase the necessary seed. Many different commercial brands such as Antler King, Backwoods Attraction and Whitetail Institute offer quality products. If that isn’t an option, and you need a fast fix, visit the local farm-and-feed store and see what food plot seed they have on hand. Then, wait for the optimal planting window. Have everything ready to go. Observe the weather. Plant during the recommended date range, but wait until rain is in the forecast.
Step 4: Plant the Seed
It’s time to plant the food plot. You’ve already taken soil samples, sprayed the food plot area and applied fertilizer and lime as needed. Now, disk the ground to expose the soil. A good, smooth seed bed is crucial for blanket coverage of the plot. Next, sow the seed. Ensure good seed-to-soil contact. Follow planting depths and cover the seed as instructed on the bag.
Proper planting principles aside, don’t merely sow and go. Plant with a purpose. Optimize the plot for bowhunting by shaping it so that it encourages deer to flow through the plot in a manner that benefits you. In the fall, when bucks are rutting, they often creep to the edge of a plot, scan it for does and leave if they don’t see one.
The goal is to get your target buck within bow range, and certain food plot shapes help accomplish that. Creating a J-, K-, L-, T-, U-, V-, hand-, hourglass- or turkey-foot-shaped plot limits visibility of the food plot from all but one location and encourages deer to travel to or beyond that point of the plot. This is called the vertex (turning point) and is where your primary treestand or blind location should be.
Of course, there are extra steps if your open area isn’t already shaped like that. Fortunately, if the area has tall grasses and brush, simply brush hog out the desired shape. If that isn’t possible, stake off the desired shape within the field you’re working with. Plant the food plot seed within the plot shape, then plant a food plot screen, such as Egyptian wheat, between the shape perimeter and the edge of the field. The plot screen will grow taller than the food plot itself and will essentially create the desired effect. (Note: Plot screens might not have time to reach full maturity if planted too late.)
Something else to consider is using plot screens along entry and exit routes, too. This is a great way to decrease the likelihood of spooking deer while going to and from the treestand. Plot screens also tend to make deer feel more comfortable within plots and encourage more daylight usage.
Orientation is important, too. You need to be able to reach the plot without spooking deer on the way to it, while hunting or during your retreat. So spin the plot on its axis so it’s positioned for good entry routes, exit paths and wind directions.
Step 5: Mark and Map
Once the food plot is finished, it’s important to keep track of everything. In addition to the food plots you’ve planted, chances are you’ve deployed treestands, blinds and trail cameras afield. Mark all these things on a hunting app. Doing so helps keep track of where your hunting gear is located.
Most apps also have a tool that shows the current and projected wind directions. That’s valuable info when planning a hunt. An errant gust of wind is one thing. It happens. But trying to hunt a food plot with a bad wind or forecasted light and variable winds is a definite no-go you can avoid.
All things considered, fall kill plots are excellent for creating opportunities. Following a well-designed plan can increase the odds of filling that bow tag this fall. Do the work and the plot will thicken.
GO-TO PLOT GEAR
- The equipment necessary for putting in a plot.
Soil tests are crucial for success. These are necessary because using random fertilizer without it is a shot in the dark. Land managers can do soil tests through their local ag extension agency or via online services. However, manufacturers also provide soil tests, such as Whitetail Institute’s Soil Test Kits.
The next order of business is spraying unwanted vegetation. Those with access to tractors or ATVs can use mounted sprayers. Budget-based, backpack-style sprayers and herbicides work, too.
The next thing to consider is a chainsaw or hand saw. Clearing ground for plots isn’t easy. Removing unnecessary trees, shrubs and other underbrush requires sharp teeth, too. Of course, knocking down weeds and grass can be done with tractors, brush hogs and other fancy equipment. For those without access to those, a riding mower, push mower or weed eater will do the trick, although much more slowly.
When it comes to exposing the soil, nothing beats a tractor and disk harrow. Still, budget plotters can do the job as well. In timbered areas, leaf blowers push aside most of the forest duff and leaf litter. That said, areas already receiving significant sunlight will have a thick, matted layer of vegetation. Here, a small ATV disk, garden tiller or yard rake is necessary.
As for putting fertilizer and seed in the ground, most tractors have seed spreader attachment capabilities. For others, hand-crank and walk-behind seed sowers are hot sellers, but I prefer the former. Walk-behind models are oftentimes clunky and more difficult to use in hard-to-reach places—not to mention how aggravating it is to push these things over and around root wads, tree stumps, and other obstacles.
After the plot is seeded, depending on the specific seed, it might need disking or cultipacking. That’s certainly doable for those with access to a tractor, but it can also be done without one. A drag behind an ATV works just fine. If it’s a small seed, driving over it with an ATV or truck should work, too.
- This article was originally published in the Midwest edition of August 2022's Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe.