Like every deer hunter who has ever lived, you have probably spent days in the woods wondering where all the deer are. There are days, after all, when deer don't seem to be anywhere near your favorite hunting spot.
Deer spend much of their time throughout the year focusing on food. That's because in most deer habitat, the availability and palatability of food varies widely by time of year.
The better the quality of food on a piece of hunting property, the more likely deer will be to use that property as a core part of their range — and the healthier they will be, too.
Those are the central reasons why some hunters plant food plots on their property. The more work you do and the more carefully you plan, the more your food plot is apt to do for you and the deer you hope to attract. Keep in mind, even small, inexpensive plots can have a positive effect.
Food plots can help achieve three hunting goals. In increasing levels of complexity, they 1) cause deer to visit and stop in a place you want to hunt them; 2) change the feeding and travel patterns of deer — particularly groups of does — so the deer consider the food plot part of their core territory during the hunting season; and 3) add enough energy and nutrients to the deer's food supply that deer grow bigger and stay healthier throughout the year.
The third goal — providing deer with long-term nutrition so they grow larger — is a more complex topic than can be adequately discussed in a short article; for more information on that topic, check out this great treatment of the subject from our friends at North American Whitetail.
A food plot program, however, does not have to be extensive or expensive to begin to improve your hunting. Very small-scale food plots can help, if you put them in the right places at the right times.
Small food plots work best if you put them where the deer wanted to be even before the food plot was there. The classic case is where deer want to feed in an open field — either agriculture or browse — but won't come out of the heavy cover surrounding the field until after shooting hours. Typically the deer will stage in the cover, waiting for dark. If you're hunting the open field, you'll never get a shot at them.
One solution is to plant a small food plot back in the cover. Any small opening, even the size of a large living room, will give the deer a place to stop and eat an "appetizer" during daylight hours. If you get there early enough — before the deer arrive — and hunt with the wind in your favor, you have a chance to kill a buck that would never expose himself in the open field before dark.
Abandoned stock or logging roads present another opportunity for relatively small, linear food plots to be effective. If there's no traffic on a former road, the road itself can be seeded. As with a small food plot planted near a field, an abandoned road food plot works better if it's in a place deer already want to be.
For example, if deer are crossing the road at a certain spot, going from cover to cover on either side of the road, the bucks are not likely to stand in the road for very long. Does might, but older bucks are going to pause in the cover, look around, then cross at a fast walk. That's what they'll do, that is, unless there's a reason for them to stop — like if tasty food plot catches their attention.
The same situation might exist in any habitat that causes deer to funnel through a place that concentrates them. If deer frequently cross a creek at a certain location, then a small food plot next to the trails leading to the creek can give you an ambush spot with a location you choose. Having a choice about the exact location may not cause you to change the travel patterns of the deer, but it can give you more options for setting up a stand site or for approaching a productive stand site without alerting deer on your way to the site.
Moderately sized food plots planted early in the fall so they begin to come up during the peak of your hunting season can also play a role in keeping deer on your property, especially if the deer have nearby bedding cover. Young green shoots in the fall are particularly appealing to deer because as the fall wears on, natural and agricultural foods not only become less numerous, but also less palatable.
Doe groups and bucks will both use such plots. During the rut, bucks will be far less focused on food, but as long as the does are still around, the bucks will be in the area.
You can again use these plots in conjunction with other habitat features to improve your hunting. For example, if you have an old log landing near heavy bedding cover, you have a prime food plot location.
If the thick cover extends to the edge of the food plot, you have an extra opportunity to influence where the deer will be, too. Deer tend to be lazy — or energy efficient, depending on how you look at it — and will seek the easiest path through thick or thorny cover. If there's no trail through the thick cover when you put in the food plot, you can cut a narrow trail through it. By the time the food plot comes in, the deer will filter into it using the trail you cut. Thus, you not only know that the deer will be in the food plot, but you know how they are apt to get there and the path that they will take.
This summer, look for places on your hunting land to make use of small food plots to improve your season next fall.