September 26, 2014
One of the first lessons beginning deer hunters learn is to focus on food. Where there is deer food there are does, and where there are does there are eventually bucks.
It sounds like an easy concept to take advantage of, but at some point in the past 20 years the simple tactic of hunting near food became complicated.
A simple clover plot consisting of seed from a local farm co-op used to be enough to set any hunter apart. Now, food plotters aren’t alone and need to compete with their neighbors who are probably also planting for wildlife.
For a food plot to really work these days, a plot needs to be more inviting than all the other food sources in the area.
The first consideration is location.
One of my neighbors says he has deer on his food plot all summer but struggles to understand why they all leave once deer season starts. A quick look at the site revealed the problems.
His first mistake was constructing the plot within 100 yards of a gravel road with no screen to block the view of the site. Like it or not, bad hunters cruise gravel roads during season and either poach exposed deer or harass them.
If a plot has to be exposed to a road, the owner should at least plant a screen crop.
Egyptian wheat is a good choice. It grows to more than 10 feet tall and is dense if done in rows. Never plant corn as a screen because it will pull all the wildlife to it and away from the plot.
His next problem was that the plot was too big and not adjacent to thick escape cover. No plot should be larger than two acres and it should be approachable on all sides through dense cover.
Wide-open woods look nice against a plot and allow the hunter to see deer approaching but are poor habitat for not only deer, but also other wild animals.
Ideally, a two-acre plot is in the most secluded spot on a property and is separated by 100 yards of cover from another two-acre food plot. The area between the plots is always the best seat in the house once season starts.
That is, unless the deer are constantly harassed at the site. Even a well-placed plot will go cold if it is hunted too hard or constantly pushed by neighborhood dogs.
Only hunt food plots in the evening and never exit a plot stand if there are still deer in the plot. Going in before daylight will only bump deer off the site.
Bump them in the morning or evening a couple times and they will find somewhere else to eat. Remember, your plot isn’t the only one in today’s woods.
Click image to see photos of "The Game of Complicated Food Plots"
Buffets are best
The next consideration is what to plant. White clover that seed companies have bred to be attractive to deer should be part of everyone’s food plot plan.
It is hearty, good for about five years with some maintenance, and is loved by both deer and turkeys.
But clover isn’t enough in woods today. A great food plot consists of at least three different food offerings. In fact, many serious food plotters plant as many as eight to ten different food offerings every year.
“Our business keeps growing because more and more guys are seeing the benefit of offering their deer a wide variety of food,” said Mark Trudeau, Director of Certified Research for Whitetail Institute.
It is the smorgasbord approach to food plotting and has grown in popularity over the years.
“The goal in today’s woods is to give deer different food sources that will be available early, mid and late in the season. That requires very different types of plantings,” he said.
The biggest problem with this tactic is that it requires a lot of equipment, time and money to create and maintain.
For hunters with all three, it is critical to still not overdo it. One or two plots are more than enough on 80 acres, and three are enough on 200.
Planting more causes deer to move between all of them, making their movement and whereabouts unpredictable, which is the opposite of what most food plotters intend.
And depending on deer density, five to six acres of food is usually more than enough food to leave standing all winter. If that much food doesn’t make it until spring, you need to kill more does.
Other than clover, a mixed-bag approach should include a mixture of turnips, radishes and brassica in one plot. Another section should include field corn, and another should include soybeans where the soil supports them.
After that, there are hundreds of choices.
While many of the seed companies sell cheap seed for plots, beware of what is in them. Stay away from rye grass, but do plant rye grain in the fall.
Rye grass grows quickly and easily, but is nearly worthless. Cereal grains like rye grain, however, do great over-seeded into dry soybeans, and are preferred by deer and turkeys when they are less than six inches tall.
In the spring, the rye grain will return and is a preferred food and cover source for turkeys.
In addition to seed crops, smart plotters also maintain a stand of pear and apple trees, as well as a manmade water source or two.
Once a healthy, year-round food plot system is established, Trudeau says hunters need to take the next step if they want to truly grow big bucks.
“The right kind of mineral site is crucial and will take your deer to the next level,” he said.
He warned that hunters should beware of many of the mineral products available, however. Many of them are almost all salt, which has little value to the overall health and growth of deer.
There will always be deer to harvest on the edges of farmer’s harvested grain fields, but as the food plotting game gets more complicated and sophisticated, the wait on those spots is getting longer every year.