Some food plots are designed for feeding; others for shooting.
They’re feeding on beans right now,” our local contact said. So, for two straight afternoons, I sat along the edge of a huge soybean field. The only deer I saw were a few does that came out just as shooting light faded.
It was early muzzleloader season in Kansas, and considering the warm temperatures, the action had been unexpectedly slow. Our host had seen several bucks in these fields, but all after dark. It was time for a change.
The next afternoon, I shifted to a smaller, more isolated plot. It was surrounded by thick bedding cover, well away from the big bean plots. The first deer showed up around 3:30. From that point on, I was never alone.
I saw nine different racked bucks, all before the sun dipped behind the treetops. By then, they’d moved on and were slowly working toward the big fields. I didn’t see a buck I wanted, but I learned a valuable lesson about different types of food plots. You can shoot a deer on almost any plot, but certain ones are designed expressly for that purpose.
There are two basic types of food plots: feeding and hunting.
The purpose of feeding plots, also referred to as nutrition or destination plots, is to provide deer with food. These plots help a landowner hold more and healthier deer on his property year-round.
This is typically where you plant summer crops that are high in protein to support antler growth in bucks and better lactation in does.
Feeding plots tend to be large and are designed and managed for agricultural efficiency. This applies to both shape and location. In other words, they’re easily accessible for large equipment and are situated where they can be planted and maintained with the least amount of effort.
That doesn’t mean you can’t hunt nutrition plots; it’s just not their primary purpose. Because of their size and openness, deer are more likely to wait until dark before using them.
Conversely, hunting plots are designed to attract deer for hunting. Agricultural efficiency becomes secondary. These plots generally are much smaller than feeding plots, partly because they don’t need to be big. In fact, you don’t want them to be. Deer feel more secure in less open space and will be more inclined to visit them during daylight.
Hunting plots vary considerably with circumstances. If there’s such a thing as a prototypical hunting plot, it lies somewhere between a larger nutrition plot and dense bedding cover.
In theory, deer rise from their beds late in the afternoon and begin making their way to their ultimate destination, a large feeding plot. Natural selection has ingrained in them an instinctive dislike for large, open spaces during the day, so they probably won’t arrive until twilight. Then they’ll spend much of the night alternately feeding and bedding.
The hunting plot functions as sort of an appetizer bar — a staging area where deer loiter and feed before heading for the main course. Because it’s closer to bedding cover, deer arrive earlier. And because it’s smaller and more secluded, they feel more comfortable in daylight.
The better hunting plots are also configured for hunting. Instead of square or rectangular, ideal hunting plots are long and narrow. This creates relatively more edge, the type of habitat deer prefer.
According to Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute of North America, this configuration also offers more opportunity to hunt different winds and different times of day. “Most often, food plots are better to hunt in the afternoon,” he said. “But with a narrow field, you can sometimes catch deer cutting a corner, or even crossing a plot in the morning.”
Irregular shapes also increase edge and sometimes offer better shot opportunities. Picture a finger of trees or even a brushy hedgerow jutting into the middle of a plot. Deer will tend to follow the edge and be funneled between the tip and the opposite side of the plot. An “L” or hourglass shape also works to funnel deer past a specific location.
Wind is a critical factor, not just when hunting, but also when laying out your plots. Study prevailing wind patterns and thermal currents and position plots to minimize scent detection.
Topo maps are a great tool if you can interpret them. Look at the contour intervals and try to imagine the landscape in three dimensions. Then try to picture the wind flowing over it like water. If you can’t picture it on a paper map, you can buy map software that will display topography in a 3-D image on your computer.
You can increase the effectiveness of one plot by linking it with another, or with a natural food source. Putting it between a bedding area and a larger feeding plot is one way. Or, you can create several hunting plots along a travel corridor, perhaps configuring each for different wind.
Don’t overlook natural or agricultural food sources, either. Deer might be more inclined to swing by the salad bar on their way to the oak flats or cornfield.
In some respects, the ultimate hunting plot is what Dr. Grant Woods refers to as hidey-hole plots. They, more than any other type, are designed expressly for taking deer. They’re also the cheapest and easiest to create.
You can build one in under an hour with less than $50 in material, all of which you can carry on your back, although it’s easier if you can haul it on an ATV.
First, try to find a prime location such as a natural funnel, where natural deer movement is already concentrated. It can be as big as a saddle between ridges, or as small as a fallen tree. “The next thing I look for is a natural opening in the forest,” says Woods. This allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which is critical to plant growth.
Clear the leaf litter with a rake or backpack leaf blower. Then, simply spread your seed and fertilizer, either by hand or with a handheld spreader. Walk over the area a few times to tamp down the soil (which provides better seed-to-soil contact to enhance germination), then pray for rain.
The whole thing takes between 15 and 30 minutes. In two weeks, you can hunt it.
Woods likes an area about 20x20 yards. “That calls for one (50-pound) bag of 19-19-19 fertilizer, and three to four pounds of seed.” He also recommends using a fast-germinating, fast-growing seed blend. Several companies make blends specifically for this application, including Evolved Harvest’s Throw & Grow, Whitetail Institute’s No Plow, BioLogic’s Hot Spot or Heartland Wildlife Institute’s Secret Weapon.
Larger hunting plots call for different mixes. “First,” says Scott, “assuming you’re planting for fall and winter, you want to produce as much tonnage as you can so they don’t eat it down.” He suggests something like their Imperial Whitetail Pure Attraction. “It has winter peas and winter hardy oats for early season, and brassicas for late season.”
For hunting plots, you’re far better off planting annuals. Most of their energy goes into producing nutrious leaves and seeds instead of the roots and rigid stems needed for long-term growth. And they do it in a much shorter time than perennials.
When shopping for seed, select blends designed for fall planting. All wildlife seed companies offer several varieties. These mixes produce plants that are generally high in carbohydrates, which is what deer seek as they try to fatten up before winter.
Food plots are best hunted in the afternoon. That’s because deer, at least the females, are there for only one reason, to feed. You can get there ahead of them in the afternoon, but in the morning, they’re already there. All you’ll do in the morning is chase them off. There are always exceptions, such as the random crossing of narrow fields or the possibility of a wandering buck during the rut. Still, odds are significantly better in the afternoon.
Your first concern should always be wind direction. “No matter how tempting it might be, never hunt a plot when the wind is wrong, especially if you’re hunting older bucks,” Scott says. In many cases, you might only get one chance. If you get picked off, you’ve educated that buck and he likely won’t be back, at least not during daylight.
Speaking of bucks, if that’s your goal, hunting right on or close to the plot edge is a good tactic in early fall. Like does, they’re using plots strictly for feeding this time of year.
When the rut kicks in, you’re often better off back in the woods, even 75 to 100 yards from the plot. Older bucks will cruise downwind of the plots where they can scent-check for does without exposing themselves to danger.
Again, wind is a factor, and yet another reason why it’s a good idea to set up multiple stands on and around food plots. Bucks (and all deer, for that matter) get more wary as the season goes on and often stage up in the woods before dark.
Working around the wind can be twice as tough when hunting food plots. Make sure it’s not blowing back into the woods where it might spook approaching deer. You also don’t want it blowing directly into the plot, unless you plan on shooting the first deer you see. Otherwise, deer feeding in the plot will scent you and alarm everything in the vicinity.
The ideal situation is to find a spot where wind is quartering into the plot, but away from where you anticipate deer will feed. Being meticulous with scent control and getting up high can help.
When the wind allows, I hunt the west side of food plots. Deer tend to follow the shade, especially early in the fall. They enter along the shady (western) side and feed eastward as the shadows lengthen in that direction. Also, any deer looking toward the woodline is looking into the sun, making it more difficult for them to pick me out. Finally, prevailing winds are typically from a westerly direction in the fall and won’t be blowing your scent back into the faces of deer as they approach the plot.
Speaking of which, how you approach and leave your stand are just as important as where you hunt it. Obviously you don’t want to approach through bedding cover or from a direction that will blow your scent into bedding areas. When you leave, try to do so without disturbing deer that are feeding in the plot.
Just like hunting, the time and effort you put into your food plots are more effective when you have a game plan and do it right. Nutrition plots are great for improving the health of your herd, but if harvesting a few deer is your main goal, you should consider planting a few hunting plots.
Read Recent Articles:
• The Ol’ Switcheroo: Pose as a rival to throw a mature buck off his game.
• Pondering Point Restrictions: Are antler point restrictions the answer to quality buck opportunities?
• Melissa’s First Buck: Take a kid hunting, and you’ll both enjoy a life-changing moment. This article was published in the September 2010 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.