Attracting Deer With Food Plots
I had plenty of time to think. That’s the nature of hunting with a bow: hours of inactivity hopefully followed by seconds of panic. Sitting 20 feet above the ground looking over the open field, I began reflecting on all the work that had gone into the five acres of dirt that lay before me. This was the second November for this clover plot - prime time. Average life expectancy for a clover planting is three years. Year two would be its most productive before it started to die off. After the next year it would require replanting.
I could still see the weed-choked patch with which I’d started two spring’s earlier. The soil test showed that there was adequate pH for clover, so I began preparations for planting. After hooking the sprayer to the tractor I bathed the jungle with RoundUp. The ground was already smooth enough that I didn’t need to work it, allowing me the option of a no-till planting. A couple of days later I was back with the grain drill, the grass seed attachment filled with a popular commercial food plot blend. With the seed in the ground, the waiting game began. To help speed things along, and to produce the highest possible nutritional value, I called the local elevator to arrange fertilizer application.
After checking the field weekly for three months I finally had a solid stand of clover. Now I needed only to mow it for weed control. Mowing can be tedious work even with a tractor and a heavy brush cutter. As I wound my way around the field trip after trip I occupied my time by imagining the giant bucks that would hopefully begin to use the field. With the weeds suppressed the clover really took over, and soon I had a good sized herd as nightly visitors.
By the second summer the plot was drawing deer better than any other planting on the farm. On many evenings I drove past a soybeans field where two or three deer browsed only to crest a hill overlooking the clover patch and see 20 to 30. The investment was definitely paying off.
The Fruits of Labor
Back to the reality of my November 1998 tree stand. I’d seen some good bucks using the food plot all summer long. Would they show up now that the rut was on? The answer came shortly after sunrise the second morning I hunted the stand. As soon as I saw the buck following the doe toward the field I knew he was something special. The body size alone was a dead giveaway, but when he snapped into focus through my binoculars my breath drew up and my heart skipped. He had the most massive bases I’d ever seen on a live buck and a set of forked brow tines that looked prehistoric. There was no need to estimate a score – he was a dream buck regardless of the tally.
The pair fed closer, almost within range before the doe got frisky and took off running toward a nearby grass-covered hillside. While the doe fed in a patch of winter wheat on the ridge, the buck stood guard below her in tall bluestem grass. After a half-hour he hadn’t taken one step and now appeared to grow weary. Finally, he melted into the grass right where he was standing. Apparently he fell asleep because it was a full hour later before he stood back up. Immediately he began looking for the doe. Of course she was long gone, and now he was on a mission – find her or die trying. In short, he died trying.
After going past my treestand eight times out of range, the buck finally came right down the middle of the narrow strip of trees where I’d placed my stand. I heard a branch break before I saw him. Whipping my head around I saw a doe running right up the middle of the brushy finger toward me with the monster in hot pursuit.
As soon as I recognized my old buddy I snapped the release aid on string and began grunting loudly with my mouth to stop the chase. The buck slowed for only a moment as he quartered-away at 15 yards, but it was long enough for me to slip an arrow into his vitals. He fell within 10 yards of the spot where he had bedded only a short while before, fully 4 ½ hours after I first saw him. That buck had the biggest body of any I’ve ever seen. Based on heart girth measurements, his live weight was well over 300 pounds and his dressed weight was pushing 260. In every respect, he was a dream buck and the perfect example of the effectiveness of food plot management.
Not only had the clover plot served a role in developing the buck to his full genetic potential, but it played a direct role in my ability to tag him. The doe was attracted to the clover field for a quick snack before heading to her bedding area and the buck had come along for the ride.
By thoughtfully incorporating food plots into your hunting area you can not only improve the quality of the deer you hunt but actually improve your success rate. Here’s how.
What to Plant
You have many options – a seemingly overwhelming number of them, in fact. But, it’s really a lot less complicated than it appears at first flush. You can categorize all your food plots into two groups: summer food and winter food. That isn’t to imply that summer food won’t be eaten in the winter or that deer won’t sneak a little of your winter food during the summer. But ideally, you’ll provide what they need nutritionally at the time that they need it.
During the summer deer need protein - and lots of it. Protein and essential minerals support lactation in does and antler growth in bucks, as well as general body maintenance in both. The best protein plantings are legumes such as clover, alfalfa, peas and soybeans. They’ll pick up the diversity they need in their diets by browsing in the timber.
During the winter deer need high-energy foods containing lots of carbohydrates. Protein is also converted to energy in the winter, but most protein sources dry up after the first few hard freezes, making it a less desirable winter planting in northern states. The ultimate winter food is corn. In areas where the winters are cold, deer will travel considerable distances for the corn that keeps their furnaces lit. I’ve seen it many times. Where to you look for shed antlers in the spring? In and around the cornfields. It would be nice if that migration was occurring toward your hunting area. Other good winter foods include winter wheat, winter rye, triticale and sorghum.
The most basic planting program would include a field of summer food and a field of winter food. Clover is the easiest to establish and care for of the summer foods, and because it lasts about three years you won’t have to replant each spring. The best winter food is corn or sorghum except in areas with high deer numbers, in which case winter forage (wheat, rye and triticale) is a better choice. Where deer numbers are high, corn and sorghum will be eaten long before they are actually needed by the deer.
Where to Plant
There are three elements to consider when choosing a planting site. First, in order of priority, is the remoteness of the site. Even more important than soil quality, remoteness is critical. There is no good reason to attract deer to a location near your border or near a road where you can’t protect them. Your food plots should be located as close to the middle of your hunting area as possible, and ideally concealed from any roads.
Second in priority is soil type. Even most amateur farmers have a feel for soil quality. Bottom ground is almost always more fertile than side hill ground and usually more fertile than ridge top ground. You can still get some production from infertile soils, it just takes a lot more fertilizer and money. It is an inefficient use of both. The best quantitative breakdown of the soil types in your hunting area can be found at the county soil conservation office. They have books of maps for the entire county that document soil types and their relative levels of fertility.
The third element in choosing a food plot location is your ability to hunt it efficiently. Generally, long narrow plots located next to cover will be used more during daylight hours than square plots located out in the open. I have a friend who designs the food plots on his farm to funnel the deer past a stand location that is advantageous to him. First he chose the perfect tree for wind, concealment and ease of entry and then designed a food plot that would bring deer within range. He even hired a bulldozer to grub out some trees to increase the size of the natural opening. This is taking things to the extreme, but on a smaller scale tree stand location is definitely worth considering.
How you hunt should also have a hand in determining the size of your food plots. Generally, you’ll enjoy better results when hunting with a bow if you have more and smaller plots. This isn’t to imply that you should be able to cover the entire plot from a single stand location. That isn’t practical. The plot will end up being too small to stay ahead of browsing pressure applied by the deer. However, when hunting with a rifle you can make more efficient use of your time when planting and maintaining your plots by having fewer but slightly longer and wider fields. In this case, it would be wise to make the plot small enough that you can shoot anything that comes out from a single tree stand location.