The (Access) Road to Success — Access roads criss-cross whitetail habitat across the country. If you’re using these roads simply to get from point A to point B, you are missing out on their full potential.

By Joe Blake

 The mid-morning sun was a welcome relief from the cold, blustery October dawn. Earlier, spits of snow had been falling, and the northwest wind made the vigil in my ladder stand seem more like a November morning. But as the sun broke through the clouds and warmed the surrounding woods with its rays, I relaxed and actually started to doze a bit as I surveyed my surroundings.

I was perched alongside the access road that runs north and south beside the far eastern boundary of my Minnesota property, and because it winds through thickly wooded cover, the deer naturally use the mowed path in their daily travels. However, to further encourage them to slip within easy longbow range of my tree stand, I had planted Imperial No-Plow up and down the lane. Even as late fall loomed and cold temperatures became the norm, the lush green clumps of No-Plow dotted the lane in both directions. Already, several does and smaller bucks had passed by, slowly feeding their way north along the road en route to the pine thicket or swamp, where they would spend most of the day.

Soon before 10 a.m., movement to the southwest caught my eye, and I eased around to get a better look. At first, the thick stand of poplars looming in that direction thwarted my efforts, but slowly, the back of a deer took shape, and then another. Looking through my binoculars, I could make out two deer slowly feeding their way up the lane, and both animals carried impressive headgear.

Slowly lifting my longbow from its resting place I turned slightly to get into position for a shot, knowing from watching previous animals that these two bucks were likely to follow the access road right past my ambush. The road provided the easiest route to travel, and the succulent No-Plow was simply too much to resist. At 20 yards, the lead buck raised his head and glared over his shoulder at his counterpart, and then instantly spun 180 degrees to lock horns with the shadowing whitetail. Although the peak of the rut was still several weeks away, these two warriors had an obvious dislike for each other. The battle lasted several long minutes before the pair resumed their placid approach, feeding as they came.

Twice more, the bucks paused in their approach to show their disdain for each other, including once at eight yards. I could see their rippling muscles and clearly hear the grunting and wheezing as they pushed each other back and forth across the access road in front of me. Tracking each buck in turn with the bent stick I held firmly in my left hand, I evaluated each rack. The lead buck was a solid eight-pointer with long tines and a good spread, but he lacked the mass of a mature animal; the trailer was a massive 3x3 and definitely more mature, but lacked enough total bone on his head to make me want to burn the archery tag in my pocket so early in the season. In the end, I returned my longbow to its resting place and watched the two combatants disappear up the lane, alternately feeding and fighting as they went. I smiled to myself at my setup, which just might offer the best hunting in the whitetail woods.

Food plots are certainly nothing new, and deer management has become such a rage over the past decade that nearly every hunter who owns or leases property for deer hunting has some sort of management plan that involves feeding plots and/or hunting plots. First, we should define the difference. A feeding plot is a large destination feeding area meant to improve the health of the deer and other wildlife on your property. A hunting plot is a small, often out-of-the-way planting designed to improve your health by keeping your freezer full. Hunting plots are small and shaped to encourage the deer to move within range of a hunter’s ambush, be that bow, rifle or muzzleloader range. I submit that the ultimate hunting plot isn’t a plot at all, but simply a site on one of the many access roads that likely already dot your property where you plant seed to make the set-up more attractive.

As mentioned, deer will probably already be using your access lanes because of ease of travel, and this is especially true when these lanes cut through heavy cover. Adding a little quality seed to the mix where you have a favorable set-up for a blind or tree stand and you will have a hotspot with few rivals anywhere else in the woods. Let’s take a look.

The Setup

Because I hunt exclusively with a longbow, I need to set up for very close-range shots, but these tactics can be modified for whatever weapon you prefer to carry. For me, I pick out the perfect ambush site along an access road first, and then tailor the spot to make it more attractive to the deer. Once the stand is in place and shooting lanes cleared, I go over the access road 20 to 30 yards in both directions to rough up the ground. This can be accomplished with any type of drag or even a heavy-tined garden rake, so equipment needs are minimal. For a new site, I use two four-foot sections of an actual toothed drag that I pull behind my tractor, but for redoing existing sites I simply use an old steel bedspring that I pull behind my ATV.

Once the ground is roughed up, you will be able to get good seed-to-soil contact and it’s time to plant, making sure to check the recommended planting dates for whatever brand and type of seed you will be using. Since my access-road hunting sites are always in heavy cover I use an annual seed. Perennials don’t grow well without adequate sunlight and need more care and attention, but a quality annual seed will provide the perfect hunting plot along your lane. Hands down the best seed I’ve found for this type of application is No-Plow. It is a fast starter, it grows virtually anywhere, and the deer absolutely love it.

Play the Wind

I prefer to set up my access road plots along lanes that run north and south, to take advantage of the prevailing westerly winds here in Minnesota in the fall, but I also have sites prepared along trails that run east and west. What you don’t want is a set-up where the wind blows directly up or down your lane because deer either coming or going will catch your scent and alert other deer to your hiding spot. This lesson became painfully clear to me just this past season. I set up for an evening hunt in a huge red oak along an access road that ran north and south. Since a stiff north wind was blowing and I knew the deer would be coming from bedding cover to the north in route to a picked cornfield a 100 yards or so south of my ambush, I planned to arrow my buck before it reached my scent stream. Unfortunately, the first deer on the scene was a doe and two fawns that made it past my ambush and then stood behind me for almost an hour, blowing and snorting and alerting every deer within a mile to danger. Always set up with a wind that is perpendicular to your access-road hunting plot.

Spice Your Site

With your access road properly planted and a lush, green carpet of No-Plow attracting deer from all around you’re set to get out and reap the benefits of your efforts. There is one more thing you can do to make the site even more attractive: Add a mineral pit within range of your set-up. Obviously you need to check with your local game laws to make sure this practice is legal where you hunt, but if it is legal, a mineral pit within bow or gun range of your ambush will be the icing on the cake and make this hunting plot absolutely irresistible.
I use Whitetail Institute’s 30-06 Plus Protein for all my mineral pits because it provides the deer and other wildlife with what they need for improved nutrition and the deer absolutely devour it. I have one pit located along an access trail just inside the woods from one of my larger, feeding plots and the deer have dug and eaten away the ground there until it looks like a foxhole. I have actually started hauling in fresh dirt every spring to build the excavation back up so I don’t accidentally fall in and break a leg.
This is my favorite early season set-up because virtually every deer that heads to the larger field of Imperial Whitetail Clover uses this access road either coming or going or both, and if the No-Plow doesn’t slow them down enough for a shot, I know the mineral pit will stop them for sure. They really seem to hammer the 30-06 during the early bow season, making it a perfect set-up for some herd management and freezer filling. The downside to the ambush is that I need a steady northeast wind to hunt it, and that can be a rare thing in Minnesota during fall.

After the duo of bucks from the opening story departed, I sat for a time enjoying the beautiful autumn day. Soon enough winter would return to the landscape, and frigid temperatures and deep snow would bury my access road and the No-Plow planting that made it so attractive to the local deer population. I found myself wondering about the giant buck that called the area home. I had seen him a couple of times from a distance, but it didn’t require more than a brief glance to know he was a shooter. This monster buck had long tines, heavy mass and a two-foot inside spread and would press my longbow into service if I could only get him headed my way.

So engrossed was I in my daydreaming that I didn’t even notice the big doe greedily devouring the No-Plow down the lane from me, and by the time I snapped out of my fog, she was within easy range and closing. Moving like the hour hand of a watch, I eased the graceful stickbow from its hook, turned slowly to get into position, and stressed the limbs back full. Thankfully, the steady breeze rustling through the few overhead leaves still clinging to their branches covered any sound I might have made, but in truth, the big deer was so attuned to engulfing the lush No-Plow that she had no clue I was anywhere within miles until the heavy arrow struck home. Turning on a dime and flagging her hasty departure, she rocketed down the lane and was swallowed up by the morning woods. Her race would be a brief one, and I recovered her a short distance into the trees, only a few short yards off the road to success.