I call it March Madness, and it will start about the time people get excited about the NCAA tournament. But the insanity I refer to has nothing to do with college basketball. About this time, I will start talking to people — some serious deer guys, a few casual hunters, even the odd wildlife watcher who thinks he knows something about whitetails — and they will say the same thing. “Well, another long winter is almost gone. The deer have made it for another year.”
I am writing this in Minnesota on the last day of February, and the truth, of course, is this: Our whitetails are facing the toughest 45 days of the year. I don’t care that turkeys will be gobbling in a week or two. It doesn’t faze me that waterfowl are making their first tentative northern flights. And I am not fooled that the odd tulip will poke its nose from the flowerbed of the little old lady down the road. Most of the deer I’ll watch for the next month-and-a-half will look like crap; patchy hide stretched over a framework skeleton, nosing around for spare kibble like abandoned puppies.
If it doesn’t sound pretty, you’re right. It’s also ironic. I live in farm country, where you can pick a spot in late summer, turn a slow circle with your eyes on the horizon, and imagine that your neighborhood alone could stop a global famine. But come December, I wouldn’t want to be any creature trying to make a living from an agriculture field. The same places that once pumped out an embarrassing richness of corn and soybeans are not only covered in snow, they’re plowed-up wastelands.
Not long ago, I had a hunting buddy wonder why — the previously mentioned “amber waves of grain” scenario obviously fresh in his mind — he needed food plots in farm country. I stood there with an open mouth, nailing my patented village idiot impersonation. I couldn’t engage my brain before he hopped in his truck and drove off. So this article is my hope at redemption; a short look at two specific time periods that are the most rugged 90-day windows faced by farm-country whitetails and how food plots can help alleviate that stress.
If you’re a serious deer manager — a fact I can assume because you’re reading this magazine — you probably long ago passed a serious bump in the road; the one that tells us food plots are all about killing deer. This is something that casual deer hunters and the general public don’t get about us. Sure, we might start out with hearts full of evil intent, and I’d be lying if I said I never grow a green field designed to help bring a giant to the ground. But after a while, shooting things takes a back seat to doing right by deer.
Which is why I’ll start with the least sexy time frame first; the tail-end of winter and beginning of spring. As noted, this is a critical period for deer, and any boost they can get from food plots now can be huge. But there’s a common, albeit no less frustrating problem with most plantings; many of them don’t last long enough to carry deer through this time. Let’s look at some of the reasons as well as some things I’ve experimented with as solutions.
Two other factors combine to help deer run out of food during this time; plot size and deer population. Small plots just don’t carry enough food to keep many deer fed for several months, which many deer managers learn in a hurry. The most obvious solution, of course, is to simply enlarge plot sizes when possible. The other is to take a long, hard look at area deer numbers, an often-preached-about but rarely practiced area of management. We all like to see deer, and it’s tempting to adopt a the-more-the-merrier mindset. Do your best to resist it. Whitetails live better when their numbers are aligned to available habitat and food sources, and (another tough-to-swallow fact) our hunting experience typically improves.
Naturally, we don’t all have the ability or space to enlarge our food plots, but that doesn’t mean there are no other options. In my region, it’s common for deer to make seasonal moves to preferred winter habitat. For example, I currently have a half-acre of standing corn and a 1/4- acre of Imperial Winter-Greens within 100 yards of my country home, yet there has not been a deer in those food plots since mid-December. These plots remain almost untouched because area deer move at least a half-mile away each winter, to a couple of nearby farms with south facing slopes that help whitetails conserve energy during the coldest months.
This is a dramatic example of seasonal shifts in whitetails, but it’s not uncommon to find more subtle movements and capitalize on them with food plot location. Across much of the upper Midwest, whitetails will move to preferred wintering habitats — areas they’re likely to ignore the rest of the year — and any food plot in those areas can help deer survive the critical months of late winter. It can be frustrating and amazing to plant a food plot in such an area and watch it grow relatively untouched for much of the year. But visit the same spot in late winter, and it will be covered with deer sign (hint: an excellent place to start the year’s shed hunting). Preferred winter habitat will vary from region to region. In my area, deer gravitate toward south facing slopes and coniferous cover, such as cedar, pine or spruce groves.
Choosing a winter-hardy and winter-preferred plant type can make food plots last well into the season. I’ve had tremendous success with Winter-Greens, even in relatively small plots. Each year, I help a friend on his 120-acre farm; a gorgeous piece of deer habitat, yet one with very limited room for food plots. The first year we worked on his plots, I suggested a planting of straight Winter-Greens in a well-lit plot of less than a half-acre. My friend was overjoyed when the plants germinated well and grew like mad. Then he called in frustration a few weeks into our archery season.
“We made a major mistake,” he said. “The deer aren’t touching that stuff in the lower plot.” I had only one word of advice for Kent. “Wait.” By the time our late bow season rolled in, deer were piling into the Winter-Greens and, somewhat amazingly, kept hitting that little salad bar until spring green-up. In addition to some fine late-season bow-hunting, Kent found two sheds in that patch of hardy brassicas. He’s been a believer since.
Shortly after snow melt, and until the landscape begins that wonderful process known as green-up, deer continue to struggle for calories. This can be another time when tImperial Whitetail Clover can really shine. There’s a reason why clover remains a favorite of deer managers everywhere: Deer can’t get enough of it, and it’s good for them. I’m still weeks away from seeing the first whitetails return to my neighborhood from their wintering haunts. But when they come back, I can bank on them hitting the plot of Imperial Clover I maintain close to my house. It’s the first thing that greens up in spring, and as the ground becomes saturated from snowmelt, that tiny plot will be peppered with deer tracks.
THE EARLY WINTER CRUNCH
The second critical 45-day period for deer occurs, strangely, during the most exciting time on the deer manager’s calendar: the rut. Whitetails have skated through the salad days of summer and early fall; the world a literal feast of fruit and mast and grain. They enter the breeding season like well-conditioned athletes, their backs saddle-fat and their muscles thrumming. But the clock, as they say, is ticking.
In these parts, farmers begin their harvest just as the bucks are feeling feisty. Assuming good weather, the crops are off when the chase phase of the rut kicks in. Right behind the monstrous combines come the stalk choppers and the discs. Long before the last buck has found the last willing doe, fields that once fed whitetails all they could eat are little more than oceans of black dirt. In years of a great acorn crop this isn’t as much of a concern, but when natural food sources are scarce, bucks can go into the winter a lot skinnier than they were just a few weeks earlier.
This situation creates the perfect storm for farm-country food plots. The rut is tailing down, grain crops are plowed under, and bucks are running out of gas. I had this hammered home for me just this past fall, by a buck I call Beefy 8. He was 3-1/2 going into the hunting season, and he was what I call an “oh-crap” buck. Give him another year, and he’ll be a giant, but you wouldn’t blame a soul if they shot him. We had trail cam pictures of him on the better part of two farms. He was one of those deer that knew he was big and tough and wasn’t afraid to walk where he wanted. He was also something of an enigma. I had more pictures of that darn deer than anyone, but do you think I could lay eyes on him from a tree stand? Not a chance.
Well, as I’ve said, Beefy 8 was a wanderer. He’d be in Food Plot X in August, then in Mock Scrape Y in late September, and then Bedding Area Z in October — locations separated by a lot of rough country that he didn’t have to travel through if he didn’t want to. One hunter saw him one time during the rut, and that buck was dogging a doe across acres of real estate, living up to his reputation.
But guess what happened in late November? Beefy 8 went from a hobo to a homebody, camping out on a high-quality food plot that was a buffet of Imperial Whitetail goodies. He remained there into December, when every star in a late-season bow-hunter’s sky lined up; deep snow, intense cold, and a buck stuck on one food source like Charlie Sheen stuck on ______ well, you can fill in that blank. About mid- December, a friend from a long way away came to hunt with me, and I put Tom on the Beefster without hesitation. I knew he’d shoot that deer and be happy as a Cheesehead after the Super Bowl. “He’s living right here,” I said to Tom as I walked him to the food plot. “You will know him in a second from those pictures I showed you and … hey! What’s that?” It was a shed antler, a tall-tined right side lying in the snow. And guess which buck had dropped it there just to irritate me? Next fall, Beefy 8 will be 4-1/2, and we are gonna have a talk — hopefully in the bed of my truck — about his behavior.
When I started food plotting, I was just like everyone else. I put seed in the ground because I wanted to kill more and bigger deer. I haven’t lost that motivation, of course. But I’m getting grey in my sideburns now, and I think a little differently. March Madness is right around the corner, and while the rest of the world is praying for their favorite hoops team, I’m crossing my fingers that a few select food plots will be enough to help the deer I love survive the toughest stretch of the year.