Food Plots Have Special Allure in Big Woods

By Scott Bestul

The old saw about ethics  being “the things you do  when no one is  watching” rang true for my friend  Jeff VanDoorn two years ago.  Jeff, who with his brother Tom  owns a beautiful little deer camp  in Wisconsin’s North Woods, had  arrived at their cabin the day  before the state’s firearms season  opener. Jeff was busy with the  usual routines to open up the  camp — fueling the generator,  hauling groceries, restocking lime  for the outhouse — when he  glanced past the front lawn.  Standing in a food plot not 40  yards from the cabin door was a  buck that Jeff and his family had  hunted for several seasons. The  monster 12-point — a buck that  had been as elusive as a ghost  during any open season — fed  contentedly on clover,  unconcerned that it was early  afternoon and a human watched  him.

Such times can try a man’s soul. With no legal  hunting method available to him (Wisconsin  had a two-day moratorium on hunting prior to  the firearms opener) Jeff had to content himself  with watching a trophy-class whitetail feed like  a dairy cow for several long minutes. Naturally,  the buck never showed himself to Jeff or any  member of his hunting party, for the duration of  their hunt. 


 That story always serves as Exhibit A when I  think of the power of food plots in the big  woods. I’ve had the pleasure of deer hunting  from this camp, and the nearest agricultural  holding — a poorly-tended hay field baled twice  a year to feed horses — is nearly 20 miles away,  and serious farm country doesn’t begin until  you’ve logged an hour in your truck. Many  hunters from northern latitudes know entire  counties that don’t contain a single working  farm. In regions like this, resident whitetails eat  as deer have eaten for centuries, consuming  grasses and forbs in spring, summer and early  fall, and browse in the fall and winter months. As  my friends have learned, planting a food plot in  country like this can be akin to opening a  restaurant in a town full of oil field workers who  are too busy to cook.  But growing and hunting over food plots in  heavily forested country is anything but a cake  walk. Here are some tips to make big woods  plots work. 

The biggest challenge to big woods food  plotters is the most obvious — all those darned  trees getting in the way. Not only do the trees  themselves present as an obstacle, but they also  block sunlight from prospective plots. While  there are certainly shade-tolerant food plot  offerings (Secret Spot and Bow Stand are two  products I’ve used with good success), generally  the more sun a plant gets, the healthier it will  grow. This makes site selection a critical step in  the big woods food plotter’s plan.  The best, least-expensive, and most-productive  option is to plant in a pre-existing opening.  One example that I’ve seen used with great success  is a log “landing” — a spot that loggers  have cleared to store hardwood or pulp trees  after they’ve been harvested, but before trucks  can haul them out. Landings are typically located  on relatively level, well-drained sites that logging  trucks can reach without getting stuck, a  happy fact that can also make them excellent  spots for a food plot. Log landings vary in size,  but I’ve rarely seen one too small to host a productive  plot.  Other openings can sometimes be found in  heavily forested areas. Old farm sites and homesteads  may still be largely devoid of trees, with  grass, weeds or brush presenting the only  obstacle to a well-lit plot. Naturally-occurring  meadows and small grassy areas can also be  converted to food plots. Don’t be tempted to  plant in a seemingly dry marsh or wetland. Not  only are these areas frequently protected by  state regulations, but even if a food plot is a  legal option, lowland areas will definitely fill with  water at some point. Leave such areas for the  critical habitat they provide for big woods birds  and other wildlife.  Finally, of course, you can carve a food plot  in a forest by simply removing trees. The easiest  method is to start your plot in the aftermath  of a logging operation (more on this  later); this way you don’t have to provide (or  pay for) the heavy equipment and labor for  tree removal. Some landowners I know have  worked a deal with their logging crew to bulldoze  stumps and rocks from pre-determined  areas as part of the logging contract. It’s common  for loggers to own or lease bulldozers to  create access roads, and carving out a plot or  two is typically not a problem for them. This is  also much less expensive than simply hiring  someone with heavy equipment to visit a property miles from civilization.  You have likely read about the importance of  soil prep — applying lime to adjust pH and fertilizing  to maximize plant growth — in virtually  every issue of Whitetail News, but if you’re starting  food plots in timbered areas, do all you can  to achieve this step. Soils in forested areas are  typically highly acidic, and bringing up the pH  can require a heavy dose of lime. Make sure the  pH is in the neutral range, and you’ll notice a  huge difference in productivity.  Deciding what to plant can also be a challenge  in heavily forested areas. Expect your  plots to receive heavy grazing pressure for two  reasons. First, the plot you plant will likely be  the “only show in town” when it comes to food  plot fare. Second, because big woods plots are  typically smaller, it doesn’t take a lot of deer or  many visits to have a pretty dramatic effect.  Plant varieties that can stand up to heavy  grazing, as well as those that feature a window  of attraction (such as brassicas) will be the  safest bets.  Given my druthers, I’d establish Imperial  Whitetail Clover in at least a third of my big  woods food plots. Highly attractive and nutritious,  clover will be a go-to plot for deer most of  the year, and as soon as snow leaves the landscape,  it is one of the first plants to green up.  Northern deer can survive some pretty brutal  winters, but come spring thaw they’re a hungry,  scraggly-looking bunch of critters, and clover  will give them the boost they need at a critical time. Even better, a lush Imperial Clover plot will  sustain bucks, does and fawns most of the year  and provide a fantastic early-season hunting  opportunity when it comes time to target a big  woods buck. Naturally, clover comes with a  catch (at least in my experience). It can take a  little more time and effort to establish, and if  your trips to your property are limited, that  commitment might not be practical.  Other great options also exist. I planted  Whitetail Forage Oats Plus near my home last  year, and I was convinced this would be a perfect  fit for my friends, the VanDoorns. For  starters, oats are easy to plant. Though proper  and thorough soil prep will yield better results,  I’m convinced these large, aggressive seeds  would germinate in a rock quarry if that was  their only option. Oats can also be planted in  late summer or early fall, which means time crunched  food plotters can make a weekend  trip or two just prior to archery season, get their  planting done, and have a hunt-ready plot that  will provide action for several weeks or months.  Finally, brassicas — like Tall Tine Tubers or  Winter-Greens — are another stellar choice for  the big woods. Since whitetails typically focus  on brassicas after the first hard frosts of the season,  this can be an ideal strategy for keeping  deer from consuming a plot before you have the  opportunity to hunt it. It is a problem that can  arise if deer numbers are high enough, your  plots are relatively small, or other natural food  sources fail and leave whitetails with few  options. But the biggest bonus of brassicas is  that they provide big woods deer with a high energy,  highly attractive food option for the  stressful conditions of late fall and winter. 


While food plots are a wonderful addition to  any heavily timbered property, don’t make the  mistake of thinking they’re the final answer to  making the ground reach its full potential.  Proper timber management will also attract and  hold deer on a year-round basis and result in  healthier whitetails and better hunting.  Remember, northern whitetails have to endure  extended winters, and counting on food plots to  sustain deer until snow melt may not be a realistic  goal. That’s when a sound timber management  program can kick in and help whitetails  last through the often-brutal conditions from  late November through green-up.  The Van Doorn property is a classic example  of a logging plan done right. This region of  northern Wisconsin is known for strong populations  of aspen, and aggressive logging practices  like clear-cutting keep this important tree  species available for whitetails and other  wildlife. Aspen benefits from clear-cutting  because a harvested tree sends shoots out from  its root system — a process called “sucker  sprouting” — in some cases as far as 100 feet  from the original stump. Though aspen trees do  produce seeds, seedlings only flourish in full  sunlight. In short, clear-cutting is the best  method for maintaining vital stands of aspen.  Consult with a forester, habitat specialist, or professional  logger (preferably one with a deer  hunting background) to develop a timber harvest  plan that will maintain aspen stands of  uneven ages throughout your property.  Another, and often-neglected, aspect of habitat  management in northern regions is the creation  and management of conifer species.  Research has proven that whitetails can withstand  brutally cold temperatures and biting  winds, assuming they can access thermal cover  provided by species like cedar, spruce and pine.  Indeed, northern whitetails will often travels  dozens of miles to such winter “yarding” areas.  While creating an area may be difficult, establishing  and/or maintaining small groves of  conifers can certainly help resident whitetails  ride out a difficult winter. Again, the best  method for doing this is to consult with a  forester or habitat specialist to develop a plan.  Though forestry projects require a long-term  commitment, they’re extremely beneficial to  deer and highly satisfying to the folks lucky  enough to participate in the process. 


I’ve found food plots to be effective and fun  no matter where I’ve planted them, but for me  they have a special allure in the big woods.  Perhaps it’s because it takes some extra time  and sweat to carve a plot out in the timber. Or is  it because whitetails oftentimes respond to a  plot of clover or brassicas with even more  enthusiasm than farm country deer? I haven’t  answered those questions for myself yet, but I  do know this: When an old monarch whitetail, a  deer nearly impossible to see in this environment,  shows up at a food plot, it’s a pretty special  moment. Even if opening day is still around  the corner.