First Time's a Charm...Twice---Make your own "luck" with pre-season food plot planning

 By Matt Harper

The small aluminum fishing skiff was rocketing thru the rough river chop at a mind numbing eight knots powered by a massive 30-horsepower outboard. The particular craft we were using had been honed by collisions with rocks over an infinite number of years giving it the exact configuration of dents and leaks that made it slice thru the water like a bowling ball through pudding. Best of all, an odiferous masterpiece of beaver carcass, stale bread, cooking grease and unidentifiable goo wafted past our face from the front of boat.
As you might have guessed, I was hunting bruins, for the first time to be exact, along a bear-infested river in Manitoba. This was the first bear hunt for my hunting partner as well, and he was the first to be dropped off. Our guide said that he was going to a great spot, but after the boat pulled away leaving him standing on the river bank, my guide confessed that I was going to the “hot spot.” I guess the outfitter thought I deserved preferential treatment since I lined up the hunt, and I thought it would be rude to argue with him; so I just went along with it. At the end of the first evening I had seen nothing short of a ground squirrel, but my hunting “buddy” had shot the biggest bear that would be taken that year in camp.

Later that year, I went hog hunting in Texas with the same hunting “buddy” and you guessed it, he shot a big boar on the first night while I took pictures of cardinals (there was nothing else to do…no hogs). There seems to be two distinct groups of hunters — those who struggle for days, weeks and even months to fill their tags and those blessed individuals who seem to have a horseshoe located in a place that only a proctologist could find. Most of the time I belong to the former, but during Iowa deer season two years ago, I had the fortune to experience what it felt like to be in the “first dayer’s” club. Oct. 4 was my first day afield in pursuit of whitetail deer, and even though this time of year can be extremely productive, my past track record for early season success caused me to consider this outing more therapeutic in nature than productive. I planned on hunting for a couple hours then getting down to make a mock scrape near my stand. The morning was just as quiet as it was beautiful, and as the two-hour mark approached, I began packing things up to call it a morning. I was fishing out my pull-up rope when I heard the tell-tale crackle of deer hooves running through the early autumn leaf fall. I glanced over my shoulder expecting to see a young buck or doe but was met with the vision of gleaming trophy-class antlers and they were moving directly down the trail leading past my stand. A few moments later, a quartering away shot at 27 yards resulted in the earliest harvested trophy whitetail I have ever taken. A few months later on Dec. 26, my family and I were celebrating Christmas at my in-laws. Around 3 p.m. things were winding down with the kids playing, women chatting, and father-in-law asleep in his chair. Meanwhile I sat anxious and nervous watching the minutes tick away on a great afternoon to hunt. Late muzzleloader season was underway and I had not yet had the opportunity to hunt any of my Winter-Greens food plots. The temperature was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit, there was a fresh coating of snow on the ground and the wind was out of the east which gave me a perfect approach to a plot that I had not stepped foot in since bow season. I finally mustered the courage to look forlornly over at my wife and attempt the “PLEASE” look. I’ll admit that the look seldom works, and it really didn’t work then either. But a few minutes later, in one of those amazing Christmas miracle moments, my wife came over to me and said, “If you’re going to go then…” I didn’t hear the rest because I was vaulting down the front steps to my truck.

Luckily, my farm is close by and about 30 minutes later, I was creeping my way through the cedar trees heading toward a tripod stand overlooking a ridge-top Winter- Greens food plot. I was late getting there and knew there may already be deer in the field, but I had cover all the way to the stand and the wind was right. I made it about three steps up my stand, just enough to see the field, and discovered there were indeed deer in the field — in fact a lot of deer. As I weighed my options on whether to stay on the third rung or try and make it to the seat, I caught sight of a large deer on the edge of the timberline moving toward the field. A quick check with the binoculars confirmed my suspicions; it was a massive 10-pointer with Coke cans coming out of his head. Decision made, I stayed put, for 45 minutes actually, until the buck made his way into gun range. Fighting off leg cramps and fatigued arms, I somehow was able to squeeze off a shot that hit its mark. An hour later I was holding the 160-inch rack, amazed that for a second time in one year, my first time out was the charm. Every successful hunt involves a certain amount of luck, some more than others; but as I mentioned earlier, my natural allotment of that elusive characteristic is rather small.

Therefore, I must rely on other means to increase the likelihood of filling my freezer and making a house payment for my taxidermist. The success I had two years ago, for example, had a lot more to do with pre-season planning than luck. One will normally find me in a tree stand the first week of bow season, but typically I am hunting just to satisfy the nine-month itch to be deer hunting. I do hunt food sources and I try to set-up on plots that contain forages that deer are utilizing heavily that time of year. However, that was about as far as it went, as I plan my hunting more around the rut than early season. After all, I have an understanding wife but she has a limit as to how many weekends I spend aloft in a tree. But two years ago, a good friend of mine had drawn a coveted Iowa bow tag and due to scheduling conflicts, could only hunt early in October and possibly again in late season. So, with that in mind, I set out to design a hunting strategy designed specifically around those two time frames which would hopefully increase our odds of success.


 Food sources are important elements no matter what time of the hunting season you find yourself afield; but during early season, a properly designed and implemented food plot program is essential. Early in the season, bucks have yet to lose their minds in pursuit of females, so the only thing to draw them from their bed is food. But not only do we want to lure an old bruiser to a food plot, we want them to come to a specific plot, using a specific path and during legal shooting hours.

The first particulars to decide are where you are going to plant your early-season plot and how many you are going to plant. Again, bucks are not venturing too far away from their home area at this time of year, so plots need to be somewhere within that home area and more specifically, as close to their core area as possible. In fact, if I have a good idea as to where a buck is bedding, I try to get the plot snuggled right up against the bedding area. This can be a bit dangerous as you don’t want to booger him; but you shouldn’t expect a mature buck to leave his bed early enough, or go back to bed late enough, to get a daylight shot at him if your food plot requires a long travel distance. The closer you are to his bed, the more likely he will give you a shot during legal shooting hours. Furthermore, if you plan several weeks in advance being careful not to venture into his bedroom and keeping the human disturbance down (tractor noise is one thing, but human noise is another), you will diminish the risk of pushing him to another area.

Also, early-season food plots should be located in an area that will allow you to access a treestand or blind with the very lowest possibility of detection. Bust a roving buck on your way to a stand during the rut and you may have a chance at him again, either close by or at another stand; but do that during early season and the proverbial jig is up. You can also incorporate food plot shapes into the detection equation by designing plots that are “S” curved or hourglass-shaped to allow for blind spots to use getting into the stand. Keep in mind that getting out of your stand undetected is just as important, if not more important, as deer will very likely be on the plot when you decide to call it a night and climb down.

One other consideration in early-season plot placement is to take advantage of natural food sources. For example, we all know that acorns are powerfully attractive especially in early fall. Locating a food plot between an oak grove and a bedding area can be highly effective. Large agricultural fields of soybeans and corn will also draw large numbers of deer, so I like to place early-season plots in staging areas on the edge of these fields. These staging-area food plots work extremely well during early season, especially for bucks as they will stop in these small, protected food plots during daylight hours before moving onto the bigger agricultural fields at night. In terms of the number of early-season plots to plant, keep in mind that the more you plant, the more options you give the deer. You can only hunt one field at a time, so I recommend planting just one plot per bedding area so you don’t go crazy wondering if you should be at the plot on the other side of that bedding area. However, I do like to have options, so look for multiple bedding areas and plant plots at each of them. That way, if you bust a buck, or the wind is wrong on one particular plot, you still have other places you can hunt. Of course, what you plant for early-season plots is important as well. Because deer prefer different types of food at different times of the year, it is vital to plant a food plot variety that matches up with the early-season taste buds of a deer.

Topping the list of early-season forages is Imperial Whitetail Clover. Imperial Clover is without question, the most attractive clover blend I have ever used (and I’ve tried nearly all of them) drawing deer not only in the spring and summer but also in the fall. In fact, I see more usage in the fall because other natural forages are maturing and becoming less desirable. Imperial Clover is designed to stay vegetative, highly digestible and therefore highly attractive for long periods of time and will remain that way even as other forages are growing indigestible due to maturation. Also, Imperial Clover is a perennial which means that once it is planted, you only need to spend some time maintaining it, which decreases the time spent on those fields close to a buck’s bedding area. Alfa-Rack Plus, Chicory Plus and Extreme are other perennials that work great for early season plots. If an annual is what you are looking for, Imperial Pure Attraction is a great option. This product contains plant varieties that become attractive in slightly cooler conditions than the above mentioned perennials; and since weather can be finicky that time of year, a Pure Attraction plot is a great back-up. You can even plant them in the same field, not necessarily together; but if you have an acre field, you might consider planting one-half acre of Imperial Clover and one-half acre of Pure Attraction. Also, the new Whitetail Forage Oats Plus is another great choice for the early season as well.


 Late-season plot planning is similar to early season considerations in that the plot should allow for low pressure access, contain varieties that attract deer during that time frame and be located in areas and in shapes that maximize the opportunity for a daytime shot. However, there are a few differences to consider. Late-season plots are normally larger in size than early-season plots because utilization will be heavier with the lower availability of other food sources. Also, most late-season plots are annuals, so once the plant quits growing the plot will contain a finite amount of food as opposed to an early-fall perennial plot that will re-grow once it has been nipped off. If you are hunting with a rifle or muzzleloader, the size of the plot does not affect you as much as it does if you are carrying a bow. If you are bowhunting and a huge old buck is out in the food plot 200 yards away, he might as well have not even showed up in terms of getting a shot at him. Therefore, when designing late-season bow plots, create pinch points, blind curves, etc.., to try and get as close to feeding deer as possible. I have used plantings of tall cane, heavily seeded, to produce a natural funnel right in the middle of my late-season plot. The biggest difference between early-season and late-season plots is the type of forage you will be planting. Brassicas rank high on the list for late-season plots and Imperial Winter- Greens ranks the highest among brassica blends, and I am not saying that because it is a Whitetail Institute product. I have planted more brassica varieties than most people even know exist, and year after year, Winter- Greens draws the most activity. In fact, last year I planted a late-season plot and split it up with different varieties but made the mistake of planting Winter-Greens at the farthest end of the field from my shooting house. Each night I sat frustrated and watched the deer go to the Winter-Greens section of the field just out of reach of my muzzleloader. If I had been thinking more clearly in July when I planted, I would have likely harvested the largest 8-pointer I have ever seen. As it was, however, I sat on two different occasions and watched the sun go down on this awesome buck feeding in the Winter-Greens section of the plot, just out of reach.


 I would never go so far as to say that luck does not play a role in harvesting a trophy-class animal. However, I am a firm believer in creating luck or at least doing all I can to increase the odds that luck will shine on me. Careful planning of your food plots and designing specifically for certain times of the year will undoubtedly increase the possibility of success during those times of the year you plan around. Rut hunting is exciting and I still reserve most of my vacation for that magical time of year. But now, however, early-season and late-season plots have become a regular part of my overall plan. I figure it this way — the more chances you have to play, the better odds you have to win.