From Weekend Warriors to Master’s Degree Food Plotters

By Brad Herndon

 If I were to ask 50 deer hunters whether they wanted to see more deer or bigger deer, I’m betting I would get this answer from many of them: “Both.” (Yes, we all know there are a few wiseacres in our deer hunting community. In fact, I might be one of them.)

 Overall though, in regards to this question I believe many hunters would probably say bigger, and a few who live in low-density whitetail regions would say more. The truth be known, however, if the habitat could sustain it, we all would like to see lots of deer with several trophy buck sightings per day being the norm. Why shouldn’t we want those hunting conditions? Out of curiosity, the Whitetail Institute of North America set out to see to what lengths the readers of Whitetail News would go to see not only more deer, but higher-scoring bucks. Keep in mind at this point that both of these goals may be possible without increasing the deer population. Our interviewing process covered everything from the weekend warrior to Master’s Degree food plotters. You will find this information fascinating.

The Weekend Warrior

 By definition, Merriam-Webster Dictionary says a weekend warrior is “ … a person who participates in an usually physically strenuous activity only on weekends or part time.” In other words, a weekend warrior who just happens to be a deer hunter is a person who has a limited amount of time, and may also have limited monetary resources. Yet simply through hard work and the sweat of his brow he accomplishes some rather amazing things in deer management. Tom Eller is such a guy. Let’s see how this hunter with a wife and four children uses food plots. Like many hunters in the southeast, Tom Eller belongs to a hunting club. Eighteen individuals hunt a 2,300-acre lease. In the early 1980s soybean farming was prevalent on this land, but a paper company purchased the property and turned it into a pine plantation. Most of the hardwoods are gone except those remaining along ditches and streams. The land is flat to gently rolling, with two streams and several small tributaries. It’s hard to squeeze a food plot out of a pine plantation used for growing trees for paper, but Eller and his buddies do it. Sometimes they can put in one where a few trees are down, and sometimes they can expand a grassy area into a plot. Incidentally, this lease lies in the Black Belt area of Alabama, and it contains varying soils. Since the rut hits this region in mid-January, a product that works well for this time of year is required. “We set bush hog dates, and planting dates, and a few of us get together and really hit it hard,” noted Eller. “We do take soil tests of our plots, lime as needed, fertilize and do what it takes to produce good forage. We use tractors for heavy work, but ATVs are used to a big degree for spraying, broadcasting seed, and dragging. We use a chain link fence and drag it with an ATV. Much of what we use isn’t fancy, but it works.” After experimenting with a variety of products, Eller and buddies settled on using Imperial Whitetail No-Plow in their area. “We found that by using No-Plow we could plant half the seed of other products and get better results,” Eller said. “In late season No- Plow is fantastic! The deer jump on it. We once had 12 racked bucks in one small plot at the same time. My brother ended up killing a 150-inch brute, and I shot an 8-point grossing in the 130s.” Most plots on this lease are one-half acre to one acre in size, with the biggest being three acres. A variety of stands are used. Ladder stands may be located in wooded regions, box stands on the edge of food plots, and several tripod stands have to be used in the sections where only small pines are growing. A monster deer in this region is 140 inches and up, and a 120 to 140-inch buck is considered big. Moreover, Tom Eller and his friends have designed a network of small food plots that pull numerous whitetails out of a huge, totally wooded region that contain few strategic ambush points. And they also kill the best bucks the area has to offer in these same locations. Eller is one of many weekend warriors who are experiencing great results with small plots, and having lots of fun and fellowship in the process.

A Master’s Degree Food Plotter

Thus far we’ve seen how weekend warriors can use small food plots to increase deer sightings and kill a region’s best bucks. Now let’s visit a whitetail hunter in Wisconsin who started out as a weekend warrior and has since “kicked it up a notch.” Tim Jepsen and his wife, Linda, have four children. Both have full-time jobs, yet both are devoted whitetail hunters who contribute considerable time to deer management on their 350-acre tract of property, which is all in one piece. The terrain on this property is a mix of flat and hilly land, containing both oak hills and a few swamps. Tree coverage is 25 percent evergreens, 75 percent hardwoods. Over the years Jepsen has cut out a lot of Jack Pine and planted numerous Norway spruce. Archery gear is their favorite style of deer hunting, with firearm hunting second. “Like most deer hunters I started out with about a half-acre food plot that I put in with an ATV and a disc,” Jepsen noted. “My first crop was Imperial Whitetail Clover and it certainly attracted deer. At first I experimented with various seeds but always had the most success with Whitetail Institute products, so I’ve used them ever since. I rate them a 10.” The year Jepsen planted his half-acre food plot was 1990. A 2-1/2 year-old buck was a top-end sighting during this time period. As the years went along he increased his number of food plots, and always gave careful consideration to their placement. For example, a summer food plot may be in an area where it is hard to hunt, while a fall and winter food plot will be set in a location where the deer feel comfortable using it during hunting seasons. “I have from 13 to 17 stands in place,” Jepsen remarked. “We have a few ladder stands, but three-fourths of our stands are hang-ons. All are placed only after considering what the best wind directions are for each placement. We do erect stands back in the timber because I find the better bucks will oftentimes scent-check the food plots for estrous does from a distance, and I take advantage of this.” As Jepsen increased the number of food plots, he also increased some of them in size. Therefore he hooked up with a local farmer to do the brunt of his work for him. Today he has 80 acres of food plots on his 350 tract. Twenty acres are in Whitetail Institute products. The rest is planted in soybeans and corn. The farmer plants and harvests these fields for a percentage of the crop and comes out well on it with today’s corn and soybean prices. The farmer does leave behind a certain amount of standing corn and soybeans, so it’s easy to see how so many acres on the property are in food plots. It’s good for Jepsen, the deer, and the farmer. Jepsen still uses an ATV coupled with a chisel plow to do smaller food plots in hard-to-get-to locations, and this works out well. Today the soil on this property has been built up and maintained, so a variety of products will do well. Today Jepsen primarily uses Imperial Whitetail Clover, Winter-Greens, Whitetail Oats Plus, and Tall Tine Tubers. “I plant different products at different times of the year,” he said. “Clover, of course, will last for years and provides quality forage. I’ll plant some Winter- Greens in late July for fall and winter hunting. I’ve also started using Whitetail Oats Plus and it has been a tremendous success too.” During the summer Jepsen uses seven surveillance cameras to take inventory of his deer herd. His family also spends considerable time shed hunting and their eight year- old son Skylar is the champion because “he is close to the ground.” They found a set of sheds last year that grosses 181 inches if given a 17-inch spread. The Jepsen family considers any buck 140 and up a shooter and their two best bucks to date go 173 and 171 inches. That’s quite an improvement from a 2-1/2-year-old buck. They are trophies that are certainly worth the hard work that has been put into their property.

Master’s or Doctorate Degree Food Plotter?

Although the title of this article only goes to Master’s Degree I’m not sure we shouldn’t hand out a doctorate degree to Mark Anderson of northwestern Wisconsin. As we southern Indiana hillbillies say, “He’s whole hog into this deer management business!” Anderson had a desire for better hunting and he knew owning his own land would enable him to achieve that goal. In 1999 he found some affordable land in northwest Wisconsin — 3-1/2 hours away. Despite the distance, the 160 acres were soon purchased. Anderson described the property as “an old farm with grown-up fields.” “There were several deer on the old farm,” he said. “The first year I started cleaning up the place and put a quarter-acre food plot in with my ATV and a disc. Most everyone starts with Imperial Whitetail Clover, and so did I. I basically knew nothing about food plots back then. What I have learned over the years has come from reading articles, watching videos, talking to other hunters, and by experimenting. I saw lots of deer on my food plot that first year.” The Anderson farm had hardwoods on it, evergreens, and swamps. It had been cut over, so Anderson made a point to leave every oak he found in place. He even left oaks in food plots since it was one more food source to draw whitetails into one specific area. Talking about a learning process—he once planted 17,000 pine seedlings only to have quackgrass choke out most of them. He sought out a DNR forester and they came up with an approved herbicide to kill out the quackgrass. He uses a forester to help him properly manage his timber resources, and since his first disaster he has planted approximately 100,000 pine trees on his properties. I say properties because since 1999 Anderson has purchased two more tracts within six to eight miles of each other. He and his wife, Tammy, (they have three children) now own 800 acres. It’s worth mentioning at this time that the majority of deer hunters who own land didn’t have it given to them, nor are they extremely wealthy. Most of these families have made many sacrifices to own their own properties and I admire them for their commitments to a goal. Over time Anderson has increased his food plot numbers. Presently he has 20 food plots varying in size from a quarter acre to 5 to 7 acres. Total acreage of all of these plots is 40- 50 acres, and they vary in configuration. Some are square, some rectangular, some “L” shaped, and some are in strips. Each design is used for a specific purpose, which is sometimes dictated by the terrain configuration on the properties. Anderson still sprays his plots using an ATV-mounted sprayer. After this, his equipment gets bigger. Try a 2007 John Deere 5425 4WD with 95 horses. He has a grain drill for the tractor, a disc at each property site, and more. And by the way, he buys Roundup in 30 gallon drums. He also uses a bulldozer to make small roads which allow him to enter and exit different areas in a low impact manner. Also, each of his stands has a special trail to them. His current crop favorites are Winter- Greens, Imperial Whitetail Clover, corn and soybeans. He has some interesting planting designs in use in his food plots. Anderson uses a variety of standard tree stands, some 200 yards off his food plot. But right on some of the plots he does have box blinds 7-foot x 7-foot in size. They have rubber roofs, are 10 feet tall, and have stairs leading up to a platform. This makes it safe to get in and out of the blinds. If you were to step into one of his box blinds on one of his bigger plots during hunting season, here is what you would see. First of all, you would see 12 rows of standing corn bordering the entire perimeter of the plot. This makes the deer feel safe. You would also notice strips of soybeans, corn, Winter- Greens and Imperial Whitetail Clover within the perimeter rows of corn. “I’ve found when planting in strips like this, leaving all of the corn standing, the deer are much more relaxed, and they stay in the plots longer,” Anderson duly noted. And obviously this arrangement is all laid out to encourage the deer at some point to come within good shooting range of the box blind.

Shooter Bucks

When Anderson first purchased his property a good buck would gross 115 to 125 inches. Today he considers a shooter something in the 140s, 150s, or better, and he may see three or four shooters on some hunts. The family’s best buck to date is a 186-inch bruiser. Over the past 10 years his family has killed ten bucks scoring more than 140 inches. I could hear the excitement in his voice when Anderson told me his favorite time to hunt. “My favorite time to hunt, by far, is the late season,” he remarked. “The deer simply pour into my food plots during the late season when it gets cold and the snow gets deep. I can document pulling deer into my property from as far as 5 to 10 miles away. This is when I may see three or four shooters per day. The deer destroy the Winter-Greens at this time of year, and as a result we kill our biggest bucks in late season.”

Closing Out

As can be seen, the readers of Whitetail News go to extreme lengths to improve their hunting experience. Certainly the weekend warriors derive much satisfaction from their hard work since they draw in more, and better, deer. Likewise, the Master’s Degree food plotters are blessed as well for the efforts they have been able to put into deer management, especially since much of it was carried out with the help and approval of their family and friends. All of the folks at Whitetail Institute of North America feel privileged that they have been able to be a big part of such positive deer management improvement for more than 20 years.   Controlling the whitetail herd varies from region to region. In most areas of our nation the whitetail herd is much too large so there are a high number of antlerless deer permits issued each year. Deer managers, however, should evaluate the deer population on their own particular tract of land. This can get extremely interesting. For example, in northwest Wisconsin where Mark Anderson has his land, there are wolves, bears, bobcats and coyotes as predators. Anderson said that when a pack of five or six wolves move into a section of land they can decimate the whitetail herd in a few weeks. In the spring, bears are on the prowl for fawns and kill several of them. Bobcats also take a toll, and coyotes get their share, too. So while most of us may only have to monitor what damage the coyote is doing, Anderson has to more carefully study the fawn kill by predators each year in order to determine whether to shoot doe in the fall, or not.