My Last Five Food-Plot Bucks

By Bill Winke

There isn’t any question that food plots play a huge role in my deer-management plans and hunting strategies. In fact, my most exciting hunts have occurred on or near food plots. Such is the nature of whitetail deer — they are creatures of habit and slaves to their stomachs. As hunters, we need to understand that and put it to work for us. In this feature, I’ll review my last five food-plot bucks. Further, I'll explain how, why and where I planted the plots, and then detail how I hunted them.


As much as I love to hunt my best plots, I still save them for the children. Food plots are awesome places to introduce youngsters to the thrill of the hunt. Youngsters are sure to see more deer and have more shot opportunities when hunting a food plot than any other place. That line of reasoning led to one of my most exciting hunts. This past September, during Iowa’s youth season, our daughter, Jordan, shot a great buck with a .50-caliber muzzleloader over a field planted with Imperial Whitetail Clover and alfalfa. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, let me tell you why I planted that food plot where I did. When I say “I” planted it, what I really mean is I paid a local farmer to plant it. I have run just about every piece of equipment known to farming, but I don’t own any of it. It is just a philosophy I have about spending my money to buy land. Eventually, when I have purchased all I think I can handle, I’ll save up a little bit to buy a half-dozen pieces of equipment. Until then, it makes sense to spend my time in the office writing and in the field taking photos. Meanwhile, I pay someone else to put in the tractor time. I handle all the commercial fields on the farm the same way, I pay to have a local farmer plant and harvest them. Although this is a better strategy for making the most of my time and money, there are definitely some trade-offs. It is difficult to get a farmer to do the piddly stuff; the kind of micro-plots that really fine-tune a hunting area. Also, you don’t control timing when you don’t own the equipment. As a result, most of my food plots are a direct extension of my farming operation. The farmer plants my food plots when he comes in to plant my commercial fields. It is a very efficient way to get the plots done, to be sure, but not necessarily the best way to tweak a hunting area. So, the five-acre plot in question serves two purposes: It is a commercial hayfield and a deer food plot. It's on the end of a long ridge field where the soil grows thin, and deer (and dry conditions) generally ravage corn and soybeans. The plot is ideally situated to attract deer while minimizing my crop losses. And attract deer it does. Jordan nicknamed it Bucky Field after the first evening we spent in a tree stand along the field’s edge. We saw nine bucks and no does. Jordan shot the third biggest buck on the field as it walked past our stand at 50 yards. It was her third — and biggest — buck to date. It is difficult to beat green food plots (Imperial Clover and Alfa-Rack Plus) tucked on the back end of ridgetop fields, surrounded by timber. These are earlyseason buck magnets. I can’t think of a better place to hang a stand.


I don’t want to leave out my son’s first buck. Andrew hunted Iowa's regular shotgun season, which opens the first Saturday in December, so it falls in the classic post-rut period. The bucks are run down from rutting during November, and they hit the food sources hard. Many Iowa shotgun hunters engage in deer drives, but I prefer to take advantage of these feeding patterns. So, my family hunts from blinds or stands over high-energy food sources — specifically corn or Imperial Winter-Greens. On this hunt, we were watching a corner of a fouracre food plot near an old log cabin we have kept in shape. The cabin serves as a giant ground blind, complete with a wood-burning stove — the perfect place to take a 7-year-old during a cold December afternoon. Andrew shot his first buck with the same .50-caliber muzzleloader Jordan used, but I loaded it lighter, with only one 50-grain powder pellet to go with the 250-grain bullet. It worked very well on the 50-yard shot. By the way, this setup shoots six inches lower at 75 yards than the same gun burning three powder pellets. A tree line separates this food plot from a larger crop field, giving the deer some measure of seclusion and security, which I’m sure encourages them to come out of the bordering timber to feed during daylight. I never hunt this field until after the children have hunted it first, because it's difficult to get out of there without alerting deer. That brings up a bigger issue of how often you can hunt your food plots. As I’m sure you know, not all plots are created equal. I didn’t pick this field for its ease of hunting. It was simply a place where I could grow food. It is not a field I can hunt often, because there is no foolproof way to get out of there at dark. In fact, I try very hard to shoot a doe before climbing down from my stand each time I hunt around this field. Shooting a doe is a good way to clear the deer out while doing some necessary herd thinning.


Though the field where Andrew shot his buck is not ideal for repeated hunting, I have a food plot in a spot that's as close to perfect as any I have found. In fact, I couldn’t have done any better if I had laid it out myself. You would do well to copy this setup on your farm. The food plot is on a narrow ridgetop field, 250 yards long by 55 yards wide. I can walk along a county road until I come to an erosion ditch that leads into another ditch that parallels the ridge. I follow it for a while and then take a third ditch that ascends the ridge to the food plot. I can sneak within 30 yards of my tree stand using these ditches with little risk of being seen, heard or smelled by nearby deer. The stand is straight across the food plot from the point where a secondary ridge joins the ridgetop field on the other side. In that direction, there is solid timber for nearly a half mile. Deer use this secondary ridge to enter the field, and my stand is straight across from them. The odds are very high that any deer coming to the plot will end up within bow range. It's also interesting to watch the bucks cruise right down the center of the field during the rut — easy pickings. I only hunt it when the wind is from the field toward the stand so my scent sweeps off the side of the ridge and out over the valley, toward the road. It's very rare when a deer smells me downwind. It is a killer stand. During the 2005 season, I had a beautifully symmetrical 180-class 10-pointer come out and feed in the food plot an hour before sunset Nov. 28. He was just 40 yards from the stand. Unfortunately, I had already filled my either-sex tags and was only hunting does. Speaking of which, I have shot a truckload of does from that stand. As long as I don’t get too heavyhanded shooting does, I can hunt that stand every evening the wind blows from the west or northwest. Even when deer are feeding in the field, it's easy to climb down along the back of the big oak tree and sneak out through the nearby ditch. Though I have passed up dozens of bucks during the three years I have hunted that stand, I finally shot my first one this past year. He was an old-timer that I wrote about in a recent feature in this magazine. It was the third year I had seen the buck on that ridge, and he had not grown an inch larger. It was time to take him out. Some food plots set up much better for undetected hunting. Some are also natural deer traps that are nearly foolproof. This stand just happens to be both. If you can set up such a spot on your farm, you will be richly rewarded.


Sometimes bucks forgo their usual extraordinary caution to grab a needed meal. That is the case during the late season. Where I spend most of my time hunting in Iowa, the onset of winter creates a tremendous opportunity to shoot a nice buck on a predictable pattern. As long as the hunting pressure is moderate, even mature bucks will show up on high-quality food sources in late December and early January. The most exciting hunts I've experienced have occurred during this period, when seemingly every buck on the farm was standing in front of me munching corn, soybeans or Winter-Greens. I bet I have passed up 30 mature bucks during December and January hunts during the past three years. I don’t like to shoot them because the show has to end. As long as there is daylight — and a tag in my pocket — there is hope that Mongo will step out. Sometimes you don’t truly appreciate the value of your food plots from a hunting standpoint until the late season. If you don’t have any good food remaining on your property by that time, you have a problem. You don’t have enough food-plot acres, or you have too many deer — or both. I don’t believe that I have the right mix of deer density and food-plot acres unless my food sources last until spring green-up. That assures that I will always enjoy top-quality late-season hunting, and my deer will have optimal nutrition to enter spring in great shape. That was a long-winded intro to describe the situation when I shot a nice 9-pointer during the end of the 2005 season. I thought he was bigger than he was because I field-judged him at 40 yards with binoculars. Never do that. They always look 15 inches bigger. Regardless, he was mature and serves as the perfect example of the power of food to conform the patterns of late-season deer and make them vulnerable to careful hunting.


Bucks know where does spend most of their time, and that's where they tend to wander and linger during the rut. We all know that in the evenings, does are heading toward food. So, it's no surprise that food is also where we will find the bucks. That was the case Nov. 6, 2005. That afternoon, I shot a buck from a stand between two food plots. Actually, the stand overlooked the end of a ditch that deer had to go around when traveling from one plot to the other. The buck came out in one plot, grabbed a few bites to eat, nudged the does around and then bee-lined straight toward my ditch crossing. After he crossed the ditch and stopped to survey the adjacent plot, I shot him at 25 yards. It was clear from his behavior that his intentions were to look for any does that might be feeding in the plot before moving on — probably to the next plot. Doe behavior controls much of what happens during the rut. Everyone thinks that buck behavior is the key to success. Well, the bucks are only reacting to the does. So if you understand the does, you will by default understand the bucks. I have noticed that does feed openly as the rut is building on the front end and again as it is dying on the back end. However, during the peak breeding phase of the rut, they are often deep in hiding. The bucks might still poke around the food sources a little bit looking for them during this time, but overall, you will not see much action on the food. However, you can’t go wrong hunting food plots every evening leading up the peak of breeding — which usually lasts a week — and every evening after it passes. Food is the focal point of a deer’s life, and it is also the focal point of most of my hunting strategies. When you have the ability to control the type, quality and location of your food plots, it's definitely in your best interests as a hunter to do the best job possible. You will be rewarded.