By Gerald Almy

Question: Have you checked the trends in the Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young record books during the past 20 or 30 years? If you have, you’ve probably noticed something stunning. There has been an explosion of whitetail deer entries starting about 10 years before the turn of the century.

Guess what else happened around that time? Ray Scott founded the Whitetail Institute of North America and singlehandedly began the food plot phenomenon with the introduction of Imperial Whitetail Clover — still the greatest perennial seed for growing trophy whitetails. Since then, the company has grown exponentially. With help from Ray's sons, Steve and Wilson, who joined the company in 1990, and many dedicated employees, Whitetail Institute has expanded to meet the high demand for its established food plot products while continuously researching ways to improve existing products and to develop new, innovative ones for the wildlife land manager. The timing of the beginning of the food plot craze and the dramatic increase in trophy bucks is not coincidental. In fact, a strong case could be made that one is largely responsible for the other. Just how dramatic has the increase in record-book bucks been?

“Since the Whitetail Institute was founded in 1988, and food plots and other deer management techniques became more widely publicized and implemented by hunters across the country, the annual average number of record-book bucks entered has increased 500 percent,” Steve Scott said. Of course, that surge in record-book bucks can’t totally be credited to the food plot phenomenon and Whitetail Institute’s products. Deer hunters have become much better educated not only on the importance of food plots but on all aspects of deer management. Two things are for sure, letting bucks grow older and providing them with high quality nutrition help them grow bigger racks, so more record-book quality animals exist, and more are harvested by hunters. The contribution of Whitetail Institute to the explosion of heavy racked deer can be traced to four distinct ways their products have helped make it possible for the number of record-book trophies — and big deer in general — to multiply so dramatically. Let’s first list the four reasons. Then we’ll delve into each of them a bit more deeply. After that, I’ll describe briefly how my property has followed the same pattern and demonstrated firsthand how the food plot craze has led to an upsurge in more old deer with heavy racks being killed. The parallels between the national whitetail scene and my situation are strong, because I bought the land where I live and started getting into food plots two years after Ray Scott founded the Whitetail Institute. Here are the four ways Whitetail Institute has contributed to the surge in the number of trophy and record-book deer.

1. The nutrition and protein their plants offer help deer grow larger racks.

2. The plots hunters plant help produce more and bigger deer, so hunters have had the opportunity and motivation to pass up smaller bucks and let them obtain the age necessary to grow record-book racks.

3. The work involved in planning and creating plots encourages hunters to spend more time in whitetail habitat, learning more and becoming more knowledgeable of their land which helps them harvest the wariest old bucks.

4. Planting Whitetail Institute products makes deer more predictable, allowing their movements to be patterned as deer travel from bedding areas to food plots.

Now let’s delve into the factors in more detail.

1. High-protein, nutritious foods help deer to grow the largest racks possible. Whitetail Institute products provide forage that tastes good to deer, attracting them and providing the protein and nutrition crucial to growing big bodies. After the nutritional needs for the bodies of deer are met, excess nutrients and minerals in the forage can be used for growing heavier racks. The Whitetail Institute also produces mineral/vitamin supplements such as 30-06, Cutting Edge and Results deer feed designed to fit the specific physiological needs of deer, as opposed to cattle or sheep. All of these products help hunters grow the best deer possible in their area, from healthy does that produce strong, heavier fawns to bucks that grow the biggest racks their genetics will allow.

2. More bucks are being allowed to grow old. This benefit grows directly out of previously mentioned factors. Food plots have helped landowners grow bigger bucks with larger racks, and that has instigated the trend of letting bucks mature beyond the typical one or two year- old that was harvested 20 or 30 years ago. If your plots are growing and attracting deer with racks in the 120- or 140-inch class, what hunter wouldn’t start passing up those spikes, fork horns and spindly racked 8-pointers? Hunters rarely had the opportunity or motivation to pass up younger bucks years ago, when the food available was of poor quality and almost everyone shot bucks before they could grow good headgear. Lately, a philosophy of allowing young bucks to walk at least until they are three or older has developed, nurtured by Whitetail Institute, the Quality Deer Management Association and preached by hunters who have seen how much a deer can develop with age.

3. Hunters are getting more skilled and knowledgeable. Another thing Whitetail Institute has done by encouraging and nurturing food plot establishment throughout the whitetail range is to make deer hunters more knowledgeable about their properties and the behavior of whitetails. That inevitably makes them better hunters and better able to bag old, educated bucks. Many hunters don’t just go out for a few weeks in the fall now. They spend much of the year out in the woods and fields patterning the movements of animals, setting out trail cameras, searching for shed antlers and most important, improving the habitat and creating nutritious food plots to enhance the deer’s health and improve their hunting. As you scout your property to find the best food plot locations, you discover a lot about the topography, the natural vegetation and the lay of the land. You learn about the animals’ behavior as you study your trail camera photos and discover the sign they leave, gradually becoming a more knowledgeable hunter. And that’s the type of hunter who is most likely to harvest an old, wary buck that might make the record books.

4. Food plots make deer more predictable. This benefit of food plots definitely makes taking a mature, potential record-book buck more likely. Properties 20 or 30 years ago often consisted of large tracts of hardwoods where deer fed randomly and huge agricultural tracts that made it hard to tell where a deer, let alone a specific trophy buck, was likely to appear. Now take that setup and add a few lush, strategically located food plots a few hundred yards from thick bedding cover, and suddenly a mature buck’s movement patterns become a bit more predictable. And maybe you even helped create that bedding area with your chainsaw, so you know exactly where it is, or at least you’ve discovered it during scouting and shed hunting and have learned via trail cameras the routes bucks follow from there to one of your plots. Killing a mature buck becomes much more do-able in this situation. And that’s why the record bucks continue to fall. So you see, it’s not just because Whitetail Institute products provide good nutrition that more big bucks are being harvested. It’s also because we have more motivation to pass up young deer, as older bucks are more numerous. It’s because putting in food plots can make us better hunters. And it’s because deer living on properties with food plots are more predictable and more killable. Even with all these positives, tagging a huge, gnarly-racked whitetail is still not easy. But with the use of food plots planted with Whitetail Institute products, habitat-improvement projects and patience to pass up small deer, it is clearly more likely than ever that a hunter using this system stands the best chance to kill a beautiful mature buck. Whether it makes a record book is important to some, but for most of us, what matters is that the deer reaches its full potential. What that potential is will vary from state to state, county to county, and even individual property to property.

Personal Experience

Virginia has produced some outstanding bucks, including a net typical 12-point in the 180s that was bagged just a few miles from me in the Shenandoah Valley. But bucks like that were few and far between when I bought my land 22 years ago. It was rare, in fact, to see a deer in the 130s. Taking a two-year-old with a thin 8-point rack and 16- inch spread would be a real accomplishment. That would typically be a deer in the 100 to 115-inch class. Now many hunters in the area are routinely passing up such deer and searching for three to four-year old bucks and occasionally even five-year-old bucks instead. The reason they’re doing so is because those older bucks are now available, thanks to the use of food plots and improved hunter education, skills and attitudes. Using food plots has not only allowed them to pass up younger deer, it has encouraged them to learn more about their properties, as I have with mine, realizing how deer move in their daily patterns and improving other aspects of the habitat for them besides putting in plots. When I added shrubs, planted warm-season grasses and had timberstand improvement done, and then built a couple of ponds, deer began living on the property instead of just passing through. That meant they could be allowed to grow older, and soon 100- to 110-inch bucks were being replaced with 120s, 130s and 140s. Every year, I added more plots, sticking mostly to Imperial Whitetail Clover for the perennials but adding Chicory Plus for when we experience dry summer conditions. Then I realized annuals such as PowerPlant were a good addition to provide more varied food sources. In late summer, I put in Winter-Greens and Tall Tine Tubers. These plants also helped kill the weeds in the soil by shading them out and preparing the ground for future perennial plantings.

This year, I added Whitetail Oats Plus which provided a terrific fall and winter food source that deer craved because of its high sugar content. Each year during the two decades I’ve been putting in food plots, the racks of deer have gradually attained more mass and gained inches. And the more large deer I saw, the more I passed up younger ones because I knew I could take an older buck with enough patience, paralleling a national movement that was underway. The high-quality nutrition from the Whitetail Institute plots, combined with the increase in older bucks and better understanding of my land’s topography and vegetation were paying big dividends. And one of the most important of those benefits was that it’s made the deer on my land more predictable in their movements — the fourth benefit of Whitetail Institute products and the food plot craze. The patterns of travel are so much more predictable than when I bought the property it's like night and day. When I bought the land, there were fescue fields, some scattered cedars that offered cover, a few agricultural fields on either side of me and a woods that was too one-dimensional. Deer movement was almost random, it seemed. Now, almost every day, deer leave the thick cover of the woods and head into one of my plots to feed toward dark. It’s just a matter of pinpointing which one they’ll use on a given day and deciding whether to set up on the plot or hunt back in the woods closer to where they bed. But the chance is there any day, thanks to the plots, to tag a brute. And who knows? Maybe a buck with genes from that 180-inch 12- pointer killed across the valley will wander into one of my plots one afternoon. If he does, I’ll be ready for him. But even if the deer I kill is much smaller, at least he will have reached more of his potential than he would have 25 years ago, before the food plot revolution began. And that is the real reward of putting in plots and doing habitat work. Whether you can grow 170-inch bucks that qualify for Boone and Crockett or grow 120- or 150-inch bucks, it shouldn’t really matter much. The pleasure lies in letting the deer in your area reach their full potential or close to it. It’s a reward I hope I’ll never stop enjoying until my days end.