REWARDS IN THE WHITETAIL WOODS — Habits of Successful Food Plotters

By Joe Blake

Conditions could not have been more poor for my daughter Megan’s first deer season last year. Extremely high winds and rain kept deer movement at a standstill throughout the opening weekend of the Minnesota rifle season, and as Thursday morning dawned, the nine-day hunt was already winding down. With only four days left to hunt, my wife Kim decided to hunt that morning before school, so she and Megan left the house in the pre-dawn darkness and made their way across our property. A blind watching over a lush field of Tall Tine Tubers in the corner of our 75 acres was their destination, and that proved to be a wise decision. 

Glancing at her watch, Kim whispered to our 10-year-old daughter that they’d have to start packing up as they had to head back to the house in a few minutes if they were going to make it to school on time. No sooner had the words left her mouth than movement at the edge of the woods caught their eyes. A fat young buck trotted from cover and into the field of turnips in front of them and dropped his head to feed. Megan eased her .243 onto the shooting sticks and took careful aim at the buck 60 yards away. When the little gun barked, the buck exploded from the field and disappeared back into the heavy timber. His flight would be a short one, though, as Megan had made a perfect double-lung shot, putting the fat 7-pointer down in a matter of seconds, and making one little girl and her parents as proud as can be. Food plots played an integral part in the success of my daughter’s first deer season, as they likewise did for my son Ryan during his first hunt, when he dropped two big does from the same blind along the same field planted with the very same Tall Tines Tubers just three years earlier. As we field-dressed Megan’s buck, I couldn’t help but think about how food plots have greatly improved deer and deer hunting. They have led to more deer, more bucks, bigger bucks and better hunting opportunities, and I regularly hunt along or adjacent to food plots across the whitetail’s range from Canada down to Texas. Thinking about my own food plot successes and failures during the past handful of years, I couldn’t help but notice some common themes developing, so I decided to quiz some other hardcore deer hunters and managers to see if these habits worked on other lands as well. What I came up with are the habits of successful food plotters. The first step was to contact and visit with some other serious land managers, a task that isn’t too difficult anymore because more avid whitetail hunters practice deer management. For this article, I chatted with Kale Graham, Derek Revering and Michael Vaughn, and drew conclusions from my experiences. Together, the four of us manage almost 4,000 acres of prime whitetail habitat, and after researching the issue, it became clear that certain habits were virtually universal.

Testing, 1, 2, 3

The first step to a successful food plot is to get your soil tested, period. Simply going out and planting seeds will rarely cut it. Your local farmer’s elevator can do the job, but I prefer to get soil test kits from the Whitetail Institute because they’re in the business of growing and managing whitetails, and I get the results back quicker and the recommendations made are easier to understand. Soil testing is quick and easy, but make sure to follow the recommendations and heed the advice of the professionals when it comes to improving your plots.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Different food plot offerings provide the deer herd protein, nutrients and other essentials in various degrees throughout the year, so if possible don’t just plant just one type of seed. Offer deer a smorgasbord they can use to their advantage all year, and your herd will benefit.

Preparation is the Key

What I’ve found in the past couple of years is that seedbed preparation is crucial to having top-notch food plots. Simply, if the seed you plant does not have good seed-to-soil contact it will be less likely to give you a great-looking plot that’s full of deer, and the best tool for the job is a cultipacker. A cultipacker is nothing more than a heavy roller that firms up the soil and presses your seed down tight to the dirt. This is especially important for small seeds such as clover or brassicas. If I’m planting these offerings, I roll my food plot before broadcasting the seed and then roll again to achieve optimum soil contact. Some of my group of land managers use a cultipacker, and others use some type of drag system, but the consensus was clear: Seed bed preparation is vitally important.

Pump Up Your Plots

Fertilizing your perennial plots once or twice a year in the spring and/or fall is highly recommended. To make sure you add exactly what is needed and don’t waste money on unnecessary nutrients, do a soil test prior to applying fertilizer. Again, it's important to enlist the help of the experts at your local elevator or the Whitetail Institute to learn exactly what fertilizer you need to put on your food plots and how much you need to apply.

Size Matters

When laying out your food plot strategy, the physical size of your plots is an important consideration. Destination plots, those intended to maximize your herd’s food availability throughout the year, are by necessity much larger than hunting plots. All of us agree that a well managed property will have destination plots as well as hunting plots, which are much smaller in size and more strategically located so as to attract those big bucks during daylight. I like my larger food sources to be anywhere from two to five acres, and I keep my hunting plots at an acre or less to better allow me to cover the setup with my longbow. These sentiments were echoed throughout the group.

Mow ‘em Down

Occasional mowing is part of the maintenance plan for perennials such as Imperial Whitetail Clover, Chicory Plus, Edge, Extreme and Alfa-Rack Plus. Mowing the plants not only helps keep weed intrusion to a minimum but also stimulates new growth, which is highly attractive to deer. Generally, I like to mow just as the plants are maturing but before they go to seed. This keeps my fields staying lush and green and full of deer. And this also helps prevent weeds from seeding out which would create much more competition in the future. NOTE: Do not mow when it is hot and dry.

Sunset Rendezvous

As far as actual hunting habits, all of us agree that hunting over an actual food plot is pretty much an evening affair. Morning hunts are difficult because deer will likely be in the plots as you access your stands, and spooking the deer off the fields will simply make them more nocturnal. Slipping in quietly several hours before sunset is your best bet when actually sitting over the food plots, but caution is still a key, and entrance and exit plans should be well thought out. Getting in usually isn’t a problem, but sneaking away without spooking deer as you leave is definitely beneficial. Kale uses trimmers and rakes to clear a silent walking path that keeps him out of the fields and away from the deer. All of us agree that hunting right on the food source is best early in the season when deer are still in their relaxed summer patterns, or late in the season when food becomes of paramount importance.

The Stage is Set

My favorite hunting setups are actually in staging areas adjacent to but not actually on the food plot. Deer, especially trophy bucks, will stage up in heavy cover and often wait to enter the fields until full darkness settles in, so if you sit directly on a food source, you may only see does and fawns and immature bucks. Look for heavy cover that shows a lot of rubbing and scraping activity, and you will have found a staging area that your bucks are using regularly. My favorite setup paid off for me this past November when I was set up just inside heavy timber about 100 yards from a field of Tall Tines Tubers. An hour before dark, a doe led a record-class buck into the staging area, and a well-placed 8-yard shot from my longbow put the big deer down in short order. You might well see more deer sitting on the food plot itself, but for bigger bucks, set the stage in heavy cover nearby.

Funnel ‘em In

Derek’s favorite setups are often well away from the actual food plots, as he prefers to ambush big bucks in heavy cover on oak ridges and pinch points between the food sources. Bucks will use these travel ways as the pre-rut kicks in and they are cruising to look for hot does. Various doe groups will be using the food plots, so the bucks will use connecting funnels to check out each plot for prospective girlfriends. Often, the bucks will never show themselves on the food source during daylight, so these funnels can be the key to successful hunting. The food plots are still the draw, but just like with staging areas, your odds of success on more mature bucks increase when you set up back in heavy cover. Food plots and deer management have forever changed the way we hunt whitetails, and clearly for the better. If you want to improve the health of your deer herd and your success rate, start practicing these habits of successful food plotters.