Planting by the Compass Helps Ensure a Great Plot

We’ve all been there in science class. A teacher holds up a globe (or basketball) and a flashlight (simulating the sun) and demonstrates how solar rays strike the earth (yawn, yawn). Had the teacher mentioned that deer predictably feed on plants according to the sun’s angle, you’d probably have aced the class — right? Luckily, it’s not too late for Deer/Earth Science 101 as Neil Dougherty enlightens and informs hundreds of clients each year.

“Everything in a deer’s world revolves around its stomach,” Dougherty said. “And the more you know where the food is, the more successful you will be. Not just where an apple tree is dropping, but peeling the onion back to determine where the best forages can be found on a property and its food production potential.” Dougherty, operations manager at North Country Whitetails, believes no matter how small or large a piece of property, the more direct light it receives, the hotter it becomes. The sun is a critical factor in soil temperature and moisture retention, knowledge he capitalized on while hunting late this past fall.

Spot and Stalk Whitetails

“I was seeing some really good deer on my trail cameras as the rut began to wane,” said Dougherty, switching from consultant to predator mode. “Deer were getting back to a feeding pattern, making observation a key element on a particular property that had three main feeding areas: perennials (primarily clover), brassica and CRP grass.” As he pondered hunting one of the three, he kept the compass principal in mind and headed toward the field facing the southwest. This property had one very high tree stand used primarily for observation, so a hunter could observe the actions of a particular deer and then plan a stalk or ambush. As dawn broke, Dougherty spotted a very large deer, barely visible in the dim light as it moved along the edge of a crop field. The animal was 400 yards away, and its rack difficult to judge, yet the body size was impressive. As the sun rose, and the morning progressed, Dougherty waited patiently before making his move. Finally, around 9:30 a.m., the buck emerged from the timber and began moving through a CRP field searching for does. After bumping a couple with no success, it bedded in the tall grass, a signal for Dougherty to take action. He climbed from the stand and moved toward an ambush point, anticipating that the buck would soon begin cruising again and head his way. The other option was to stalk the bedded animal, like a Western mule deer, yet the 3- to 5-foot-high grass was very arrow-unfriendly, even at close range. Soon, the buck emerged but moved directly away. “I glassed him and believed it was a 4-year-old as it went into a thick pocket of brush,” Dougherty said. He figured it would emerge a few minutes later. The hunter quickly moved along a drainage ditch next to a small stream that created a funnel and a likely travel route for the deer. Using the drainage ditch for cover, he slipped within 70 yards of the buck and planned to intercept it there. “Completely concealed by the drainage ditch, I believed the buck was directly in front of me and hurried farther downwind to circle in the likely path of the deer. Unfortunately, I was a few minutes too late,” Dougherty said.

Big Buck: Incoming

Again, Dougherty ducked into the drainage ditch and raced to get ahead of the buck as it searched for does in the CRP grass. “Sneaking from the ditch I spotted the buck headed right toward me at about 80 yards. A 25 mph wind whipped the grass and made lots of noise, helping to conceal my movements,” Dougherty said. “As the buck approached steadily, I came to full draw at about 40 yards and I expected it to pass broadside at 20. Instead, it veered in my direction as if on a collision course. The impending point-blank encounter nearly broke my concentration, but at eight steps, I released and watched the arrow bury deeply into its chest. The deer whirled, ran 80 yards and piled up.” Dougherty was delighted with the heavy, 250-pound buck, which scored right at 140 P&Y, and the style of the hunt was equally if not more satisfying. Spotting and stalking whitetails in tall grass is fairly common in the Great Plains, where vast fields of tall grass make a perfect hiding place. You can watch a field all afternoon and see nothing, yet as evening approaches, deer pop up like one of those bash-a-gopher games. On a calm day, stalking is almost impossible, but with a good breeze and the ability to see deer and plan a stalk, good things can happen. “This is one of my favorite stands and favorite Northeastern properties to hunt,” Dougherty said. “You can watch a food plot and 200 acres of grass. It’s just nonstop glassing with a chance to stalk a buck when it stands up. This is a unique farm and a real blast to hunt. I wanted to be on the food plots facing south and west, and it worked out just right.”

A Day in the Life of a Summer Plot Plant

At midnight, photosynthesis is in sleep mode, and all plants in the plot have the same temperatures, regardless of their sun orientation. As dawn nears, dew forms on vegetation and the soil remains partially shaded and cool. As noon approaches, the sun rises directly overhead, air temperatures increase, soil receives direct sunlight and warms leading to 4 to 5 p.m., when the temperature is typically the highest and plants suffer the greatest stress. This is the period when plants and soil capture the highest thermal radiation from the sun and become the most vulnerable to drought. The angle of the sun is consistent on plots that are pool table flat. However, most small patches and fields have rolling topography or might be part of a larger slope that tilts its contents toward or away from the sun. A plot that tips toward the morning sky or the southwest in late afternoon will gather more energy from the sun, and temperature will influence how the plot grows and how deer react to it. Dougherty suggests looking at polar opposites as a clarifying example. “A field that faces the northern sky will experience angled sunlight and, all things being equal, will be the coolest and usually be the most moist site on the property. The sun, due to its lower angle will have greater reflection, less absorption and results in cooler soil temperatures. These spots are ideally suited for perennial plants and can be a great spot for summer forage for deer, especially in drought areas,” Dougherty said. “The exact opposite occurs if the plot faces the southwest sky such that it gets maximum energy from the sun and the soil temperatures can be significantly higher than the northern orientation. Southwestern slopes can be very droughty and difficult to grow plants during summer months.” These generalizations must be tempered with latitude. In upstate New York, the southwest exposure might be preferable because of a shorter growing season and lower average summer temperatures. Likewise, planting a north-facing plot in Alabama might help shelter the plot from radiation that could fry plants facing directly toward the sun.

Planting on Course

“Smart plant managers will develop plots to all points of the compass,” Dougherty said. “Deer react to how well the grocery store is stocked, and how well it is stocked depends on how well the plot grows. All summer, deer will feed in the northern facing plots. These will also be the first to be affected by frost in the late fall or winter. As those plants become dormant, the browse tendency will shift toward the southeast and southwest, which typically will hold the last forage of the year. From a hunting strategy, you want to progress toward the warmer ground slopes as the hunting seasons progresses, as deer will usually feed on the lushest sides of the plots.” Planting by the compass helps to ensure that plots will survive according to seasonal variations of temperature and moisture. In high levels of rain, the southwest plots will produce better, whereas in years of drought and high temperature, the northern plots may do better. In this way, at least half of the plants will live up to their potential because they are best suited for the conditions of the year — too much rain or not enough. Ironically, the compass approach works well on small or very large food plots. Dougherty has observed that deer feeding in alfalfa fields in rolling topography will naturally select those plants according to their newness of growth. In early season when the sun is high and moisture is low, deer prefer plants in the valleys or on the north slopes of the rolling terrain, because those plants receive less direct sunlight. As the season progresses and the previous dining areas become more shaded and the soil cools, deer move toward the southwest where plants are benefitting from the more direct rays of fall.

Top Plant Picks for Plots

Dougherty works full time as a wildlife consultant assisting landowners and hunt club managers to maximize their deer health through food plots. Here are his recommendations for maximizing the success of your plots.
Northern Slopes: Imperial Whitetail Clover. It is high in nutrition and is extremely attractive to deer well beyond the first frosts of late fall or winter.
Southeastern Slopes: Chicory Plus or Imperial Whitetail Clover. Southeastern slopes are one of the easiest directions to grow plots because almost everything you plant looks good and grows well.
South Slopes: Chicory Plus or Whitetail Extreme (if soil is sandy) Dougherty also recommends you consider planting hunting foods in this orientation and consider planting them in brassica products such as Winter-Greens or Tall Tine Tubers late in the summer.
West/Southwest: Because this is the hottest and driest orientation, he recommends extreme caution when planting a perennial here and suggests holding this plot for a fall hunting source, such as No-Plow, Pure Attraction, Winter-Greens, or Tall Tine Tubers.   

A PLANT PLAN OF ACTION: “Based on my 20 years in food plots, typically two out of five years are too wet or too dry, and planting by the compass helps you plan for that,” Dougherty said. “On perfect years, you will grow lots of food everywhere. If you want to be a better deer manager and meet the nutritional needs of wildlife, be sure that you always have food in front of your animals. The easiest way to do that is to plant by the compass to help eliminate the weather factors. In drought years, northern slopes will keep producing so that your deer don’t travel to neighboring properties. In seasons of abundant moisture, the south-southwestern exposures will also be the ticket.