By Charles J. Alsheimer

 The heart and soul of the American deer hunter has been defined by researchers. Nearly a half-century ago, Robert Jackson and Robert Norton from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse set out to see if hunters progressed through stages in their pursuit of whitetail deer. After interviewing more than 1,000 hunters, they concluded that America’s deer hunters pass through five stages in their lifetime deer hunting journey.

Five Stages of the Hunter The Shooter Stage: This is when hunters begin. They need to have some success and be able to have a level of accomplishment.

The Limiting-Out Stage: From Stage One, most hunters progress to this stage. In Stage Two, the hunter’s goal is to harvest as many animals as is legally possible.

The Trophy Stage: In this stage, the hunter has enough knowledge of his quarry that he begins to exhibit selectivity. Bigger antlers and a keen knowledge of stewarding the whitetail resource begin to take center stage in the deer hunter’s life.

The Method Stage: By the time a hunter reaches this stage, he is beginning to mellow out. With many autumns under his belt, he begins to become more interested in how he hunts. Understanding deer behavior also becomes paramount.

The Sportsman’s Stage: By the time a hunter hits this stage, he truly knows who he is. He knows deer behavior, has killed many deer, has probably become involved in the preservation of hunting and makes a conscious effort to see that hunting is passed on to the next generation. This is also the stage when many deer hunters become involved as managers of their own deer hunting properties. I’ve often viewed this stage as the reflective stage, with many similarities to the stewardship and slow-and-steady phases of food plotting. Though all five stages can stand alone, stages three through five are often interwoven. As a 68-year-old, I see how I’ve progressed through the five stages in my deer hunting journey, but it’s the latter three that have given me the greatest satisfaction. In many ways, how I viewed whitetails and hunted and managed them took a quantum leap forward in December 1989, when I traveled to Texas to do a magazine story on legendary deer biologist Al Brothers. The encounter really got me thinking about what I call total deer management (TDM); the management of all segments of a deer population and the natural habitat and all wildlife that inhabits the property. Many now look at TDM as quality deer management (QDM). Since 1989, I’ve become immersed in practicing TDM/QDM on my family farm. Writing, lecturing and consulting about the virtues of the concept has let me interact with sportsmen across the whitetail’s range. I’ve gleaned from these encounters that a person’s or group’s desire to have better deer and deer hunting often parallels the five stages of the deer hunter. What follows are the five stages of food plotting and deer and land management, which I believe hunters progress through as they strive to have better properties, deer and hunting.

Five Stages of Food Plotting Intro Stage: Everything in life has an introductory step. The key to successful food plotting is taking the first step, when a hunter or landowner becomes interested in having better deer and deer hunting. This process usually begins simmering when they are introduced to the benefits of growing food plots for deer, from magazine articles, through a friend, by attending seminars or through social media.

Skeptic Stage: After being introduced to the many nuances of quality deer management, the wheels begin turning in the hunter’s mind as he wrestles with whether he can do it. Unfortunately, this stage keeps some hunters and landowners from seeing the beauty of food plotting and natural habitat management. For many years, I was a bit skeptical about wasting my time doing food plots and managing for better deer. I can vividly remember my first thoughts when Brothers introduced me to what he called quality deer management. While bumping down a dusty ranch road in southern Texas, looking for whitetails, he asked me if I had any desire to have better whitetails on our farm. My response was sure, but that would never happen in my region of New York because of tremendous hunting pressure. Our area is the poster child for the phrase, "If it’s brown it’s down," so the chances of seeing any buck older than 2-½ is close to zero. I also told Brothers that most people didn’t have enough land to make it happen. In the months that followed, Brothers stayed in touch and continued to encourage me to think about planting food plots on our farm and shying away from harvesting yearling bucks. Admittedly, I struggled as a skeptic, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was worth a try.

Toe-in-the-Water Stage: You can’t put land managers in a box, because everyone progresses in the food plot/deer management game differently. Unlike their fathers and grandfathers, many of today’s deer hunters know little about farming practices. This causes many initial food plotters to cut corners or simply ignore the role soil pH, seed selection and other aspects play in a successful program. As a result, they do little more than stick their toe in the water, hoping for the best. A downside of this stage is that it causes some to give up trying to have better food plots and natural habitat for deer. These folks throw in the towel because of the cost of equipment, seed, lime and fertilizer, or they don’t believe they have the time to turn a property into a whitetail paradise. Though a few drop out at some point, many others succeed and progress to the next stage.

Slow-and-Steady Stage: All successful food plot practitioners have one thing in common. They thirst for knowledge, because knowledge is the doorway to success. They acquire their food plot knowledge through experience, social media, by attending seminars or through reading books and magazines, such as the one you're holding. As they progress slowly through this stage, they acquire a keen knowledge of soil chemistry, seed selections, food plot layout, natural habitat creation and how deer roam the property. These folks have experienced success and failure as they’ve worked through the food plot, land and deer management process and know what it takes to have the best deer and deer hunting experience possible. They also know that without having great food offerings, the level of success they desire is not possible. Simply put, food plots are what makes their quality deer management process exciting. At some point in the process, slow-and-steady stagers come to realize their efforts benefit much more than whitetails. No longer just deer hunters, they become stewards of everything that lives on the land they love while mentoring the people they bring along for the ride.

Stewardship Stage: I planted the first ‘green field’ on our farm 42 years ago. It was a 2-acre winter-wheat plot. At the time, no one in our area even thought of planting for deer, but I had heard and read enough about them to take the leap by providing a late-season food source. My goal was to have more food for our farm’s deer with the hope of having increased sightings and better hunting. Compared to today, my initial efforts were marginal at best. In spite of that, there was an upside to my feeble beginning. What I experienced was enough to keep my interest in the benefits planting for deer could bring to the deer-management equation. So, during the next 15 years, I kept nibbling around the edges, planting a couple of plots each year while working to improve the farm’s natural habitat. Throughout, I kept learning all I could about how to make the farm better for wildlife. I inched from the toe-in-the-water stage to the slow-and-steady stage in 1989, when Al Brothers encouraged me to give the quality deer management concept a shot. In the years that followed, my planting and deer management journey accelerated. To say it has been special would be an understatement.

When I became serious, and went from green fields to food plots along with deer and land management, the quality of our farm’s deer herd blossomed. Instead of planting just late-season grain food plots, I added warm-season plots of Imperial Whitetail Clover. To complement our food plots, we ramped up the way we managed the farm’s natural habitat for natural food and cover. This also had a significant impact on antler growth. When we began changing the way we do things in 1989, it was a rare treat to see any buck older than 1-½. Now, we see older bucks regularly. The accompanying photos illustrate some of the successes my son and I’ve had since our management program took off in the early 1990s. Thanks to great food plot offerings, our deer now get the nutrients needed for doe lactation and optimum antler growth. What I’ve discovered after 27 years of being immersed in the food plot and deer management game is that progressing through the phases of food plotting has affected more than just the deer. What has truly been special about the process is how it has strengthened the relationship I have with my son, Aaron.

He was 11 years old when I began seriously managing our farm for better deer. As a result of our successes, he bought into what I wanted to do before he could legally carry a firearm. Now as a successful attorney in his late 30s, he’s still excited about turning the earth, planting seed and hunting mature whitetails, all possible because he’s seen the benefits of food plotting. As great as all this has been, there is much more to the joy of my journey. Through the years, I’ve met hundreds of people who have reaped the benefits of food plots and deer management. All say the same thing — that the food plot experience has brought so much joy to their lives because of the way it allows them to give back to nature and the people around them. Everything from deer to small game to songbirds to their property’s soil and forests has benefited, allowing them the satisfaction of being true stewards of the land God entrusted to them. The longer I live, the more I realize the brevity of life’s journey. It seems like only yesterday that I planted that first green field. Yes, that journey began 42 years ago, but what an incredible journey it has been.

Thanks to the whitetail deer and embracing the process required to make them thrive, my life has been special. Winston Churchill was so right when he said, “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.” I’ve been blessed to have been a part of many things in the hunting world. One of the best is the way I’ve seen sportsmen give back to the wildlife they pursue. They’ve always put their money where their mouths are. This is especially the case of those involved in the food plot process, because their efforts benefit all of nature, from deer to the plants and trees that grow on the land.