The plant-and-shoot method for food plots won't work forever. To get the best results from food plots, some hunters employ strategy to how they hunt them.
Plant it, and they will come. Just make sure you don’t hunt it too much. If you do, or if you make some mistakes in how you hunt it, they may only come at night. Or they might stop coming at all.
Deer and food plots… the idea of turning dirt and sowing seed for deer has spread from state WMAs and big landowners to the logging decks of most every hunting club in the state.
Planting food plots and getting them to grow can be complicated enough, but as hunters get several years under their belts hunting food plots, they learn that strategy can also make a big difference in how many deer you see and kill on food plots.
The most common mistake is putting too much hunting pressure on and around food plots. All of a sudden you have a lush, green field that fills up with deer, and it is hard to resist the temptation to slap a stand on the edge of the plot. And hunt it. A lot.
Last October we had a small clover patch along the edge of a field. A thin strip of woods between the clover and our gravel drive didn’t hide the group of does that I saw every evening as I drove in from work.
Meanwhile, the white oaks and red oaks that were usually sure things weren’t sure things. The reason was simple, acorns were absolutely everywhere. By the second weekend of gun season, my dad was ready to get to work. He settled into a ladder stand overlooking the clover patch. Three slickheads soon appeared. Dad took his time, scoping each to make sure he could pick out a mature doe. Another pair entered the clover, then several more. When he was finally able to pull the trigger, the field was full of deer.
The next evening, no deer showed up in the field. We never saw another deer in that food plot last season. Not one. A plot that attracted 10 deer every single evening was deserted.
Most folks plant food plots to improve their land and their deer, but they also love having a great new spot for a stand. Is one hunt and one doe all we can expect from a patch of clover?
The answer is, not usually. But when you shoot a deer out of the plot under certain conditions, don’t expect that plot to keep attracting deer during shooting hours. Our theory was that we had two conditions in play last season. First, pulling the trigger when the field was full of deer told the survivors that their little clover patch wasn’t such a good idea anymore.
This decision was made much easier for those deer last fall since the woods were slap full of acorns — condition No. 2. An abundance of food means deer will tolerate even less hunting pressure.
I was talking to Lindsay Thomas Jr. about hunting food plots a few weeks ago. Lindsay, who was a GON editor for eight years and is now the publications manager for QDMA, just wrote a chapter on this subject for a new QDMA book.
Lindsay said the first strategy for hunting a food plot is simply to hunt it only when conditions are right.
“Think about things like wind and competing food sources. If you’re competing against a bumper crop of white oaks, and it’s October and it’s still warm, and you only planted those food plots a month ago, chances are the deer aren’t going to it anyway. Save that stand until it gets cold, until maybe the acorns are playing out,” he said. “Just like a rut stand, you wait until the rut is on, the wind is right, the weather is right, and then you go in there.”
Every time you hunt a stand, any stand, there is a chance that some deer will know you were there. Deer catch on to this stuff, particularly with a food plot where you have a focused area that is drawing them in. If you’re in there all the time, you’re going to wear it out.”
The reverse can also be true. The less you hunt a stand, the more deer you are likely to see, and less pressure on a food-plot stand could improve your chances of seeing a good buck.
“A perfect example of that scenario is my buck last year,” Lindsay said.
He shot a 15-pointer on Christmas Eve that is the second-best buck ever killed in Wayne County. Lindsay was hunting in a stand over a food plot on his family’s farm. The stand had not been hunted at all the entire season, simply because the deer hadn’t been touching the food plot.
“About December 15 we got our first good freeze that killed all the green stuff in the woods, and the acorns were playing out. Finally, conditions were getting right for the food plots. When I hunted it that Christmas Eve, dad knew that the deer were finally hitting it. It was cold weather, and it was by luck that I was catching a wave right in front of a major cold front that came through on Christmas Day. The timing was right, the deer were feeding in the plot, they had not been pressured, the weather was even right. And when I went in there, a 5 1/2-year-old buck walked out in the middle of the plot like he’d never seen a hunter in his life and stood there and let dumb me kill him.”
Overhunting a food plot can mess up even the best situations. Steve Croy runs a hunting club in Harris County on land that used to be part of Rocky Branch Plantation, and he thinks too much pressure on their food plots made the hunting more difficult. This tract has produced incredible bucks like Big Moe, a non-typical killed in 2002 that netted 204 6/8, and Skyscraper, a typical bow-kill that netted 160 2/8.
“A lot of people think you can’t kill a big buck in a food plot. That’s not true,” Steve said. “Look at Big Moe. Big Moe was killed in a food plot. The key is how you treat it.”
One food plot in particular helped Steve and the members realize they should think about the details of how they hunt food plots.
“We have a plot that a few years ago was one of our hottest food plots for seeing 3 1/2-year-old and older bucks. The problem was, we had our stands down at the opposite end of the field. People were walking down the edge of the field to get to the stands, basically just boogered them up. Last year you’d see young bucks, but you wouldn’t see any 3 1/2-year-old bucks in there. The older bucks switched to a totally different field. I think it was all due to pressure.”
This season, the club will implement new rules designed to limit the hunting pressure on and around their food plots.
“We put a safety zone around some plots this year — an imaginary line about 500 yards around the food plot,” Steve said. “People were putting climbers on the trails leading from the food plots, thinking they weren’t messing up the food plot. They’d hunt that in the morning, then hunt the food plot in the evening.”
The club will allow one stand on a food plot, and it will be a box stand, so less human scent is left in the area after a hunt.
“In years past, we’ve had ladders or lock-ons, and I think it hurts you, especially if you don’t have a real large food plot, say five acres or less. After a while, if you sit in a ladder long enough, your scent is all over that place.”
For each box stand, they have cut a trail through the woods. Hunters never have to walk through a food plot to get to a stand.
“You step straight from the box into the woods and catch some cover walking out, and I think that helps you,” Steve said.
He also recommends not climbing down from a stand after a morning hunt when deer are still in the food plot, and at night have someone pick you up in a truck.
“At our place they’re used to seeing trucks. You get down and walk out in that field yourself and let them smell you, you monkey it up. You can drive into the edge of a field, pick up a hunter, and by the time you turn around and start to drive out, they’re back in the field again. It knocks the pressure off of them a lot. If you walk through that field and let them smell you, they’re blowing and snorting for 300 yards.”
The goal for taking these precautions at how they hunt food plots is to see more mature bucks in the plots.
“We didn’t kill any bucks out of our food plots the last two years. The first year there was very little pressure on them, and we killed several good bucks on the food plots, including Big Moe. I think it’s going to make a big difference, not only on the deer we kill, but on the deer that people see.
“Last year was a good example, we had all those acorns, so you were seeing less deer in the food plots anyway. You put the additional factor in there of boogering up your plots, and they’re not that hungry anyway —they’re not coming until nighttime.”
Lindsay cited the harvest results of two clubs in Alabama as proof of the impact of overhunting and over-pressuring deer on food plots. The two clubs were both about 1,500 acres and bordered each other, and both entered into a cooperative QDM plan. Initially, both clubs saw improvements: more bucks of better age structure, deer body weights going up, a better rut. But after just a couple of years, one club began to decline drastically, while the hunting on the other remained excellent.
“Sighting rates, hunter success, and number of hours spent to see a deer was going down on one property, but going up on other,” Lindsay said.
On the property where the hunting was declining, they were hunting food plots 75 percent of the time. Every food plot had a guard tower on it. On the property that remained good, it was an almost exact opposite — they were hunting food plots about 25 percent of the time and woods, clearcuts, and other areas the majority of the time.
“If you hunt food plots hard, and that’s all you do, the pressure itself is going to reduce your success rate and keep deer out of there. It depends on your whole program here, but I think for most people you’re hoping the food plot not only gives you a stand site but is feeding some nutrition to your herd. And if you’re daring them to come in there — at the cost of death — to feed in that food plot, it kind of defeats your purpose.”
If possible, Lindsay recommends having both hunting plots and nutrition plots. A nutrition plot is one that you never hunt.
“A nutrition plot is the big, open field that you can get a tractor to and get perennials in and grow nutrition. Let the deer have it to themselves. Be happy that they’re out there without you bothering them. Never hunt it.
“Then plan your hunting plots with a different mission, which is for harvest. It’s going to be smaller, more concealed, more subtle, and it’s probably going to be annuals that you can throw out and get it to grow up quick.
Something attractive, but easy. The whole idea is to make it appealing to deer, but also make it so deer feel safe coming in to it. You don’t want a great big, wide-open food plot,” Lindsay said.
Even with food plots that you design and plant primarily to create a hunting spot should not be overhunted or pressured too much.
“Think ahead,” Lindsay said. “Try to set up a few plots that are hunting sites, so you are not going to be pressuring one all season long. That’s the way true predators are, they don’t hang out in one place. Bobcats make a kill and move on. Hunters need to be the same way.”
Getting the best results — and maybe a good buck — from hunting a food-plot stand is like any other aspect of hunting. Of course, killing a mature buck often takes some luck. But for those who add some thought and strategy to their hunting, that luck comes along more often.