If I hadn't been messing with food plots for so long, I wouldn't have appreciated how exceptional the hunt was. During the third week of October 2012, my dad (then an 83-year-old bow hunter) was sitting near a secluded food plot near my Minnesota home. An hour before dark, three healthy does walked into the plot, fed for a time and then started looking anxiously into the woods. Dad instinctively grabbed his bow, then stood slowly when the does weren't looking.
Seconds later Dad heard a deep, guttural grunt. By the time the buck—a 3½-year-old 9-pointer we'd nicknamed Crabclaw—had entered the food plot to badger the does, Dad had his release clipped to his bowstring. The does flushed like a covey of quail, and as Crabclaw bounced around working the singles, he stopped 12 yards from the treestand. The sun was just hitting the western treetops when Dad grabbed his cell phone and asked if I'd come help drag out a buck.
Such scenarios are teasingly referred to as "Outdoor Channel moments" by veteran food plotters. If you're among us (or simply a fan of sporting television) you know exactly what I'm talking about: Hunter sets up in stand overlooking a lush food plot. Dandy buck strides into the plot like he's been cued up by a video editor. Buck spends several moments parading among the greenery, giving the ample sunlight time to highlight the best features of his rack. And then, just when the tension has built to a perfect pitch, the buck strides in front of the hunter and gives him or her a standing, broadside shot.
It makes for great TV, but those of us with dirt under our fingernails recognize that getting a mature buck to read that script isn't easy stuff. Our plots feed deer that we rarely see, and if it weren't for game cameras, we might not know they exist. We spend hundreds of dollars on seed and sundries, devote just as many hours to plant, work and maintain a plot, yet actually tagging a mature buck can remain maddeningly elusive. For advice on making just that happen, I turned to three of the country's foremost veterans on the topic.
One of the country's top habitat consultants and the co-author (with his father, Craig) of three successful deer management books, Neil Dougherty has been around the proverbial food plot block. "I've kept careful statistics for all my clients, and the real-world success ratio of actually killing a mature buck in a food plot averages only around 25 percent in the months before the post-rut," he said. "We usually won't harvest a buck until he's at least 4½ years old, and getting one of those guys to stick his nose in a food plot is tough stuff."
Dougherty says that most ever-wary mature bucks figure out in a hurry that they simply have more human encounters (which include residual scent) in and near food plots, and they learn to avoid them during daylight. But pros such as Dougherty don't have the luxury of shrugging their shoulders and saying, "Oh well, that's too bad" to their clients; he's paid to figure out how to make food plots a vital hunting spot. And he's done just that.
"One of the most critical things to figure out—before you even turn a single piece of dirt—is to pick a location that will allow an easy, unobtrusive access and exit," Neil said. "You need to be able to get to it stealthily, so that deer don't see, hear or smell you as you come and go. Creek beds, ditches and brushy fence rows are traditional favorites, but don't be afraid to get creative. For example, one of my favorite setups in recent years has been to use an established roadway—even a four-lane highway—and plant the plot 70-100 yards from the road shoulder. With a prevailing wind that blows from the plot to the road, a hunter can park his or her vehicle along the road, walk the shoulder or ditch for a short distance to an entry trail, and slip into the plot. The road acts as a barrier—deer aren't coming from that direction—and the vehicle noise prevents the hunter from being heard."
Dougherty has also used food plot shape to ensure that after deer enter a plot (particularly for bow hunters) they are vulnerable to harvest. "The boomerang- shaped plot is my tried and true," he said. "As the name implies, I make them in a V-shape, and they're from ¾-acre to 1 acre in size. I want the plot 45-50 yards wide, with the stand located right in the V. Again, it's important to consider prevailing wind, and hunt the plot only when the wind is perfect, which means from the field to the stand. Another important detail is to pile brush or other obstacles on deer trails that lead to the downwind side of the stand. This prevents deer, and even non-target animals, from approaching downwind and ruining a potentially successful hunt."
Finally, Dougherty says that setting up stand sites off the plot itself is effective. "It's pretty typical to have two or three good sits on a plot and then, no matter how careful you are, it's simply tougher to kill a buck there," he said. "But bucks are still relating to the plots, cruising between them and looking for does. I like to draw a bull's-eye around each plot on an aerial photo, then look for the next thick patch of cover 100, 200 and then 300 yards off the plot. Those are my next stand locations; I scout them for buck sign, trails and terrain funnels that make great stand sites. And as the season progresses, I just move farther off the plot. By Halloween, I'm usually back at the,300-yard line."
Anyone who's watched the popular outdoor TV shows produced by Mark Drury knows that the Midwesterner considers food plots an integral part of his deer hunting game plan. But Drury says his successes have come with a long learning curve. "I've made a lot of mistakes along the way, which makes those hunts that turn out right all the more satisfying," he said.
Drury is an aggressive hunter who's not afraid to think out of the box when it comes to hunting mature whitetails. The perfect case in point: Most of us build food plots in areas advantageous to us and try to draw deer to them. Drury flip-flops that philosophy.
"I don't want a big buck to have to walk very far to reach a food plot, because older deer are basically lazy, and if he has to walk a long way from his bedding area to reach a spot, he might not get there until after dark. We use trail cameras and covert observation to learn all we can about a particular deer we want to hunt. And several times I've built a food plot specifically for one buck I want to kill. I figure out his bedding area, then a spot nearby where I can build a plot right in his core area. The buck I killed last fall was one I'd spotted walking in an area several times through a big farm field in an open bottom. The field hadn't been planted in awhile, and it was just a nasty overgrown mess. So I went in with a mower in August, cleared and sprayed the plot, then stuck in a blind. I killed that buck in the opening weeks of bow season, in a plot I made specifically for him."
Drury used to select stand trees first, then build the plot around the tree. But recent successes with a ground-level ambush prove that an elevated platform isn't necessary. "We've had tremendous success with ground blinds, which has broadened the number of places we can build a plot," he said. "We've learned to put up the blind immediately, then give the deer 10-14 days to get downwind of it; they'll blow and snort and finally figure out it's nothing to be afraid of, as long as they're getting no other human scent at the time. Then you hunt only on the right wind, and have a perfect entry and exit. The exit is always the toughest, as you invariably have a bunch of deer feeding right when you want to leave. If I can't leave the blind without blowing deer out, I just yelp and bark on a coyote howler; it'll blow every deer off the plot, and the same ones will be back tomorrow."
Drury has found plot size makes a critical difference. "I used to think I wanted to be able to kill a deer as soon as it walked into the plot," he said. "But I learned those small plots had three disadvantages. First, the deer were stressed socially because they were feeding close together, and some bucks just don't like that. Second, small plots make for short visits, and I found deer just weren't sticking there very long and giving me shot opportunities, especially if other deer were feeding. Finally, more deer were busting me on small plots because it was just too easy to smell or see me. Now I build them about 100 yards long by 60 yards across, and that seems to be about right for a hunting-style plot."
Finally, Drury stresses, understanding how wind behaves during a variety of conditions is essential to hunting small plots well. "Wind currents vary drastically from early season to mid- and late season," he said. "I'm always thinking a year ahead when it comes to new plot construction, so I visit a spot when there are no leaves on the trees and observe how the wind behaves, then I return during summer, when the foliage will mirror what you find during early bow season. Nailing down the right winds to hunt— or not hunt—a plot is critical."
DR. GRANT WOODS
It would take an extensive search to find a man who's a better blend for a deer expert than Dr. Grant Woods. One of the country's most recognized biologists, Woods is also a widely traveled habitat consultant/land manager and, when he's not working, is a passionate and successful hunter. Woods has probably sown more food plot seed than anyone, and even he admits: "As an industry, we've been planting food plots for a long time. But actually hunting over them well is still in its infant stages. Killing a deer in or near a food plot can have a lasting effect. All deer have memories, and old deer have even better memories."
Consequently, Woods does everything in his power to keep human intrusion near food plots minimal. "One of the most critical things is to simply not hunt the plot until you know it's being used heavily by deer," he said. "I like to place exclusion cages that tell me what plant growth would be without deer feeding, and once I notice a distinct difference, it's time to hunt. How you go about this is important. Ideally, I like to be dropped off and picked up by someone driving a vehicle or an ATV, so deer don't see me getting out of a stand or blind. I'm also careful to set my stand where the wind is almost perfect for a buck and almost bad for me; some jog in the trail that forces him to walk cross- or downwind for a few minutes and he's vulnerable to me. It's important to remember that prior to the rut, a mature buck will rarely place himself in a spot where he's at a total disadvantage. Finally, when I have the option, I like to hunt slightly off the plot instead of hanging right on it."
Despite his experience and expertise, Woods likes to keep his "hidey-hole" food plots simple. "I rarely do anything fancy when I'm setting up a hunting plot," he said. "I plant them 3-4 weeks before bow season, and they're rarely larger than ¾-acres. I haul in a bag of lime, a bag of fertilizer and some simple seed—oats, rye or a fall mix— get it in the dirt, then stick in a utilization cage. I might hunt that plot only once or twice all season. But when I do, I expect to kill something there."