Movement in the thicket caught my attention and made my heart race. A buck was headed my way, leaving his daytime hiding spot to feed in the lush food plots I’d planted for him and his brethren.
As he cleared the thick cover, I saw he was a young 8-pointer. When the buck was beneath my stand, I realized he was being followed by another youngster. They soon moved past my stand and continued toward the food plots several hundred yards away.
By Don Higgins
For Deer & Deer Hunting
Then I noticed more movement from the thicket. It was another buck, but he was clearly in a different class than the previous two. I recognized him instantly as a mature 41⁄2-year- old with a 13-point rack that would score in the low 170s. In previous seasons, I would have snapped the release onto the string of my Mathews, but not that year. I had decided to raise the bar and target bucks that were at least 51⁄2. I watched the buck pass my stand on his way to the food plots.
That hunt marked the 13th time I was within easy bow range of the buck that year. In fact, I’ve never known another buck as well as that deer. I shot him two years later, when he was 61⁄2.
The buck was unlike any other mature whitetail I’ve ever hunted in almost 40 years. He grew up on my farm and rarely wandered far from it. I’ve designed and managed my property to put very little pressure on deer, and I believe that buck felt so safe on my farm that he never developed the nocturnal tendencies so common with other mature bucks. Some of that was probably because of his personality, but the property also played a large role.
That buck, although not a typical mature whitetail, illustrates some important lessons. You might
have noticed I’ve mentioned food plots only briefly. As someone who plants multiple plots on my farm every year, you would think I would tout how my food plots let me tag that buck. Nobody appreciates the value of quality food plots more than I do. In fact, I operate a whitetail habitat consulting service and have outlined a well thought out food plot layout and program at every property at which I’ve ever consulted. Like many land managers, I understand the value of food plots. However, I also think most deer hunters misuse food plots to the point it hurts their hunting success.
Here’s the problem: Most folks want to hunt right on top of their food plots. They use food plots the same way they would use a bait pile. They place their stand within shooting range of the plot and simply wait for hungry deer to arrive. I’m not insinuating that this approach won’t result in some filled tags. It will. But it will also quickly educate deer on your property that there’s danger lurking nearby, which makes them become much more cautious and move a lot less during daylight. This applies not just to the food plot but the entire property.
Think about it: When you set your stand right on top of a food plot, any deer that shows up will spend considerable time near your stand. The odds of that deer seeing, hearing or smell- ing you are considerable. And getting into or out of your stand can be tricky, further increasing the chances that you’ll be detected. When that happens, deer quickly become more skittish near the plot and throughout your property.
I focus my hunting efforts between bedding areas and feeding locations. The bucks I described at the beginning of this article provide a perfect example. When they walked past my stand, they were just leaving their beds but still several hundred yards from the food plot. And although I was far from the plot, it still served a very important role in that hunt. I knew where the deer would be headed when they left their beds and had my stand set accordingly. The bucks passed within easy shooting distance and were gone after a couple of minutes. That sure beats having them linger around for extended periods. Further, when the hunt was finished, I easily left my stand without spooking deer.
Now, I’ll admit that I have stands at the edge of every one of my food plots. However, I rarely hunt those stands and only during specific conditions. During the late season, when it’s tough to get into my other stands without bumping deer, I’ll slip into the food plot stands — enclosed blinds, more typically — for evening hunts. Also, I have a well- thought-out entry and exit route for every one of those stands or blinds, and I know the specific wind directions that will let me hunt those spots. I also hunt those locations very sparingly. Still, I spook more deer from those spots every season than I do from any other stands. Why? When deer enter a food plot, they’re on high alert and looking for danger. They’re also still nearby when I leave the stand under the cover of darkness.
Let’s examine how food plots can improve your hunting even when you don’t hunt on top of them.
Probably the most important consideration is that food plots supplement the nutritional needs of whitetails on property. In most regions, there’s a period — usually late winter and early spring — when quality nutritious food sources are scarce. Food plots can fill that gap with high-quality forage, which can lead to better overall herd health and even better antler growth.
Food plots can also help hold deer on your property, thereby making other stand sites more productive. Let’s face it: Even on properties with little human pressure, deer will spend a brief amount of time in daylight at a food plot. Instead, they stay back within cover. If that cover is properly managed, they won’t be far from the food sources. Just having food plots on your farm will increase deer activity on the entire property. The quality of the hunting from all stands should be improved, even if the food plot is not visible from your stand.
It’s easy to get sucked into the idea of hanging your stands at the edge of food plots, but doing so is detrimental to long-term hunting success. Your odds of killing any deer will quickly decrease, and your odds of killing a mature buck will disappear. It’s much better to use food plots to attract whitetails to your property, not your tree stand.
— Don Higgins is a D&DH contributor and land management specialist from Illinois. Learn more at www.higginsoutdoors.com.
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