To reap the rewards a hunting food plot can provide, it’s important to consider the elements that make these plots work.
“Build it and they will come” is an iconic line from one of the best baseball movies of all time and also a commonly used marketing line in regard to food plots. In the story line of Field of Dreams, all Kevin Costner had to do was convert a section of his cornfield to a baseball field and magic would happen.
Isn’t that essentially what hunters are told about creating a food plot? All they have to do is plant a piece of ground with some kind of food plot seed and sit back and plan their taxidermy account savings plan.
There is no question that food plots can help improve your hunting odds by increasing the likelihood of deer showing up on your property. Also, there is little mystery as to why this is the case. Food is a core need for deer and if you provide more of it on your property, the odds go up that deer will frequent your hunting spots.
This is no different from building restaurants in a concentrated part of town, which will attract droves of customers. But would you frequent a restaurant that is in a bad part of town, has horrible service and food that is barely edible? Successful food plots do not happen by randomly picking a food plot site, grabbing just any seed and throwing it on the ground with little more thought other than planning the spot in your man cave to hang your trophy.
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WHAT EXACTLY IS A HUNTING FOOD PLOT?
The term “food plot” in the deer hunting world is used generically to encompass any and all forages and fields planted for whitetails. When looking at food plots scientifically, a distinction must be made between hunting plots and feeding plots. Feeding plots are those fields planted with the primary purpose of supplying nutrition to the deer herd.
It certainly doesn’t mean that feeding plots can’t be hunted, but that is not their main function. In fact, oftentimes a feeding plot is treated much like a sanctuary to encourage the unmolested use of the food source. Feeding plots are typically larger plots and located near the center of a property. These characteristics lend well to supplying large amounts of food and holding deer on the property.
Alternatively, the goal of a hunting plot is to supply a food source that can be used directly and specifically to harvest deer. Obviously, hunting plots also supply nutrition, but that is not necessarily their main purpose. Hunting plots are normally smaller, strategically placed and shaped, and planted with specifically selected forages.
LOCATION IS PARAMOUNT
Where you plant hunting plots is a key factor to success or failure and there are many considerations to keep in mind. First, the plot must be located in an area that deer frequent, specifically during daylight hours. Deer feel vulnerable when they are feeding in a plot because they are in the open. Watch deer when they enter a plot. Typically, they spend quite a bit of time just inside cover, scanning the plot for signs of danger. Even when they enter the field they remain on high alert, constantly using their eyes, ears and nose to detect predators.
Deer feel unsafe in food plots that are located in wide-open areas far from cover and will likely use them most heavily at night. To maximize daytime use of hunting plots, they should be in areas that provide as much adjacent cover as possible. In a perfect world, there is cover on all sides of the plot or at least on as much of the parameter as possible.
A good example is a clearing inside thick timber or an open area surrounded by tall brush or grass. I have even had success planting a hunting plot in an open area by planting tall grasses all around the outside of the plot. It is a simple equation: The more parameter cover a plot has, the more probability of daytime activity.
Another consideration for food plot location is stand placement options. A good hunting plot allows for stands to be placed for multiple wind conditions and provides entry and exit routes that minimize hunter detection. I am sure you have read or heard this before, but these two factors are still often overlooked or dismissed. Take a little time when locating your hunting plot areas to identify good stand locations. If there are simply no good stand locations, move on and select another spot. Too much time is spent creating a good food plot to be wasted on an unhuntable location. Hunting plots should not be placed in high human traffic areas. You want deer to feel safe while feeding in hunting plots so avoid main roads often used to travel through your property.
One final consideration is how the topography will influence how deer access the plot. This aspect is rarely if ever considered by most hunters when deciding on plot location, but can be a major determiner of hunting plot success. It is common to have fields that are accessed by deer at several points, which can be unbelievably frustrating to hunt. Multiple trails leading into a plot can result in a cat and mouse game, where you sit in one stand only to watch deer enter the field by another trail and just out of range.
While it is not always possible, if a hunting plot can be created in an area where the terrain influences where the deer enter and exit a plot it will greatly improve your chances of harvesting a deer and maintain- ing your sanity. For instance, a plot at the point of a major travel corridor or mostly surrounded by a physical barrier such as steep banks, dead falls, etc., will force deer to enter the field in a specific spot. A great method to manually create this situation is to clear a plot in the middle of cover, pushing the cleared trees and brush to the parameter — creating a natural fence, but leaving an opening where you plan to hang your stand.
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SIZE AND SHAPE
Hunting food plots are generally small in comparison to feeding food plots, rarely exceeding 1⁄2-acre and are oftentimes 1⁄4-acre or smaller. Why so small? First, smaller plots maximize perimeter escape cover. Think of it as the time needed for deer, when faced with a threat, to return to protective cover. The larger the plot, the longer it takes deer to escape and less likely they will venture out into the plot during daylight.
Also, larger plots minimize the opportunity for shot opportunities that are within effective range. This is especially true when bowhunting. While a plot is rarely an exact square, for reference consider that a 1⁄2-acre plot would be roughly 50×50 yards. This means that regardless of where the deer are located in the plot, they are not that far out of bow range.
Hunting plot shape can have a great influence on shot opportunities. People ask me how wide I typically make my hunting plots and my answer is never more than 40 yards wide if possible. Sometimes, however, the available plot space dictates narrow, long plots, but there are a couple of things that can be done to bring deer within range. The first option is to simply make the plot smaller. Going from 20×100 yards to 20×50 yards is an easy fix.
However, you might want a larger plot due to a large herd and heavy browsing pressure so a second option is to design the plot in shapes that bring deer close to you. The most common is the hourglass food plot that is larger on both ends but narrows in the middle. A stand can be placed in the narrow portion of the plot to create shorter distance shot opportunities.
Another shape often used is the “L” shape plot. The stand can be placed at the juncture of the angles, which can allow for shots both in the field or in the cover on trails that go from one angle to the next because deer, especially bucks, often feed at the end of each arm of the L then go through cover to the next arm.
WHAT TO PLANT
As much as hunters would like for there to be one perfect food plot forage for all situations, to my knowledge that silver bullet simply doesn’t exist. However, there are some food plot varieties that work better than others in a given application. The first consideration is when you plan on hunting that food plot.
Forages, especially annuals, tend to be more attractive and palatable to deer during a specific growth phase in that plant’s life. You have likely heard that brassicas are largely ignored by deer until a hard frost forces the plant to mature and ripen at which time they become highly desired by deer. While some brassica varieties can be attractive even before ripening, this rule holds true in most cases. So, if you are planting a field that you would like to hunt during an early bow season, brassicas might not be the best choice.
While there are many good choices for early season hunting plots, my go-to forage types are oats, wheat and clover. Oats and wheat are the most attractive to deer when they are in the early vegetative stage — when they have the highest nutrient content and are most digestible. That being the case, I time my plantings so the oats and wheat are between 3 to 6 inches tall. In southern Iowa that means that I am planting in early September for the October bow season.
Annual clovers (as well as other annual legumes such as certain pea varieties) work well for early to mid-season hunting plots, but if used by themselves, need to be planted earlier for optimal growth. Of course, another good option is to plant a mix of all three. When I do this, I still plant in early September, knowing that the clover might be not be at optimal growth by early October, but unless there is a premature frost the clovers will still provide a good food source and the oats and/or wheat are at maximum attractiveness.
While annuals are commonly used in hunting plots, I would not forget about perennial legumes for a hunting plot option. I remember a few years back I got a bit out of control experimenting with annuals in hunting plots and even though deer were using these fields, they were also using my perennial clover fields. As long as they have not matured, perennial legume fields stay highly attractive until below freezing temperatures set in. The added bonus with the perennials is that they are more browse tolerant and provide a great food source during spring and summer.
For mid-to late-season plots, brassicas are my food plot species of choice for smaller hunting plots. There are many different varieties of brassica mixes containing turnips, kale, rape, etc., all of which are highly attractive in the colder days of late season. I prefer mixes over a straight planting and I also prefer a mix of both tuber and non-tuber varieties.
Tubers, such as turnips, produce a root that deer eat long after the green tops have been consumed, which extends the life of the plot. I plant brassicas to allow for a window of eight to 12 weeks of growth prior to a frost. Plant much earlier and you risk the forage maturing before season begins. Plant later and you will not get optimal growth by the time season rolls around. I also like soybeans for a late-season plot, but not in small hunting plots because deer tend to wipe them out before they have a chance to produce beans. If you are planting a larger hunting plot for rifle or muzzleloader hunting, however, soybeans are a great option, suppling the green leaves to eat during summer and early fall and then the high fat content beans for winter.
HUNTING A FOOD PLOT
While this article mostly pertains to creating hunting food plots, I wanted to make just a few comments about how to hunt a hunting plot. I am not claiming to be an expert, but having planted and hunted these types of plots for several years I have figured out some things that greatly influence hunting success. First, it is very important to minimize pressure on hunting plots.
As discussed earlier, it is vital to have entry and exit routes that decrease the chances of deer seeing or smelling you. Remember, you want deer to use these plots in the daylight hours and pressuring these plots, even those with close escape cover, will cause deer to use these fields at night or maybe not at all.
I have also gone back and forth over the years on whether to hunt on the field or back in the woods several yards on a trail leading to the plot. I would never commit to giving up the option to change my opinion, but my current and most successful method is to locate stands where I can shoot into the field and also have a shooting lane that goes 30 to 40 yards back into cover.
If you have done your planning correctly, the odds of a mature buck coming directly into a hunting plot is quite high. If they do not come into the field, they will typically skirt the field close to the perimeter but still in cover, which is the reason for the shooting lane back into the woods. On larger plots that lack some of the characteristics of a hunting plot, this stand location does not work as well because bucks are less likely to enter the field and also tend to skirt the bigger fields at distances farther away from the edge.
There is a good deal of science that goes into planning and building a hunting plot. But art is not completely lost on building hunting plots. The various scientific pieces of a hunting plot are intertwined, each influencing the next so they cannot be looked at individually, but need to be considered as a whole.
Location can influence size or shape, while at the same time size and shape can influence location. Location can also determine forage selection based on soil type. In my mind, putting these puzzle pieces together becomes the art form and for that I am glad. Because while science helps lead to success, it is the art that makes it fun.
— Matt Harper is an avid whitetail hunter and food plot expert from Iowa.