What’s the Big Deal About Food Plots and Baiting Stations?

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Food plots provide supplemental nutrition to deer and other wildlife but are looked upon with disdain by some purist hunters who believe their setups over natural mast is more real. Both situations, and others, have their place in the deer hunting world.

It’s really like comparing apples and oranges. Planting food plots is not the same as distributing a food source such as corn from a generated, motor-driven feed dispenser.

As the sun disappeared below the horizon and a fluorescent orange glow radiated upward,a buck exited a whitebrush thicket and entered the expansive oats patch where I was hunting. I immediately recognized it as the wide, ivory-antlered buck described to me several weeks earlier by one of my ranch wildlife interns who initially spotted it. With a breathtaking 21-inch inside spread complemented by 12 tall symmetrical, cotton-white tines, there was no doubt this was a good buck.

With my Remington resting on a bipod, I prepared for the longest shot I had ever attempted on a buck of this caliber, the scope’s crosshairs on its back, and the tip of the lower post positioned approximately 6 inches above the animal’s shoulder. I took several deep breaths, relaxed the best I could and squeezed the trigger. At 375 yards, predetermined by my range- finder, the 160-grain Nosler partition bullet took nearly a half-second to reach the target, and when it did, the buck plummeted to the grain field before I heard the solid whop of the bullet. Thankful for such a wonderful ending to a long season, I paused momentarily to give thanks, then reflected on the time I’d spent in order to get a chance at killing this incredible whitetail.

For two weeks I’d visited the field every morning before work and spent my lunch break and the last couple hours of daylight ensconced on a dirt mound overlooking the field. I’d also dedicated some time each day at the rifle range, popping caps at a 400-yard metal target until I was confident and comfortable at the distance. But once my buck hit the ground, all of the time and effort I’d invested into the hunt made the entire event unforgettable.

The buck I killed was taken on one of the many fields I plant to oats on an annual basis. They range in size from 5 to 40 acres for a total of 320 acres. To some hunters, taking a deer over a prepared food plot is considered a form of baiting because they believe it represents an unfair advantage, but that is not the case.

Hunting whitetails over a grain field is no different from setting up near a stand of acorn-rich white oak trees during the fall when deer gravitate to this delicacy. The pursuit of deer in and around areas that they recognize as a nutritional resource simply makes good sense. And even though deer gravitate to grain fields, there is no guarantee as to when they will return, if they do at all.

I spent a considerable amount of time awaiting the return of the buck I was after, and even though I remained confident it would show up, the thought of never seeing the animal always lingered in the back of my mind. More importantly, I had no idea when it would show up, thus I had to spend a considerable amount of time periodically checking out the field in case it returned during the early morning or midday period.
 
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IT’S NOT THE SAME
Referring to hunting over a grain field as another form of baiting is like comparing apples to oranges. It’s not the same as the distribution of a food source, such as corn from a generated, motor-driven feed dispenser. Deer visit grain fields around the clock, and there is no predictable time period when a particular buck might show up. A timer-controlled corn feeder, however, is set to distribute the attractant at certain time periods.

More importantly, only a limited amount of corn is distributed, so deer learn quickly that they must rapidly get their share of the delicacy or go without and begin to respond to the sound of corn being slung from the feeder. It’s a behavior acquired over time, and one I exploited in the Texas Hill Country to harvest axis deer for commercial venison. I would simply stop at every corn feeder and spin the distribution mechanism with my hand for upward of 30 seconds and then return to nearby cover where I would wait in ambush. Invariably, several axis deer would show up each time I performed this activity.

Arguments exist on both sides about providing supplemental food to deer, and there is no clear-cut answer that covers the entire spectrum of debate.

The major concern with baiting is that it encourages a concentration of animals, which could lead to the transmission of diseases. But the same could be said of forced deer concentrations around dwindling water supplies during extended drought, which is a common natural occurrence in the semi-arid regions of the United States. Although I am not a proponent of baiting, I have seen it employed as an extremely effective harvest tool, especially on private land holdings with a limited number of hunters to harvest a high number of does.

Another important thing to consider is the distribution of bait. Is it poured in a single pile or is it dispersed over a large area? If bait is distributed throughout the property, the concentration of deer would or should be reduced, particularly if the property is large.

For example, I spend several weeks each December filming deer on an expansive 40,000-acre ranch in Mexico. The owner entertains very few guests, thus not many bucks are harvested on an annual basis, but he does like to see a lot of deer and dramatically increases these sightings by distributing corn daily throughout the ranch. As a result, those older, reclusive bucks that utilize the ocean of thorn scrub to avoid being seen oftentimes join their cohorts consuming the energy- laced grain. By distributing corn, we not only see more mature bucks, but enjoy an increased opportunity to film them, some for as long as six straight years, enabling us to document their antler development progress.

The point is, bait can be an effective way of seeing more deer, but it’s not acceptable to some hunters, particularly those who live in states where baiting is illegal. For some sportsmen, it becomes an ethical issue because they see the distribution of bait as an unfair advantage over their prey. But in South Carolina, researchers have provided evidence that hunter success was higher on unbaited sites vs. those where bait was dispersed. Arguing over the issues related to baiting deer will continue for as long as we hunt. But how is one of the most accepted management practices, planting food plots for deer, any different?

HERE’S WHERE THE SIMILARITIES END
Although a food plot does have some similarities to a baiting site, it remains distinctly different. First of all, a food plot as small as 1⁄4-acre represents 10,890 square feet, which affords deer adequate space to reduce crowding, even stress. More important than the size of the plot is the fact that once it is planted, the project is complete. Complemented by some rain, the plot will continue to provide not only deer, but all wild inhabitants, a supplemental source of nutrition.

Food plots, including fruit trees such as this one planted in or near them for extra benefit, are labors of love for many hunters. While they provide supplemental nutrition to deer and turkeys, and other wildlife, they’re also helping to continue the interest in deer hunting and the outdoors.

It’s also important to understand that some food plots are planted and grow outside of the hunting season. There are two types of food plots, defined as cool season and warm season plantings. The warm season plots occur during spring and summer, benefitting bucks during the nutritionally demanding antler development period and does prior to and following parturition. These are the most challenging crops to establish in South Texas because of the dearth of rainfall, but when they develop, they are extremely beneficial to deer.

The cool season plots are unquestionably established to facilitate harvest, but they have additional benefits for land managers, hunters and deer. True, cool season plots are extremely productive hunting sites, but unlike baiting, such as a timed feeder dispenser, you never know when or even if a deer will enter the field. But when they do, hunters have a substantial amount of time to decide whether the animal they are observing is desirable to harvest.

For example, when a significant doe harvest is recommended, invari- ably 10 percent of those antlerless deer removed will be buck fawns — mistakes made when a hunter is rushed to make a decision. But that is not the case on a food plot, where hunters normally have an ample amount of time to critique deer and avoid this type of error. And the same can be said for the removal of bucks exhibiting less than desirable antlers.

Cool season plots also represent a supplemental source of nutrition during a time of the year that relinquishes very little crude protein or reduced levels of crude protein in native vegetation. But when they fail to develop because of a lack of rain, which is a common occurrence throughout the arid Southwest, they can erupt into a smorgasbord of nutritious natural forage during the spring following a more reliable rain- fall period. As a result, they become excellent areas to check out when it comes to locating shed antlers, which are not only fun to search for, but extremely beneficial for verifying the survival of a particular buck that evaded you during the hunting season.

The implementation of food plots into a hunting program provides sportsmen with the altruistic feeling of helping all wildlife while facilitating the harvest of surplus animals, which remains a basic premise of the overall health of a deer population.

— Bob Zaiglin is a certified wildlife biologist from South Texas. He has been a D&DH contributor for more than 20 years. He is the CWB Coordinator of Wildlife Management at Southwest Texas Junior College.

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