I harvested the whitetail on December 6, 2012 at 4:15 PM on the edge of a small, secluded plot of land planted to brassicas, and known for many years by our family as the Potato Patch. I had never seen this great buck, which we had nicknamed Split G2, in reference to the branching of his antlers, but I was well aware that he roamed our property, thanks to a number of scouting cameras armed in key locations.
Field dressing revealed what I suspected...clover, brassicas, and lots of corn, indicating he was not only visiting the Potato Patch, but our northern food plots as well. While the deer stands around the perimeter of the northern plots were hunted by other members of my family, he was never seen there during shooting hours.
The day before Split G2 showed up at the Potato Patch, I had watched a group of bucks enter the plot one by one until the eighth and final buck arrived. Shortly after, several antlerless deer walked in and fed amongst them. Suddenly, a gunshot thundered across the wooded area. It came from where I had a pastor friend concealed in a homemade ground blind near another food plot. I really didn’t have to wonder if the Pastor, hunting with a DMAP tag for antlerless deer, had connected, because the Pastor—shooting a 300 Remington Ultra Mag—doesn’t miss! I waited ten minutes then attempted a text, but my phone battery was dead. Without communication and full of wonder, I decided to leave my stand early to help him with his deer, just in case. I climbed out of the stand, out of sight and totally undetected by the feeding deer—just the way the setup was designed.
Like I said, the Pastor doesn’t miss.
He had a big doe all field-dressed, and was sitting there beside his trophy, happily toasting his marksmanship with a thermos of hot coffee when I arrived.
The following morning I occupied the Hotel—one of our farm’s most productive deer stands, but I checked out at 9:40 without seeing a deer. Dad and I had planned to work in our woodlot known as the Big Woods for a few hours to cut and skid logs, which we did, but I left in mid-afternoon with plans to sit in a stand until dark. Around 3:45—with the wind and quiet in my favor—I climbed into the rifle stand concealed in a mature white pine tree within sight of the secluded Potato Patch.
Shortly after 4:00, I noticed an unfamiliar buck entering the plot. That was a good sign, for he might be traveling with a different group than those I’d seen the previous afternoon. Several minutes later another buck—nicknamed 125 for his estimated score—showed up. I’d seen him a few times during the season, and, once again, he had not been a part of yesterday’s group...another good sign.
After several minutes of watching the bucks through binoculars, I lowered them for a rest. And there stood the Split G2 buck on the far right-hand side of the plot with his nose to the ground. Seconds later a gunshot thundered across the wooded area...mine! Climbing down from my sixteen-foot ladder stand and walking toward the lifeless buck, I passed the spot where I once sliced an arrow through a doe with my crossbow. Further on, I passed the spot where a spring gobbler took a load of No.5s from my muzzleloader shotgun. When I finally knelt down beside the beautiful buck, I was all smiles—all from the power of plots.
Building up the wildlife habitat diversity on our property for the past several years has been a very rewarding activity, and food plots have been a major addition. Even though our Pennsylvania farm consists of hundreds of acres of agricultural crops that wildlife—especially deer—utilize, those crops are seldom available year round. That’s where plots come in. Planted properly, food plots not only provide nutritional benefits, but also fantastic hunting opportunities. And the Split G2 buck, gross scoring 162-2/8 Boone & Crockett points, is proof that they work.
Years ago, to most hunters, anything associated with deer hunting was limited to those days when the seasons were open—or about to be. Preparations were made just prior to opening day, the hunting occurred, and memories of the hunts were planted for another year. But then something happened. An organization founded in 1988 called the Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) began to emphasize the importance of balancing whitetail populations with quality habitat to produce better deer and better deer hunting. And better deer hunting opportunities became an instant incentive for people to get involved.
Herd management became a major cornerstone of the QDMA philosophy, and was symbolized by the Association’s doe and buck logo. The doe represented that part of the herd that controlled deer density, while the buck was the key to building age structures and balancing buck to doe ratios. Yet another cornerstone of QDMA—and one that has turned many landowners into farmers and deer managers—is habitat management. The practice of creating additional food and cover beyond what nature provides has now kept deer hunting on the minds of many people all through the year, and one that has become a means for them to give something back to an animal they deeply admire. An added return to making improvements to the habitat for deer is that many other wildlife species benefit as well.
In the past several years, the construction of food plots during spring and summer has become a popular pastime across the country, and one that has been the major player in converting traditional hunting tactics from drives to stands. Hunger drives wildlife, and food plots help drive the wildlife to the stands where hunters await.
As I previously mentioned, the purpose of food plots is two-fold: hunting and nutrition. For hunting, plots should be sown to a plant species that offers the most attraction at the precise time the hunting seasons are open. And for nutrition, plots must still be attractive, but be worthy of adequate yields to support estimated deer densities. Plenty of food reduces the severity of stress, which can have a huge impact on the health of deer during the winter months.
One of my favorite wintertime food sources is corn. It’s a high carbohydrate sustenance that is ripe when deer need it most. And, unlike other plants that can easily become snowbound, the grain of the corn is located well above the ground, which saves deer and other wildlife from burning up additional calories by having to dig through deep or crusted snow. Cornfields also make attractive summertime hangouts for deer long before the grain has developed, by providing shade and security from heat and pesky flies.
Because of the machinery needed, along with the fertility, weed control, and moisture requirements to grow it successfully, corn becomes out of reach for most food plotters. Therefore, clovers like ladino, red, and alsike; small grains such as oats, wheat, and rye; and members of the brassica family, including turnips, radish, kale, and rape have become the most popular seeds used alone or in blends for both hunting and nutritional plots. Also—unlike corn—these smaller seeds can be planted with very minimal or no soil coverage once the ground is prepared.
The key to establishing such sources of attraction and nutrition lies in the soil that the seeds are planted in. Soil tests are highly recommended to determine the optimum nutrients and pH levels for the forages you want to grow, and such an analysis can make the difference between having a lush, mediocre, or a failed crop. Your nearest agricultural supply store or Conservation District Office can assist you with soil testing.
If possible, deer hunting plots should be established on the innermost portion of your property so that any cover surrounding the plot can be utilized as a bedding refuge. The location and effectiveness of stands within shooting range of the plot is determined by access, concealment, and prevailing winds when the stand is occupied.
While food plots have a huge reputation for helping hunters fill tags, one must keep in mind that the timing of natural food sources or other plantings nearby can often stall or prevent deer from visiting them. I remember the time I was in a stand overlooking a lush plot of brassicas. Not long after the sun had slid below the tree line, a few deer began to filter out of the woods and into the leafy greens. The deer—taking only a few bites—hardly stopped as they continued through the plot, passing my stand and out of sight.
When shooting hours ended, I climbed down and headed home. As I approached some large fields bordering the woods, the dimly lit fields came alive with nearly twenty deer running for cover. I discovered that the deer were feasting on the winter wheat and rye cover crop that had been drilled into the fields after the corn harvest. More than once I had the same encounter at that location. So, to satisfy my curiosity, I sent a sample of the vegetation to a forage lab for analysis. The 33 percent protein results revealed why it was so attractive to deer, and it presented a convincing message to add small grains to my list of future plantings.
Make no mistake, food plots have become a huge center of attention in the world of whitetail deer hunting. It seems no matter where you shop for your sporting needs, you’ll likely find something on the shelves that’s connected to enhancing the habitat. I’ve noticed major retailers now have a variety of seeds so broad that it leaves the shopper wondering what on earth to plant and how to go about it.
One way to start is by joining the Quality Deer Management Association. Membership in the QDMA includes their Quality Whitetails magazine—a journal of wisdom, research, success stories, and management practices written by both professionals and ordinary folks like you and me. Also, an excellent guide for food plot management, and one of the most used books on my shelves, is Quality Food Plots published by the QDMA. Contact them at 800-209-DEER or visit www.QDMA.com to learn more about the power of plots.