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Build Hunting Strategies into Your Food Plots
To make food plots effective for bowhunting, carefully plan their size, shape, location and forage plantings to take advantage of cover, terrain and wind.
One of bowhunting’s biggest frustrations is consistently getting deer within range of tree stands overlooking large agricultural fields. Because of changing winds, hunting pressure, weather patterns or the deer’s fickle nature, individual deer seldom use the same spot to enter or leave big fields more than a couple of days in a row.
For example, who hasn’t thought they’ve patterned an early-season deer, only to have it pop out 100 yards the way the first time they hunt their can’t-miss site? Or, just as likely, the buck doesn’t show up at all.
That being the case, why do so many bowhunters put so much effort into situations where they have so little chance of getting a shot? Maybe it’s because everyone loves to see deer. Subconsciously, at least, maybe we figure the bigger the field, the longer our field of view, and the greater the likelihood of seeing deer. Being optimists, we know tomorrow’s another day, and the next hunt just might bring the right combination of luck and circumstances.
That’s one approach, but you’ll probably learn more about your ability to handle frustration than figuring out deer behavior. Even the best bowhunters struggle to kill deer consistently from big fields, but they don’t keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. After the first week of the season, they might abandon the big fields until the rut nears, at which point they set up a decoy to get a buck’s attention and draw him close.
Charlie Alsheimer, a hunter, outdoor writer and wildlife photographer from western New York, says big fields serve a purpose. But, like many of us, he learned the hard way that they’re tough places to bow-kill deer. Because large fields present so many uncontrolled variables, Alsheimer views them mostly as destination sites for hungry deer. He makes sure the fields contain forages that feed deer for much of the year, but he spends as much effort pinpointing travel corridors to the fields and creating ambush sites to waylay deer approaching or departing the fields. Even then, he hunts those travel-corridor stands only when he’s certain approaching deer should be relaxed and unaware they’re in mortal danger.
One of Alsheimer’s protégés is Neil Dougherty, who with his father, Craig, operate NorthCountry Whitetails, a habitat consulting firm near Bath, N.Y. Neil says most bowhunters fall into the trap of hunting big fields because they don’t take time to learn the subtle, more important details about the habitat that lies between those fields and the deer’s bedding areas. In many cases, they’re not even sure where the deer usually bed. Safe to say, they’re relying mostly on luck and stubborn determination to succeed.
At risk of oversimplifying, your task is to develop strategies that allow you to consistently waylay deer between Point A — thick, secure bedding cover; and Point B — large fields where deer find nutritious food. With planning and commitment to habitat-improvement projects, you can entice and steer deer into and through those “in-transit” areas, and then take advantage of strategic setups you create to make them vulnerable.
How Much Land is Enough
To design strategic bowhunting setups, let’s concede few of us own or lease so much property that we control every transition area between Point A to Point B. The trick is knowing enough about the surrounding area to figure out your land’s role within it, and then enhancing that feature to make the site more attractive to deer. As Steve Scott, vice president of the Whitetail Institute of North America says, some hunters only own or control five or 10 acres, but they want to do something to benefit deer and improve their hunting.
“It’s very easy to fall into all the ‘buts’ and ‘what ifs,’ no matter how much property you own,” Scott said. “Granted, 10 acres won’t let you develop the same or as many strategies as a guy with 200 or more acres, but you can usually do something to give deer a reason to hang around or walk through. In my mind, there’s no better reason than a food plot. Even if you have only 10 acres, deer will get some benefit from a small, well-planned food plot. A lot of guys kill big bucks off small pieces of property. They studiy the properties that surround them, see what is available for deer to eat, and then plant something in their small plot that deer like even better.”
If a food plot can’t readily be planted on the property, consider your options. One of the most consistent parcels I ever bowhunted was a 2-acre woods that served as a narrow funnel joining two sprawling woodlots, each of which butted up against residential neighborhoods on one side and farmland on the other. The little woods was a miserable tangle of stunted scrub oak, poison ivy, choke-cherry trees and blackberry thickets. The underbrush was so thick and gnarly that even deer picked their way through at random, leaving no visible trails.
It took no great insight — just a shoulder-harnessed brush cutter — to solve the problem and create a good ambush site. I cut a narrow path through the berry thickets and twisting little trees, running the trail between two large oaks 25 yards apart. By hanging our tree stands in whichever oak was downwind on a particular day, my daughter and I bow-killed several whitetails as they slipped along that inconspicuous trail. Unfortunately, I didn’t jump on the chance to buy the property when my neighbor put it up for sale, and now a house and a half-acre of lawn sits alongside those two oaks.
Expanding the Picture
Obviously, the more hunting land you own or lease, the more opportunities you have to think big and plan long-term. If you’ve ever remodeled your home, you know the importance of starting with the most pressing need (wiring and plumbing) and working your way down the list to the less crucial, yet still desirable, projects (hot tub and master suite). When Neil Dougherty works with landowners who want to improve their land for deer hunting, he suggests they create a wish list. The ideal list includes a secure bedding area; a large, centrally located feeding food plot; and several small hunting food plots in transitional areas between the bedding area and large feeding food plot.
As their names imply, the smaller plots are set up strategically for hunting, and the large plot provides deer a place to feed undisturbed. In many cases, this large plot is already in place and is being used — or has been used — for agricultural production. In fact, it might not be on your property. It might be on a neighbor’s land that attracts deer that bed on your land.