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Build Hunting Strategies into Your Food Plots
Either way, Dougherty seldom, if ever, hunts these large, “destination” food plots. Ideally, the large plot will have desirable forages deer can’t find elsewhere, and whitetails come to expect they can feed there in peace. About 200 to 500 yards away, Dougherty lays out habitat work within the woods to ensure deer have secure bedding areas. In between those two sites, in the transitional corridor, Dougherty designs small hunting food plots to give deer places to pause, browse and check things out on their way to or from the feeding food plot.
“Deer will naturally want to keep moving back and forth between their bedding grounds and the big field, but over time, you’ll manipulate your land to redirect their travel patterns and bring them past your hunting setups,” Dougherty said. “You start by improving their bedding grounds. You want to make them feel as secure as possible. Plus, it’s one of the easier things to improve. All you need is a chain saw. Bedding areas need thick underbrush, so we suggest you go in and cut 50 to 60 percent of the trees. When you open up the woodlot’s canopy, the regrowth comes up quick and thick, making ideal bedding cover. We recommend turning those bedding areas into sanctuaries. Shut off human access through them as much as possible. On our property, we even post them as deer sanctuaries so our guests know to stay out of them.”
Some forethought is required. You must ensure the bedding grounds you create or improve aren’t downwind of the hunting food plots and tree-stand setups you’ll create during subsequent projects in the transition areas.
“Ideally, bedding sites will be at 90-degree angles from your bowhunting setups and take advantage of the prevailing winds,” Dougherty said. “When you walk into your stands, climb in and set up, you must know what the wind is doing. I believe in scent-absorbing clothes, cover scents and scent-killing sprays, but it’s still hard to consistently beat a deer’s nose when they’re sitting in their beds and your scent stream is washing over them.
“Before you create or modify their bedding areas, learn all you can about prevailing wind patterns for each potential stand site. Climb trees and use color smoke bombs, blow bubbles or release wind aids like API’s Wind Floaters. You need something that will remain visible and airborne as long as possible to show you air currents. When deer leave their beds and head your way, you never want them to hit your scent stream.”
Strategic Food Plots
Once you’ve addressed the bedding grounds and main feeding areas, it’s time for more creative projects: strategic hunting food plots. Sometimes you get lucky and find small, natural clearings or old log-loading turnarounds. Other times you might have to create openings, which could require heavy equipment, such as a bulldozer.
What size should you make your hunting food plots? Ideally, they should cover a half-acre to two acres. Anything smaller, and deer quickly ravage whatever your plant. Anything larger, and you start getting into those fickle situations we discussed earlier. Think of it this way: You’ll have better hunting with a couple of 1-acre food plots and a pair of half-acre plots than you will with one 3-acre plot.
The first step is to scout thoroughly to see if your work in the bedding areas and destination food plot changed the deer’s travel patterns. Start at the feeding field and work toward the bedding area, figuring you won’t create your first hunting food plot closer than 150 yards from the feeding plot. Once again, do some research on the wind, and then pick some good trees for your stands. Yes, pick suitable tree-stand sites before creating your clearing. As Dougherty says, it’s easier to build a food plot around suitable hunting trees than move good trees into strategic positions over a convenient food plot.
Next, design hunting food plots to give yourself the advantage. One design Dougherty likes is the hourglass food plot. The waist of the hourglass should be about 30 yards across, and you should have a tree stand on both sides to take advantage of the day’s wind direction. Because deer like to be able to see what’s ahead and behind them, they’ll almost always pause in the hourglass’s waist and look into both ends of the hourglass. If you’re paying attention, you should get a shot.
Blocking the Approach
In addition to creating food plots whose designs naturally set up shots, take steps to ensure deer can’t enter a hunting food plot wherever they want. Stack brush and toppled treetops in the woods directly behind you to prevent deer from getting downwind of your stand as they approach. Also, stack debris along the food plot’s edges to funnel deer into entry points within bow range of your stands. It doesn’t take deer long to figure out the easiest way to approach your hunting food plots. They’ll always take the paths of least resistance, which brings them through openings you leave.
Scott and Dougherty also recommend that your hunting food plots provide forages different from what’s growing in the larger feeding field or in neighboring crop fields. Choose plants that grow without much care, and that don’t require long-term maintenance. Blends of grasses, cereal grains and easy-growing legumes fit the bill.
“The ideal mix is to get wheat and oats going to start pulling deer in, and then count on the annual clovers to keep it going,” Dougherty said. “Finally, when cold weather arrives, provide some brassicas to let them load up on sugar.”
By now you probably realize nothing in this article offers a shortcut to success. That requires long-term commitment. Even so, the odds of creating favorable setups are much higher when you think big picture, and plan your work in small steps that mesh with an overall strategy.
Scott warns that it’s easy to get discouraged before you start if you’re expecting instant gratification. Well-conceived habitat projects often take five years to truly blossom. And after 10 years, you often must go back and “repair” ideas that didn’t pan out, and make adjustments to the woods’ and food plots’ natural changes.
If nothing else, look at your efforts as an investment in your hunting future. If you do it right, you’ll be laying a foundation of land stewardship and hunting enjoyment that could last for generations.