As deer hunters, we’re always on the lookout for that edge that will put the biggest bucks in front of our stands. That’s why we plant food plots for nutrition, allow smaller bucks to mature, and use trail cameras to manage the health of the herd and the hunt. But what if you do everything right and it starts to look like everything is going wrong? When it’s late in the game and there are suddenly no bucks on camera, what do you do? It’s time to get serious and get to work. Here are five things you can do late in the season to make your food plots produce better and help fill your tag.
Mow Your Food Plot
Yes, you read that right. That food plot you worked so hard to grow – it may be time to mow it down. Of course, it all depends on what you have planted, but mowing is an important management tool to make your clover and alfalfa plots produce better. Mowing two to three times per year will help control weeds in your plot, but it also thickens the clover and alfalfa. After the deer have been munching on it for the summer, the plant needs a reset. Don’t cut it below four to six inches, and if it’s hot and dry, wait until the rains come. Even late in the growing season, clover and alfalfa bounce back quickly as long as they receive sufficient sunlight and water.
Late in the season, when you’re starting to get those heavy autumn frosts, is a perfect time to mow your turnips and beets, too. If the plant is alive, it won’t be after you cut the tops off, but by the time frost is settling in, the sugars in the root, (the part the deer eat), are ready to explode. Chopping the tops off opens up that sugar rush to the roots so your plot will produce better and the sugars in those beets and turnips will ring the dinner bell for browsing deer.
Open The Access
Have you ever thought about highways, and how they are analogous to deer hunting? We use highways to get from point A to point B easier and faster. Deer are not that different from us in this respect. It’s kind of funny, but if you were to look at aerial photography of your hunting land, you’d see that deer tend to travel through the same corridors year after year. But you can change that, and it’s easier than you think, especially if you have the right tools for the job.
We all know deer like to travel through cover as it provides a sense of protection. However, deer will always take the path of least resistance through that cover. Take a small tractor or a UTV and start clearing a path from where they travel, to where you want those deer to go. Dropping a tree or two and pulling it across the path to block an existing corridor, and then pruning some trees and brush to open access to where you want the deer going can be all it takes. Viola! – instant deer highway to your stand. It’s simple and it works.
Harvest Crops With A Plan
One food plot crop (or commercial crop if you run a farm), that works great on two fronts is corn. A cornfield works as both food and cover for deer, and hopefully you have access to such a field this season. Using a small tractor to harvest that corn with a plan is key.
A big tractor will take a huge swath of stalks down, but for deer hunting, a small path is what you want. Take out just two to three rows, and, as mentioned above, direct the deer to your stand. Even better, make small clearings within bow range inside the perimeter of the cornfield, and you’ve made deer magnets that are perfect for the hunt.
If you have a large field to work with, leave a few rows of corn along the edges to provide cover. This will keep the deer moving and not hurt the overall crop that much. Remember, those edges, especially along wooded areas, have already been hit hard by the deer, raccoons and other wildlife. There won’t be much corn left to harvest, but the standing stalks offer amazing cover.
Add a Late-Season Food Source
What do you do if opening day has come and gone, and the season has been a real struggle. You have an empty freezer and a tag sitting in your pocket that feels like a battleship-sized boat anchor. The food plot is toast thanks to frost and the natural food sources drying up quickly. How can you get those deer to come back to your property? Hop back on your UTV, grab the chainsaw and get back at it.
There are several types of trees that deer actively feed on, especially as the days grow very short and cold. These browse trees can often be found with the branches picked clean as far up as the deer can reach. It may seem extreme, but hinge cuts can help save your season.
A hinge cut doesn’t go deep enough to topple the tree, but it provides a way to use your UTV to pull the tree over. Do not cut the tree off completely, though. You want to pull it over with a strategic placement in mind, not let it fall and splinter. Because it’s not cut all the way through the tree will keep producing foliage as long as it can, and this helps bring in deer. Now, the tree will eventually die from this. That can’t be helped. But you can work this into a sound forest management for your land, and you may end up with a really nice buck for your troubles.
Snow Plow Your Plot
Many of us who live and hunt in the northern reaches have to deal with snow late in the season. For some hunters, that means an end to hunting, but for those of us that still have a tag and the drive to stick with it, this can be a great time of year to put your tag on a mature buck that managed to elude hunters all season long. But what about that snow?
You already use your mechanical snow blade to plow your driveway, but have you thought about plowing your food plot, too? As we discussed, deer take the path of least resistance. Have you ever been out in heavy snow and seen where deer will follow in each other’s steps? They’ll also follow your steps, tracks from your UTV and more. Plow a path and they’ll follow it. You can also use your mechanical snow blade to clear off your food plot. Removing snow so that deer can get down to a food source easily can yield amazing results.
Those turnips, beets and other plants that are still in the ground now have a high sugar content that deer can’t resist. The deer will often dig into the snow to reach them. Imagine if they didn’t have to dig as much? Set your blade depth high and clear off as much snow as you can, and you’ll find deer will gravitate toward your plot in winter. It’s just one more way to get your plot to produce better. Then, all you have to do is dress warm, and sit as long as you can. For diehard hunters, this is the time of year we look forward to. Mature bucks come out of the woodwork when there is an ample late-season food source. All it takes is patience, a little extra work and the right tools for the job.