By Lynn Burkhead
On the surface, using a deer feeder on a piece of hunting ground would seem like a simple endeavor.
Go to your local Academy Sports + Outdoors store — or visit academy.com — and buy a feeder, a battery, and a few bags of deer corn. Once at your hunting ground, set the feeder up, hook up the power, and start spinning golden nuggets onto the ground. And don’t miss when the big buck of your hunting dreams comes calling.
But sometimes, simple-sounding chores are a bit more complex than they first appear. So says Jim Lillis, who at 73 years of age has been chasing Texas white-tailed deer for more than 50 years.
Along the way — while hunting for more than two decades on a lease of more than 5,000 acres west of Fort Worth as well as a half-dozen other smaller spots closer to his North Texas home — Lillis has become something of a feeder guru, a master at using corn, a motorized spinner plate, and timing to fill his freezer with tasty venison and to put more than a few trophy class whitetails on the wall.
When I spoke with Lillis, a Sherman, Texas resident, he was a day away from leaving for a feeder-filling and maintenance mission to take care of the 17 units on the vast acreage he and nearly a half dozen others hunt upon.
“How do you get more out of a feeder?” I queried before he headed west. For starters, he said it’s important to first make sure you’re matching up the right feeder unit with the type of hunting demands your spot requires.
Feeder Size Matters
“It’s important to get the right feeder, particularly where size is concerned,” said Lillis. “If you live more than 300 miles away from the primary spot you hunt on like I do, you’ll want one that’s big enough.”
Instead of numerous feeders holding a couple of bags of corn, Lillis opts for bigger units that can handle a much bigger load of feed and throw the golden nuggets for an extended period of time.
“In general, I’d say that the further you live away from your lease or hunting property, the bigger the feeder needs to be,” he said. “We’re talking motorized, spinning-plate -style feeders that can hold 300, 400, or even 500 pounds of corn.”
If a deer hunter is hunting smaller, more local spots, Lillis will often opt for smaller feeder units — even free-flow gravity versions that get strapped to a tree — to help encourage deer movement in the arid, often trackless terrain that makes predicting whitetail movement difficult.
Fortunately, if using supplemental feed is legal where you hunt, you can find almost every style of deer feeder that’s made at Academy Sports + Outdoors. From a Game Winner 6-Gallon Tree Feeder to a Moultrie Deer Feeder Pro 30-Gallon Tripod Feeder to a ForEverlast Game Changer 600-pound Easy-Fill Feeder to the Game Winner 325-pound Cube VP Feeder, the feeder section at your local Academy retail store and online will have all of your needs covered.
Location, Location, Location
Once you’ve got the right feeder purchased, the second step in maximizing their effectiveness is to put them in the right place. It will typically be on a flatter piece of ground, although Lillis has been able to find success using t-posts and anchoring stakes out in some of the more uneven terrain that he hunts in the Rolling Plains.
Other keys to finding the right spot for a feeding include setting them up in places that can be accessed on foot or by vehicle so that corn can be carried in and in spots that are near locations that whitetails feel reasonably secure in. Feeders should not be set up in open areas near country road where would-be poachers might drive by.
Another key in getting a feeder in the right spot involves setting it up in a southerly exposed location, one that allows for plenty of sunlight. Why is that important? Because the third step, according to the Texas feeder guru, is to be able to get the feeder properly powered.
Don’t Forget Power Needs
For Lillis, the best way to power a feeder is by harnessing the power of the sun.
“Solar powered is best,” said Lillis, whose best whitetail is a mid-170s Boone and Crockett typical buck that he took on a public-land bowhunt. “But if the ground you’re hunting in has a lot of heavy timber, that’s not going to work.”
Lillis also is a big fan of using the right battery, too.
“We also use some rechargeable batteries — gel cells are the ones that get used the most on our lease — and I always have several extras ready to go in my truck when I go out to fill and service feeders,” he said. “For those feeders on our lease that don’t have solar panels, I aim to swap them out every couple of months since some of the spinners use more battery juice than others do.”
One thing Lillis does when he goes to his local Academy store to buy new feeder batteries is to err on the side of higher quality ones.
“When you start off by buying good batteries with a higher amp hour rating, they retain more power, and that’s worth it to me, even if they cost a little bit more at the outset,” he said.
Another thing Lillis does is ensure the date a battery starts to get used is recorded somewhere — he’ll either mark it on the battery with a Sharpie or even etch it on the side of the battery with his pocketknife.
“Why do I mark the date on a battery?” said Lillis. “Battery life, that’s why. That way, if I get a few years down the road and all of a sudden, I’m having trouble with a feeder, I can check the date and have a pretty good idea of whether or not the battery might be the issue.”
And that leads to a fourth step towards maximizing feeder usage in Lillis’ mind, the continual work, care for, and maintenance of the feeder units.
Feeder Maintenance is Key
Since Lillis is quite handy with power tools and welding gear, some of the feeders on his lease — and the other half-dozen properties he has hunted on over the years — are self-made barrel feeders. Others have been purchased at locations like Academy. All get the same loving care and attention that has kept some of those units in business for more than three decades.
“When I go out to fill up and take care of feeders, I’ll always have some spare batteries, spare timers, spare motors, and spare spinner plates with me in my truck,” said Lillis. “If I get to a feeder and it’s not functioning properly, the first thing that I’ll do is to check and see if the battery needs replacing.”
After that, Lillis will use some oil and an old toothbrush to check and make sure the spinner plate is functioning properly, cleaning it thoroughly. If it still doesn’t work right, he’ll use a volt meter — a very important tool he says — to ensure power is reaching from the battery or solar panel to the motor itself. Then he’ll examine to see if the timer is still good. If it is, a final step is to test the motor and make sure it hasn’t gone bad.
While using high-quality feeders and parts helps to ensure such failures are rare, they can happen since these pieces of equipment stay in the elements year-round. Sometimes a unit may not be working because of a simple thing like a grimy solar panel or insect and varmints nesting in the unit. Because of this, he’s careful to carry wasp/hornet spray and some Windex and a rag when he goes on a feeder-filling mission.
Lillis says varmints can also damage feeders and parts, from rats that get into the box that houses the timer, battery, and wiring to raccoons that reach for a free meal to even bears and cattle that can knock a feeder assembly around to the point it gets damaged.
“You definitely want to varmint proof your feeder as much as possible,” said Lillis. “That means putting a feeder in a hog-proof pen if you’ve got feral pigs where you hunt. It will also mean putting a varmint cage around the spinner unit. And if bears or cattle are present, it likely will mean using a barrel feeder unit that can be hoisted off the ground by cranking it up.”
Use the Right Feed
Lillis’ sixth step is making sure the feed can flow properly in the unit as it’s thrown out several times a day. That means using feed that’s small enough for the spout and spinner plate, and feed that’s free of aflatoxin (so deer, small mammals and birds aren’t harmed) and small bits of husks and other agricultural debris.
While some hunters will put powdered attractants, protein pellets, or a mixture of other grain seed into the corn, Lillis has found that moisture can cause swelling of those substances, eventually clogging a feeder up. To keep that from occurring, he uses a galvanized lid and nothing but corn to keep spout-clogging moisture at bay.
Use Feeder Funnel
And that leads to a seventh step, or feeder rule if you will, that Lillis religiously follows — making sure a funnel is a part of your feeder setup.
“Funnels are very important,” said Lillis. “Many feeders come with them, especially barrel feeders. But if not, you can buy an aftermarket funnel at places like Academy. And you’ll want to do that since it uses gravity to help keep the flow of corn free and clear in a feeder unit.”
After that, it’s all about the timing, an important eighth and final step in this process. With timer units that can be programmed for multiple settings and length of feed dispersal, Lillis will work to ensure local deer are coming around while there’s plenty of legal shooting time left in the hourglass.
“Obviously, in the morning, you want to throw corn a time or two right before, right at, or just after sunrise,” said Lillis. “You don’t want the deer coming in too early and vacuuming up what is thrown out before legal shooting light arrives.”
“And in the afternoon, I like to feed around 4:30 or 4:45 p.m. where we hunt. You want to see if you can pull them in with plenty of shooting time remaining. And during the rut in November, I may throw even earlier in the afternoon since it might encourage an old cagey buck to come in around a doe with plenty of time left before it gets dark.”
While not every deer hunter opts to use a feeder in their deer hunting strategies, in some places like Texas, it’s a time-honored and highly effective method of chasing whitetails.
Just be sure you have a few feeder tricks up your hunting sleeve, because it’s more than simply pouring in a bag of corn and flipping a switch!