A Guide to Food Plot Alternatives
April 05, 2017
One of the more frustrating hunts I ever had took place in eastern Montana. I spent the first afternoon on the northern edge of a big alfalfa field, and over the course of the afternoon watched the herd of deer feeding on the lush greens slowly grow to over 50 head. None came within bow range, but I could see where most were entering the field. Unfortunately, the wind stayed wrong for the next two days so all I could do was sit and watch.
On day three the wind finally shifted in my favor, so my guide and I hastily hung a stand along one of the heaviest trails entering the field. In the process we had to trim a few branches, which we tossed thoughtlessly in a pile nearby. The first deer to come by were a doe and two fawns. Rather than continuing on their way to the lush alfalfa, they made a 90-degree turn and headed straight for the brushpile.
For a good 15 minutes they eagerly munched down the fresh cottonwood leaves that otherwise would have been unreachable. I wasn't looking for a doe, but took note of how something as seemingly ineffectual as trimming a few branches to hang a tree or clear a shooting lane could make a particular location more attractive to deer. And I have since expanded that to several different levels.
Food plots are all the rage nowadays, and they're certainly an effective way to attract and hold more deer on your property and increase potential hunting opportunities. But not everyone has the ways, means or the time to build them, or to build the number or size of plots they might like. That doesn't mean they and you can't turn your favorite patch of ground into a more attractive place for deer and hunter. In many cases, it takes little more than a chain saw and a few hours of labor.
Several years ago I was hunting on Anticosti Island, a place once renowned for its deer densities and high proportion of mature bucks. The numbers and age ratios haven't changed much but the rest of North America finally caught up. Anyway, it was getting on toward the end of our hunt and a couple guys in our group had yet to tag out. "Time for the secret weapon," our French Canadian guide, Florent said in broken English.
The following morning in addition to his four-wheeler Florent loaded a chain saw in the back of his truck. After driving several miles back into the woods he finally got out, started up the saw and felled a couple tall spruces. "You, sit here today," he said to one of the hunters, who looked skeptically at me, then at the guide.
I understood his skepticism. Deer don't eat spruce. Florent read our faces as well and offered, "They eat the moss." And indeed he was right. The old man's beard that hung from the evergreen's branches was like candy to deer, and they had learned that the sound of a chain saw meant an easy meal.
The simple act of felling a single tree can provide several benefits, one of which is illustrated above. Even after the season, when most cutting occurs, it can be beneficial. The tops of felled trees provide an artificial windfall of natural food at a time when a whitetail's diet consists primarily of woody browse and so their digestive system is adapted to get the most nutrition from it. But the benefits don't stop there.
Large downed tops may protect some of the underlying vegetation from overbrowsing, perhaps allowing more mast-bearing species to reach maturity and provide food. In the shorter term, the denser cover may also serve as bedding areas. If you have no big trees, you can accomplish the same thing with a hinge cut — cutting smaller pole and sapling stage trees partway through so they'll fall over, but remain alive.
Depending on what you cut, remaining stumps may also continue to serve as a nutritional attractant. Where I live, red maple is among the most abundant hardwoods and preferred browse species. The spring after being cut, their stumps produce suckers or stump sprouts. By cutting a large enough area you can effectively create a fairly productive late-season food plot.
Removing the canopy also allows more sunlight to reach the forest floor, which promotes more growth of herbaceous vegetation. These openings and their edges are more attractive to deer, which are considered an "edge" species because of their affinity for early successional habitat.
In a monoculture like a pine plantation or the aforementioned maples you may want to cut everything. In a mixed forest you can cut selectively, removing some species and leaving others, thus reducing competition for sunlight, water and soil nutrients. A couple prime examples would be removing species like maple or gum and leaving mast-producers like oak. Even removing the competition for a single tree like an apple or persimmon - a process known as releasing - can have a huge payback.
If you're going to do any appreciable amount of cutting you want to do it in a way that will provide the most benefit over both the short and long term. That's why it's often a good idea to hire a professional. In addition to increasing the overall quality and value of your property, timber harvesting can and should also provide you with some hard cash that you can use for more intensive management like food plots, or to simply help defray costs like real estate taxes.
As a general rule you should never pay to have a tree cut. Whether it's one acre or a hundred, trees are worth money. At the very least, hardwoods can be utilized or sold as firewood. Other species may be better for pulpwood, biomass or lumber. Proceeds from the timber sale should cover the cost of a management plan and the cutting and still leave a percentage for the landowner. If they don't, you need to find a different logger.
These are just some of the ways to improve your land for deer hunting with cutting rather than food plots. There are others, and when combined with food plots the value of the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.