Plotwise: Tips for Maximizing Your Whitetail Food Plot
June 30, 2014
There are two main frustrations in the world of whitetail food plots, both often due to undiagnosed human error. One is poor plot growth; the other is poor hunting results.
On the surface, there's a clear link between these. If a crop doesn't grow well, of course it can't be expected to attract deer. But often it's more complex. Some plots look good but never produce good hunting results. What separates the best from the rest? As you look ahead to planting time, here are some points to ponder.
Many novice food plotters unknowingly all but dare plants to grow. And then they're quick to blame the seed company for failure when something else entirely was the culprit.
I'll assume you have or soon will be conducting a soil test (simple, cheap and easy) and are going to amend the soil according to the recommendations made for that sample. The amendments almost certainly will include fertilizer (its balance depending on the crop you're planting), and often, agricultural lime to raise the pH level. If you don't take these steps, don't blame anyone else for a weak crop.
The single most vulnerable time for nearly any plant is when it's just starting out. Once forages have become established, a lot of them can handle heat, cold, drought, floods, insects and deer browsing well enough. But many factors can keep a plant from getting a decent start.
Germination — the act of sprouting — is a perilous process. Forage plants tend to produce huge numbers of seeds because, in nature, few survive to turn into reproducing plants themselves. And problems for most forages start long before a deer comes along.
Depending on plant species and variety, some combination of temperature, light and moisture will trigger a seed to germinate. Then conditions must stay favorable long enough for the plant to develop a sufficient root system and begin putting on healthy growth above ground level.
If you've planted a seed mix, rarely will all of the plants in it establish equally well. They won't even germinate at precisely the same time. The diversity of plants in a mix naturally increases the chances of getting some plants to grow, but it also means conditions probably won't be equally good for all of them.
While the right mix of forages offers some insurance against total crop failure, whether or not the plot will grow starts at planting time. Unless you have a planter designed specifically to handle various sizes of seeds in one pass, diverse mixes can be tricky. Regardless of how you achieve it, you need to plant the larger seeds at the right depth, then come back over the top and broadcast the small seeds.
Clover, chicory, alfalfa and the like produce tiny seeds that must be planted shallow. So shallow that in some cases it's almost a stretch to say you "planted" them at all. And that can bring its own concerns.
I once asked Steve Scott of Wildlife Institute of North America to name the No. 1 problem people run into growing clover. It took this industry veteran but a moment to reply. "They plant it too deep," he told me.
Cowpeas and other large-seeded cotyledons are huge in comparison; they not only can germinate well if planted deeper, they do far better if planted deeper. The same goes for cereal grains, such as oats, wheat, rye and triticale. If you aren't going to plant them at the right depth, don't complain about having been sold "bad" seed when your crop fizzles.
If your plot is small and deer numbers are high, often it's a challenge to get enough plants up and going within a short period. One way to minimize this problem is to try to plant when deer are focused on another prime food source in the area, such as a nearby soybean or alfalfa field. An even more reliable way is to set up a portable electric fence. With these moveable, solar-powered systems you can keep virtually all deer off the plot until you're ready for them to start hitting it.
Nearly all forages grow better in tilled soil than untilled. Not that it's impossible to get a decent stand by just throwing seed onto the ground, but it takes the right plant and the right conditions. If you want to try a "no till" plot, first look for someone in your area who's done it successfully, and ask a ton of questions.
That's actually solid advice for any food plotter. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. We already know what whitetails eat, and we know what tends to grow best. Most cultivated deer forages have long histories as livestock forages, and millions of dollars have been put into researching them. The folks who best know how to grow these crops in your area might not even be hunters — they could be dairy or sheep farmers. Don't hesitate to ask anyone what to do or not to do to grow better forage.
Where Are the Bucks?
Hopefully, with smart planning and decent weather you'll get your next food plot growing without a hitch. But as you might have found, a good-looking plot isn't all it takes to have a great hunting spot. Other variables frequently come into play.
Believe it or not, the first question to ask often is, "Do deer really like this plant?" Ideally you'll know they do before planting, but it's easy to get lured into taking chances on new crops. That's not to say you never should experiment with new plants, but keep proven ones at the core of your planting program every year.
Some plots look great simply because nothing is eating them. And I mean nothing. I've seen plots in deer-heavy areas go untouched because the crop just wasn't attractive — at least, not to those deer at that time. And they're the final judges.
But let's assume you know whitetails are using your plot. You see fresh tracks and droppings, and exclusion cages indicate deer are feeding there. (There's way more growth inside the cages than outside them.) Trouble is, you don't see bucks when hunting the plot. What's up?
An obvious way to see if you and the bucks are just on different daytime schedules is with cameras. In particular, I've found time-lapse cameras helpful for confirming the extent and timing of daytime plot use. If you find there isn't much use in daylight, try to figure out why.
In many cases, plot location is at least a partial culprit. The bucks bed too far from the plot to get there before dark. They consistently reach it after the end of shooting light and are gone again before dawn. This could be due to the draw of some other food source, such as fresh acorns in the woods, but it also could mean your plot is so far from good cover that the bucks feel exposed.
I'm reluctant to tramp around in nearby staging areas just to check for sign during open season, but a bit of cautious intrusion might be necessary. If there are fresh rubs on trails and scrapes under some branches overhanging plot edges, it might be time to set up a 24/7 trail camera. Again, I'd be cautious about going far at all into the cover. Even if the bucks are bedding far from the plot, there's a good chance at least some does and fawns are staying close to the food supply. You don't want to spook them, either.
Sometimes hunters just lack self-control. After putting time, effort and money into developing a plot, who doesn't want to maximize the return on that investment? So there's at least one stand on each plot . . . and it gets hunted long and hard.
Individuals with limited plots can overhunt them without even realizing it. So can hunting clubs. Even if a club controls a lot of acres, there are a bunch of members, and one will be sitting over the "best" plot every time there's a hunter on the place. By the time members start to wonder if they're overhunting the plot, local deer have long since confirmed it.
Having spent the past decade as part of the North American Whitetail TV team, I know where some of the interest in plot hunting comes from. Viewers see TV hunters sitting on plots and shooting nice bucks. Sometimes it looks so easy. Why shouldn't everyone else do it that way?
Fact is, we're in a different situation from most of you. For one thing, you must be more sensitive to the dangers of overhunting a plot. Unlike us, you'll likely hunt the same land all season, and perhaps for years to come. You can't necessarily afford to be that aggressive.
Our hunter and cameraman have just a few days to get footage and take a buck. In this scenario, hunting plots can pay off. We require some footage of a deer before it's shot, and that's harder to get in the woods. (It's especially hard before leaf fall.) And our HD cameras need a ton of light. Even in an open area we can't start taping when legal shooting light begins, and we must quit before it ends.
You can choose from a wider range of dates and conditions before hunting a given stand. You don't need video before you shoot, so you need not worry about pre-roll or camera light. You can just wait for the right time, ease back onto that rub or scrape line and whack that buck before he ever even gets to the planting.
The more limited your land and setups, the more cautious you must be. Period. Especially in early season, when warm weather and a lack of rut activity make deer somewhat nocturnal even without pressure. Don't add to the difficulty by pounding what later would have been a killer spot.
Sometimes a plot fails because nature throws us a curveball nobody could hit. But more often, bad choices limit the return on our investment. As we move toward another planting and hunting season, resolve not to let controllable factors beat you out of a productive fall.
For Your Information
Several universities and public agencies have published online materials on food plot development and maintenance. A quick search should turn up one for your region.
1. Milo Hanson
Talking to a local school bus driver is probably not the way we'd normally scout for deer, but it proved successful for Milo Hansen, who killed the No. 1 typical whitetail of all time in 1993. Hansen killed the world record holder, which scored 213 5/8 B&C, in Saskatchewan after the bus driver told him which field it had been hanging out in.
While many hunters in the area attempted to track down the massive buck, Hansen beat them all to the punch, taking down the buck with two steady shots from his rifle. Hansen had the buck scored and re-scored, maybe because he didn't believe his own eyes. Nevertheless, his record stands as the biggest typical whitetail in history.
2. James Jordan
The No. 2 spot on our list belongs to James Jordan, who killed this 206 1/8 B&C buck in Wisconsin way back in 1914, long before trophy hunting or deer management were mainstream practices. Even then, Jordan knew he had a monster on his hands and took it to a local taxidermist. That's where the story gets bizarre.
The taxidermist apparently moved, first to Minnesota and then to Florida, taking the massive rack with him. At that point the buck was lost to history. Some time later, a relative of Jordan's told him about a trophy whitetail mount he bought at a garage sale for $3. When Jordan went to check it out, he was shocked to see the buck he killed many years prior. The buck was given back to him, and his longstanding place as the No. 1 typical whitetail in the world was cemented.
3. Larry Gibson
Generations ago, deer management for trophy production wasn't the main reason most hunters took to the field. There were no celebrity hunters or TV shows, and most hunters didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what kind of mount they'd get — if they even kept the rack. That's certainly the case for Larry Gibson, who killed this 205 B&C trophy in 1971 in Randolph Co., Mo.
With the buck of a lifetime within 20 yards, Gibson sealed the deal with a solid shot from his .308. As a simple meat hunter, he sold the rack to the Show-Me Big Bucks Club for $200 and didn't look back. The club still owns the trophy today, and despite offers of up to $50,000, it says the buck is not for sale.
4. Mel Johnson
Mel Johnson's 204 4/8 B&C whitetail may be No. 4 on our list, but it actually holds another distinct honor: it is the No. 1 typical archery world record. Because of that, Johnson is a modern day archery hero. Keep in mind, Johnson killed this world record holder in the 1960s, well before archery became what it is today. As the story goes, Johnson was a diehard archer who'd sneak out to hunt every chance he got, whether it was after work or on the weekend.
On October 29, 1965, Johnson left work and hid in a bush along a bean field. He saw the buck emerge nearly 300 yards away, and he waited patiently until he had an ethical shot. With his 72-pound recurve, Johnson arrowed the buck, which field dressed at 270 pounds.
5. Robert Smith
You can't quite call Kentucky a sleeper state for whitetails anymore, but it has steadily gotten more attention over the last decade. One reason is Robert Smith's Pendleton County buck, which was killed in 2000 and scored 204 2/8 B&C. At the No. 5 spot, Smith's trophy has 30-inch beams, a 20-inch inside spread and field dressed at over 245 pounds. The buck was killed Nov. 11 during rifle season and is one of the largest 10-pointers ever.
6. Stephen Jansen
After all the stories we hear of people who've kept trophies in their basements for years before having them scored, it really makes us wonder how many world record animals are out there. A good example is Stephen Jansen, of Beaverdam Creek, Alberta, who killed this 204 2/8 B&C whitetail in 1967. Jansen kept the antlers for years in his shop, where he hung belts off of them. Years later, Jansen's curious nephew took the rack in for scoring. As it turns out, Jansen's whitetail is the No. 6 largest typical whitetail in history.
7. Hubert Collins
In the fall of 2003, Hubert 'œTiggy' Collins headed out on a bowhunt looking to kill a good doe. As it turns out, Collins got a whole lot more than he bargained for. He first saw deer feet moving in his direction, then realized it was a decent sized buck. Collins sent a well-placed arrow at the deer but was surprised when he saw just how big the rack was. This buck rests at the No. 10 spot on our list, scoring 203 3/8 B&C.
8. Bruce Ewen
Bruce Ewen was hunting in Saskatchewan in 1992 when he downed this massive buck, which scored 202 6/8 B&C. As with many hunters, Ewen said he was simply at the right place at the right time. When the opportunity came to kill the No. 8 typical whitetail of all time, Ewen never faltered, firing his rifle and ensuring his place in the record books.
9. John Tarala & Maurice Berezowski
As any parent knows, it's not always easy to teach your kids how to share. It certainly doesn't get any easier with adults, although hunters John Tarala and Maurice Berezowski are the exception to that rule. While on a hunt on the North Saskatchewan River in 2006, Tarala and Berezowski both fired on the same deer, at exactly the same time. In a show of good sportsmanship, they came to the mutual decision to share the deer, which holds the No. 9 spot on our list. The buck scored 202 3/8 B&C and is officially listed under both names.
10. John Breen
John Breen caught a train to Minnesota in 1918 to try his luck at some whitetail hunting at a time when the state was still as wild as ever. Breen had an extremely successful hunt, too, killing this 202 B&C trophy buck, which is the No. 10 typical whitetail of all time. When he finally arrived home with his enormous trophy, Breen half-jokingly told his friends that it wouldn't fit through his front door — a problem every serious whitetail hunter would love to have.
11. Wayne Bills
As a rookie deer hunter, Wayne Bills had one of the best cases of beginner's luck in recent memory. Bills, who hadn't killed a deer before 1974, heard shots a few hills over and turned to see what the commotion was all about. Bills saw the buck headed his way in a hurry and took aim with his shotgun. Bills made the fateful shot, killing the No. 11 typical whitetail of all time, scoring 201 4/8 B&C from the state of Iowa. Interestingly enough, the buck had a broken brow tine but was still able to place high in the record book.
12. Bradley Jerman
A giant rack will do strange things to a man. Just ask Brad Jerman, who tried sleeping in his tripod stand after spotting the buck of his dreams. After a few hours Jerman came to his senses, crawled back home for some sleep and then went back for another go-round at 3 a.m. He literally crawled back to his blind for the second time in 12 hours to avoid detection. Jerman's crazy scheme worked, however, as later that morning he killed this 201 1/8 B&C trophy in Warren Co., Ohio, and the No. 12 typical whitetail of all time.
13. Wayne Stewart
As with many hunters in the 1960s, Minnesota teenager Wayne Stewart wasn't out looking for a huge set of antlers. Instead, Stewart was on a deer drive with family members, simply looking to fill a tag'¦and his freezer. As it turned out, Stewart shot the No. 13 typical whitetail of all time, which scored 201 B&C. Because he knew the rack was special, Stewart kept the rack in his garage. After his brother — who had accompanied Stewart on the hunt — was killed in a car accident, Stewart decided to have the antlers mounted. Sadly, the rack was stolen from the taxidermist. After years of searching, Stewart located the rack and returned it to his home, where it now resides.
14. James Cartwright
When it comes to trophy whitetails, Washington probably isn't the first place most hunters think of. But plenty of hunters like James Cartwright know what treasures the state holds. Cartwright was hunting in Stevens County in 1992 when he connected with this 200 3/8 B&C trophy, which is the No. 14 all time typical whitetail. Cartwright noticed some sizable bucks frequenting his fields and decided to track their movement patterns. Cartwright connected with his .338 Win. Mag., and later had the buck scored after his friends urged him to do so.
15. Brian Damery
After Illinois hunter Brian Damery got his hands on a massive shed his neighbor's dog had drug in, he was primed and ready to go for deer season in 1993. He spent a few days watching a group of does, then finally put a stalk on a buck that'd been chasing them. He finally caught up with the massive buck, which scored 200 2/8 B&C and is No. 15 all time. He killed it in Macon Co., Ill.
16. Peter Swistun
Peter Swistun was a Saskatchewan farmer who lived in the middle of nowhere. But apparently that was a good place to be, as Switsun's farm was frequented by a giant whitetail he'd kept his eyes on for a long time. With a buddy and an old beat up pickup, Switsun went after the deer after sighting it one evening while doing chores. His friend got off a few shots but couldn't connect, but then Switsun killed the deer with his .30-06. The official score was 200 2/8 B&C, which was good enough for No. 16 on the all-time typical whitetail list.
17. Eugene Kurinka
Like Cinderella, Eugene Kurinka was left at deer camp to do chores while his friends went out for a morning hunt. After the chores were done, Kurinka headed out for some late morning hunting on the Otauwau River in Alberta, Canada. He didn't find a glass slipper, but something even better — a 200 1/8 B&C whitetail and the No. 17 typical on our list. He now has official bragging rights in deer camp.
18. Don McGarvey
There are times when cutting out of work early pays off, and that was certainly the case for Don McGarvey in September 2001 when he got off early to do some bowhunting. With a couple of spots he'd obtained permission to hunt near his work, McGarvey headed out to find a monster closing in from 200 yards away. McGarvey killed the buck — which scored 199 5/8 B&C and holds the No. 18 spot on our list — at 10 yards in Edmonton, Alberta. McGarvey's safety harness got an assist in this case, as he almost fell from his tree after spotting the deer but was held in place by the device.
19. Jeff Brunk
As a college student in 1969, Jeff Brunk didn't have any intent to kill a trophy deer — just to fill his tag. His chances were good, though, since he was hunting prime whitetail country in Clark Co., Mo. Making his way over a small hill, Brunk saw and killed what he originally thought was a fair-sized buck. Only after approaching did he realize what lay before him — a 199 4/8 B&C trophy that ranks No. 19 all time.
20. Tom Dellwo
With its wide open spaces, Montana is the quintessential portrait of the western U.S. It's also home of the No. 20 typical whitetail of all time, killed by Tom Dellwo in 1974. The buck, which was killed in Missoula County, scored a stunning 199 3/8 B&C. Like so many others on our top 20 whitetails of all time list, Dellwo was simply trying to fill his freezer when he killed this trophy whitetail.