I grew up in a very small town, so when the time came for me to go off to a large university, my folks were understandably concerned. Fearing I might be led astray by bad influences, they lectured me on things like trusting strangers and peer pressure. “Just because all the other guys do it doesn’t mean you should,” my mother would say. I assured her I was old enough to tell right from wrong. I even believed it.
I was constantly on guard, but in time learned that occasionally there is something to be gained from following the example of others. For instance, I was still a very impressionable young undergrad when an older grad student introduced me to a newfangled contraption called a self-climbing treestand. It forever changed the way I hunted deer. Within a few years, they’d become all the rage, and nowadays the vast majority of bowhunters ply their trade from some sort of elevated platform.
Much the same is true of food plots. It may not be the majority yet, but an ever-increasing percentage of bowhunters are gravitating toward building and hunting food plots. If you’re not already doing it, you ought to try it. And if you’ve tried it but aren’t impressed, perhaps you’re just not going about it the right way.
Feeding vs. Hunting
Food plots come in all shapes, sizes and intended applications. In general, they can be divided into two main categories: feeding plots and hunting plots. Feeding plots are typically larger, regularly shaped and built with agricultural efficiency in mind. Their purpose is primarily to provide deer with proper year-round (mostly summer) nutrition and hold them on the property. Hunting plots are smaller, designed with hunting in mind and intended primarily to attract deer in the fall so you can kill them. You can hunt feeding plots, particularly if you’re a gun hunter, but that’s not the main purpose.
Similarly, you can bowhunt any hunting plot, but there are specific ways to build and hunt plots most efficiently.
Let’s start with where to build hunting plots. If possible, hunting plots should be positioned on the landscape to take maximum advantage of habitat, topography, prevailing winds and local deer movements. It’s up to you to figure out what that means on the property you hunt. Still, there are a few generalizations that may apply.
First, it’s easier to attract deer if you put your food plots some place the deer want to go anyway. The closer to bedding or feeding areas or travel routes you can get without disturbing them, the better.
Second, size matters, and in this case smaller is better. Big plots are great for feeding plots or gun hunters, but they put bowhunters at a serious disadvantage; you could be watching deer all afternoon and never have one in range. Furthermore, deer are much more inclined to enter a small plot during daylight hours than a large plot, particularly if there’s plenty of thick cover nearby. Locate it in a staging area, like midway between bedding areas and a feeding plot, and you’ll see even more activity.
Third, shape is an important consideration. Irregularly shaped plots can be built to funnel deer. A classic example is an hourglass shape. Place your stand in the middle at the narrowest point. Leaving small strips or points of wood jutting out into a plot also offers cover for stand or ground blind placement.
How and When
Bowhunting on food plots in the morning is generally a losing proposition. Unless you’re willing to go out several hours before daylight, the deer will already be there when you arrive. You’ll scare them off, and they probably won’t return — at least not in any numbers. A better morning tactic is to set up back in the woods along a travel route. This way, you can sneak in while the deer are still feeding in the plot and intercept them as they leave the plot and head for their bedding areas.
This tactic can be deadly during the rut. Unless they’re flat-out, red-eyed, tongue-hanging-out chasing, mature bucks aren’t going to just blunder into an open food plot. They’ll cruise downwind and scent-check the plot from the safety of cover. Set up 60 or 70 yards back in the woods on the downwind side. You may not see as many deer, but those you do will be far more interesting.
Afternoons are the best time to hunt on food plots, mostly because you can get in ahead of the deer. Where and how you hunt varies with conditions, but I prefer to hunt the western side of a plot if possible. Early in the season when it’s warm, deer most often enter on the shady (western) side first and will often literally follow the shade out into the plot. Prevailing fall winds are usually from a westerly direction (at least where I hunt), so you’ll have the wind at your back, which can work against you if you let deer linger out in front of you. Finally, any deer looking back toward the west will also be looking toward the sun.
Entire books have been written on the subject of bowhunting food plots. This is a fairly general summary, but it should be enough to get you started. And if your mother should ask where you learned about it, don’t tell her you heard it from me.