If seeing and killing more deer this fall interests you, now is the time to develop honey hole food plots.
This is not another article on large-scale, agricultural food plots, and you certainly won’t need to be an agronomist to put these fall attraction techniques into practice. This article was written to help you kill more deer. You don’t need control over a bunch of ground; just an option to carve out a couple acres of strategically located deer dirt for a fall hunting plot. This is an article about using well-timed, attractive and succulent forage to kill the buck you had in mind when you bought that tricked out, wicked fast compound bow.
Forget those highly visible, massive, velvet-racked bucks you see swallowed up by huge agricultural fields on your way home from work. Odds are they won’t die anywhere near that field where everyone else applies pressure by throwing up last-minute stands with high hopes. Their hunting pressure will coincide with a dietary shift that happens every year in the late-summer months, and if you play your cards right in the months of July and August, you will inherit those bucks when the shift is on.
As a private deer-management consultant, my job is to produce target-rich environments. What follows are the steps I employ with clients who want more deer activity at their fall food plots. Contrary to what some writers want you to believe, you don’t need 1,000 acres to consistently kill mature bucks. It’s absolutely feasible to wreak havoc in your local whitetail neighborhood by being “that guy” who consistently kills wall hangers. Hundreds of my clients are more than happy to “lose” deer — and their associated grocery bills — during the spring and summer months only to attract and kill them during the first week of bow season. It also works for me as a consultant, since a lower year-round grocery bill and a more consistent buck harvest equates to happy clients with more cash in their pockets!
Widespread habitat management has its rewards; however, most of us are not “holding” any more than a few individual deer within our invisible property boundaries. Make no mistake; while other bowhunters are bass fishing or mowing the grass in July and August the bowhunter who spends one or two weekends preparing a fall food plot will incur more taxidermy bills.
Think Like McDonald’s
Ray Croc, founder of cheeseburger-selling giant McDonald’s, once said he was not in the business of selling burgers. Instead, he suggested he was in the real estate business. If you haven’t noticed the well-planned location of every golden arches in the world, take your eyes off your fries for a minute. When planting smaller bow plots, think like McDonald’s: location, location, location.
If you are setting up a one- or two-acre, cool-season mix of brassicas and winter peas to be planted in August, you should seek woodland plots with “soft edges” in the form of thick transition cover that makes deer feel comfortable traveling to the edge of your plot. If no such habitat is available, create it by slowly transitioning your food plot edge by promoting thick transitional edge cover such as saplings, brush, tree tops or planted pines. These plots work like a charm in mixed agricultural/woodlot settings.
The proximity of these plots to large agricultural fields provides deer with an alternate food source when agricultural soybeans lose their appeal and are consumed by combines. One home run strategy we’ve used for a decade now is to custom blend forage soybeans right in with our brassica blends. As the brassicas are growing and producing tonnage for November, December and January, our freshly germinated forage soybeans are an ice cream treat to transition the deer away from mature soybean fields and into our cool-season plots. Deer will continue to use the soybeans into hunting season while the adjacent cool-season annuals become established.
What to Plant
The quality and attractiveness of your food plots is a direct function of the quality of your soil. After working with landowners across the whitetail range, I’m fully aware of the fact that most recreational properties don’t exactly have Grade A agricultural soil! Make sure you’re dumping on plenty of lime so soil nutrients are “plant available.” You can lime at any time. Applying granular bagged lime is convenient with the use of an ATV/UTV or small garden tractor.
There are several go-to crops we consistently use in our fall plots. Brassicas such as turnips, radishes, rape, kale and canola immediately come to mind. Cereal grains such as wheat, oats, rye and triticale are used for fall bow plots just as extensively and often mixed with brassicas. Cereal grains and brassicas are excellent choices for a few reasons: namely their ability to germinate and grow rapidly, minimizing weed problems. Add these selections to your weed-free seedbed, along with plenty of lime and fertilizer, and you have the perfect combination to outcompete aggressive weeds. The key to those large, leafy greens, softball-sized turnips and giant radishes is plenty of nitrogen fertilizer (250 pounds/acre) applied when you plant the seed. Nitrogen rapidly escapes the soil into the atmosphere, so do not apply it before planting.
With their broad leaves, brassicas shade out the seedbed, prohibiting weed growth and minimizing soil moisture loss through evaporation. While working throughout the whitetail range, I’ve identified some regions where deer don’t favor brassicas as much as others (try more cereal grains here). However, when the cold weather hits there’s nothing that competes with the giant, sweet-tasting greens produced in brassica plots. Turnips and radishes produce underground and above-ground bulbs that are high in much-needed energy and offer attraction second to none.
The cereal grains wheat, oats, rye and triticale all germinate rapidly and provide succulent, well-timed forage just prior to and during archery seasons. Many of my clients prefer the high sugar content of fall planted oats for bowhunting whitetails. After receiving countless grip and grin pictures from them I understand why!
Another of my favorite selections for bow plots is a blend of annual clovers and cereal grains. Annual clovers, unlike perennial clovers that establish extensive root systems and persist for many years, germinate quickly and produce succulent forage much more quickly. Some of my favorite varieties include berseem clover, arrowleaf clover and crimson clover. Annual clovers mixed with cereal grains make for a great bow plot. If you really want to increase the attractiveness of this plot, throw in some winter peas as deer simply can’t resist this ice cream treat.
When to Plant
I make it an annual goal to kick off my fall food plotting on my Pennsylvania farm just prior to the July 4 holiday celebration. I do this every year by spraying a broad-spectrum herbicide (Glyphosate) on all the plots I plan to fall plant. July 4 is a big holiday for us, so I enjoy the brief break and then I’m back at it, spraying one more time just prior to planting. This annual commitment to my schedule results in weed-free seedbeds just in time for Aug. 1, when I prefer to plant my fall plots.
If you have too many deer for local habitat conditions, delay your planting until 30-45 days prior to your area’s first frost. The goal is to have food when you can drag that bowstring back to the tip of your nose and loose a well-placed arrow. Planting too soon is one of the most common frustrations I hear from landowners. An optimistic food plotter goes through all of the necessary steps of improving his soils, purchasing premium seed and then times his planting just prior to a steady rainfall. Meanwhile, natural food quality bottoms out in late summer as the growing season winds down. Native “ice cream” plants such as greenbrier, honeysuckle and pokeweed are wiped out and far from palatable. As a result, the food plotter hits a home run and the deer eagerly devour his freshly growing cereal grains. Unfortunately, the well-placed, half-acre plot is mowed down lip high and by Sept. 1, prior to the highly anticipated opening day of archery season, the food plot is history.
If such a scenario is likely in your area, you can obviously enlarge your food plot is possible. Alternatively, many of my clients install an electric fence such as those made by Gallagher to “bank” forage for a later date. For about the same cost of a tricked-out modern bow you can protect a one-acre food plot until you are ready for the deer to chow down, practically ensuring success. But if the cost of that insurance plan doesn’t appeal to you, simply delay planting from Aug. 1 to roughly Sept. 1, depending on your location.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re broadcasting or drilling your fall plots, but pay special attention to the quality of your seedbed and the depth of your seeds. A seedbed should be firm but not compacted. I like to step in a prepared seedbed and see my boot print but not sink deep enough that my sole is completely covered in soil.
If your seedbed is too firm, lightly disk it, as the crops we’re talking about don’t need to be planted more than a quarter inch deep. If your boot sinks too deep, find a small cultipacker or take the roller you use for your lawn and firm it up. Many great fall plots are planted by simply broadcasting seed over a well-prepared seedbed and then rolling or packing just prior to a rainfall.
As a bowhunter, I’m well aware of the money we spend on bows, gear and accessories. The money and time invested in creating fall bow plots is well worth it.
With a little bit of work and a modest investment of money, you can gain more control over your bowhunting success.