April 25, 2022
You’ve probably seen the long-running “Idiot’s Guides” series of reference books. Their purpose is to take complex topics and explain them so clearly even those of marginal intelligence can understand. A quick search of the publisher’s website shows at least 127 “Idiot’s Guides” currently in print, covering everything from flipping houses and options trading to quantum physics and self-hypnosis.
As interesting as all that sounds, I’d rather stick with bowhunting and invest my limited mental capacity into endeavors that help me be more successful in the field. One of the best ways to do that is by installing food plots; yet for years, I made excuses for not doing so because I felt like an “idiot” who lacked the necessary skills. After all, if you watch outdoor TV or follow well-known hunters on social media, it’s easy to conclude you need acres of open ground and high-dollar, commercial-grade tractors to build successful plots.
Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth! At its most basic level, building a food plot requires nothing more than putting some seed in the soil and allowing Mother Nature to do the rest via sunshine and rain. Sure, it’s a bit more nuanced than that, but it certainly isn’t rocket science. I’m a guy who regularly kills houseplants and can’t even grow tomato plants in pots on the back deck, yet I somehow managed to invest a modest amount of time, money and effort to create a small food plot that has resulted in five filled deer tags over the past two seasons. That’s pretty good for an idiot like me, and if I can do it, you can too.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that’s true for my food plot. I don’t own hunting property and do most of my local whitetail hunting on a farm owned by a family friend. The property is divided by a road, and on the lower side of the road is a large ag field that backs up to a swampy woodlot with a creek flowing through it. As you might imagine, those woods are fairly thick and a preferred bedding area for many deer that filter into the adjoining ag field at night.
For a bowhunter, this sets up an obvious ambush opportunity on deer transitioning between their daytime hides and nighttime feeding area. The problem, however, is that the field edge along the woods is nearly 400 yards long, and the deer can emerge from the woods just about anywhere. This presents a real problem for a bowhunter who can only cover 40 yards or so around a treestand. Naturally, I began to think about ways I might concentrate deer activity to my advantage.
In the southeast corner of the field is a half-acre “cove” surrounded by woods on three sides, with a roughly 40-yard wide opening that connects to the rest of the field. The soil in this area stays quite wet year-round due to the poor drainage adjacent to the swamp, leading to frequently muddy conditions that make it difficult for the farmer to maneuver his equipment. It also tends to drown out corn and soybeans in wet years, resulting in little productivity. As a result, the farmer stopped planting this section of the field several years prior, leaving it to grow up into a thick patch of waist-high weeds.
It was the perfect place for a food plot, given its proximity to the bedding area and the fact that the cove is shielded by timber on three sides, helping deer feel comfortable venturing out in daylight before heading out into the larger field of corn and/or beans under cover of darkness.
In the summer of 2020, I asked the farmer about planting the cove myself and was immediately given the green light. Now, all I had to do was make it happen!
If You Build It…
If I wanted to create a decent food plot, I knew the first thing I needed to do was deal with all the vegetation currently in the plot. In late July, I enlisted the help of a friend who has a small boom sprayer that fits in the back of his Polaris Ranger. Then, I spent about $25 for a bottle of concentrated weed killer, filled that sprayer and emptied the tank in the cove.
Honestly, the brush in the field was so thick, and the amount of weed killer we applied was so little, I worried it would not work. By mid-August, however, the vegetation in the cover was brown and dead. It worked like a charm!
My next step was “preparing the seed bed.” This is a term you will hear often in food plot circles, and it basically means getting the soil ready to sow your seed. One very important factor for any food plot is good seed-to-soil contact, and it’s hard to ensure that if you just throw a bunch of seed on the ground in a field full of dead plants. Sure, some of that seed is going to find its way into the soil and germinate, but you certainly won’t get the results you’re looking for.
Unless you have access to a no-till drill, this generally means raking/turning the plot area by hand or using a small rototiller or ATV disc. In my case, I really lucked out when my farmer friend offered to hook up his giant disc to his Case International tractor and prep the cove for me. Honestly, I think he was just interested in seeing what I was up to back there, and the big tractor literally had the job finished in about five minutes. It’s also worth noting here that I didn’t worry about getting rid of any of the dead vegetation in the plot, as the discing process knocked it down nicely and integrated it into the dirt.
From there, I simply used a small, hand-crank seeder to spread a bag of Fall Reload seed blend from Drop-Tine Seed Co. It took me probably 30 minutes to hand seed the half-acre plot, and that was that.
Last year’s food-plot process was quite similar to 2020, as we sprayed the field in early August and replanted later in the month. This time, however, we didn’t have my friend’s giant tractor but instead used the Micro Food Plots Master Series Cultipacker. This handy unit, which is easily pulled behind my side-by-side, includes a disc, electric seeder, pull-behind mesh rake and cultipacker roller all in one, allowing me to prep the soil, sow the seed and ensure excellent seed-to-soil contact in about two hours time. It was really slick!
In closing this section in plot installation, the only other thing I’d note is that both years, I really only had to work in the plot twice — once to spray it and a second time to prep the soil and sow the seed. Granted, we did use side-by-sides to lighten our loads, but I’d estimate our total investment of time for plot installation at roughly three hours total each year. And I estimate the total cost at roughly $160 each year, which includes $120 for the seed, $25 for the weed killer and $15 to gas up the side-by-side.
…They Will Come
So, creating the food plot wasn’t difficult, but how well did it work out? Well, on that front, I’m happy to report it was an overwhelming success, both in terms of how well the plants grew and how much the local deer herd used it.
Back when we first installed the plot in 2020, I couldn’t wait to see the plants grow, and I remember returning a couple weeks after planting and feeling so excited to see fresh green growth sprouting everywhere. Drop-Tine’s Fall Reload is a mix of more than a dozen species such as clover, barley, oats, turnips, peas and kale, and by the time Pennsylvania’s archery season opened the plot was a smorgasbord of lush green that stood in stark contrast to the yellowing beanfield and drying corn in the adjacent ag fields. The great thing about Fall Reload is that is has things that will be attractive to deer throughout the season. For example, the clover and oats offer immediate attraction, while things such as turnips and kale will keep coming back through the late season. For this reason, I’d definitely recommend choosing some kind of seed blend that is going to offer far more diversity than a single species.
Placing a single trail camera on a T-post in the plot allowed me to easily monitor deer activity, and it didn’t take long to figure out this was going to be a dynamite spot for punching tags. Not only was the plot attractive, but its secluded location makes it easy for hunters to get in and out undetected as long as the wind is right.
To hunt the plot most effectively, I placed a 6-foot blind platform with a regular, hub-style popup blind on top, making for a prime observation and shooting location that can comfortably accommodate two hunters. Although the location of the blind was OK in 2020, my field observations helped me tweak it slightly for 2021 by moving it directly into the center of the plot, along its top edge, which repeatedly put deer within 20 yards of the front window.
In addition to encouraging you to create a food plot of your own, the other thing I want to stress is that you must hunt it carefully! My plot proved more effective than I even hoped, with multiple deer visiting almost every morning and evening. However, having a location that is attractive to deer is still no guarantee of success. You need to protect a spot like that carefully by only hunting it when conditions are right. Otherwise, you risk burning it out in a hurry and finding that deer will only visit under cover of darkness.
In the case of my plot, it is strictly an evening hunting location, as there is no way to travel across the large ag field — either on foot or ATV — before sunrise without bumping deer out of the field and food plot before you get there. You also need a south or southwest wind, which keeps all human scent out of the bedding area where the deer will be coming from.
By only hunting the plot under perfect conditions, I have been able to see deer on virtually every sit and post a very high success rate for both shot opportunities and harvest. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, my friends and family have taken five deer off this plot over the past two seasons, with the average shot distance being roughly 30 yards. Even after successful harvests, deer continue to feel comfortable in the plot, allowing us to return days or weeks later and fill additional tags.
For example, in 2020, my oldest son took two does off the plot in October, while a good friend added a third in December. And last fall, my younger son took a big doe off the plot on the opening evening of the archery season, while my father-in-law took a doe of his own later in the month. Truth be told, I am confident we could have taken even more deer off the plot if we wanted to, but we just didn’t want to risk overhunting the location.
What Are You Waiting For?
If you’re reading this article, chances are you are a bowhunter with a place to hunt. Ask yourself, would that place be better with a strategically placed food plot or two? The answer is almost certainly a resounding yes!
So, what are you waiting for? You don’t have to be an Einstein to create successful plots. Join the idiots like me who — for less than the cost of a top-end bow sight, release aid or dozen arrows — are having fun improving habitat while seeing more deer and punching more tags.