May 12, 2022
My charter for this column is to crystallize as many life lessons as I can. I think the conversation with Editor Christian Berg, when he assigned this new format, went something like this: “Surely, after all these years you have learned something!”
As relates to land management, I definitely did learn something, and it is dynamite in a small package. I can offer one very useful tip that surpasses almost all other hunting strategies I have learned over the years. With this tip alone, you can shoot multiple Pope and Young-class bucks every season. Your hair will thicken, your biceps will get bigger and you will become noticeably taller.
Well, maybe I exaggerate just a tiny bit. But I will say that once I learned this, it completely transformed my hunting method and greatly increased the number of bucks that I got within bow range.
I have written about this strategy before, but it’s worth repeating because this is the single most useful land-management feature I have ever encountered. There is almost no way I can write about this too much, because there is nothing else you can do — on land you own or even on land where you only have permission — that will increase your odds for a successful bow season more than creating a couple small, staging-area plots.
Why They Work
The idea is to find natural openings (or create them if you have the equipment) that lie between where deer bed and where they feed. They don’t have to be big. In fact, smaller is almost better for bowhunting; I recommend between a quarter acre and an acre. You plant them to either clover or brassicas (usually a rotation of the two works well), and the deer will hit visit them in the evenings shortly after they rise and before heading out to the bigger feeding areas.
Deer will also hit them in the mornings, right before they go back into the deeper cover to bed. These are the best possible spots to catch deer on the move in daylight. The deer use these small openings as much for social hubs as they do as short-stop feeding areas. The edges will be rimmed with scrapes and rubs by the end of October. Bucks will check them at all times of the day during the rut. Literally, staging-area food plots are the best all-day stand sites I have ever hunted.
Like I said, no other terrain or cover feature I have ever hunted has produced more close-range encounters with good bucks than these small openings.
Ideally, the openings are small enough you can cover most of it with your bow from one stand. Place that stand on the side of the plot closest to the bigger ag fields and hunt it with a wind blowing roughly from the bedding area toward you (a quartering or crosswind is perfect). In this way, the deer work in your direction as the evening progresses, and no matter where they come out into the plot there is very little chance of them smelling you. That will ensure a close-range shot.
In the mornings, movement into these openings will be less structured, as the deer are apt to come from just about any direction. You will have to keep your head on a swivel, because the deer use them heavily in the mornings before bedding down nearby.
These small openings can be easy to find in agricultural country. The back corners of fields often have spots the farmer stopped tilling after he bought that last big planter. He can’t turn around all the way back in those corners now, and they have grown to weeds and brush. That makes for an obvious opportunity for you as a bowhunter. While these back corners are great, and worth considering, it is even better if you can find (or make) the small opening just inside the cover from the larger feeding area.
Even old home sites make great staging-area plots. I have created them fairly easily with just a chainsaw to cut down encroaching saplings in old pastures and homesteads. Actually, any small opening in the woods that you can convert into a small food plot will be great, but those that lie between bedding and feeding areas are by far the best and offer the most predictable action.
I have also had good luck making these small plots close to county roads, so I have an easy way to sneak in and out when hunting them. Even located close to active home sites will work fine. You can park right in the driveway (if the landowner is OK with it) and the deer won’t pay any attention.
What to Plant
As mentioned, I recommend clover or brassicas (like turnips and forage radishes). These are affordable and easy to establish. You can usually get at least two years out of a clover plot and then rotate it to brassicas for a year and back to clover the next winter. Fertilizer is important, but even when you consider those added costs, small plots are not expensive and are a great investment in your upcoming season.
You can usually get by with little to no “farm equipment,” assuming you can get a garden tiller in there. In a pinch, you can even plant on top of the ground after killing the existing weeds prior to broadcasting the seed. Tilling the ground will produce better seed-to-soil contact and a more consistent plot, but even the “spray and pray” method will work if you get sufficient rain.
Get to Work!
Obviously, I am a big believer in these small openings. As many of you know, a couple years ago I sold the farm where I lived and hunted for 18 years and have been hunting a lease since. One of the biggest disappointments with my current hunting area is the fact I don’t have the option to create any of these staging-area plots. On my old farm, I had nine of them, including the best stand I ever hunted. As the years went by, I kept trying to duplicate that blue-ribbon stand — finding more spots I could convert into prime staging-area plots. Toward the end of my years on that farm, I rarely hunted any other stands because these staging-area plots were so good.
If you are serious about improving your hunting area, then get serious about creating some staging-area plots. Take it from me — you’ll be glad you did!