August 25, 2015
By Bill Winke
Writing used to be my day job, but starting in 2008, the pen and paper took a back seat to the video camera when I started a production called Midwest Whitetail. It is a TV show on the Sportsman Channel and a media-rich website by the same name. In the process of interacting with viewers and managing a large pro staff, I have seen one very consistent and obvious trend.
Seemingly everyone is now thinking about planting small food plots. This used to be something only hunters who owned or leased land did, but that is not the case now. Outside of crossbows, the use of micro-plots, or what we affectionately call Poor Man's Plots, are the fastest-growing trend in deer hunting. It may be happening under the radar because it doesn't get a lot of publicity, but now is the perfect time for you to give one of these small plots a try.
In this article, I will give you some of the whys and hows of micro-plot hunting.
Why They Work
Deer like to eat. In fact, that is one of the few things about their behavior on which you can always depend. The better the food, and the more accessible it is, the more they glue themselves to it. We all have favorite restaurants, and if those restaurants are close to home, we go there often. We pop in whenever we can for a quick sandwich. After a while, it becomes almost a routine social visit. It becomes habit forming.
My goal on my hunting area is to create as many "favorite restaurants" for the deer as possible. Here is why I love hunting these small food plots so much and how you can put them to work.
Micro-plots are effective for three reasons. First, they are small enough, at around a quarter to a half acre, that any deer that enters the plot is likely to wind up within bow range. It can be very discouraging hunting large plots or open fields with a bow. I have done it and still do it, but the deer stay out of bow range without even trying. You can spend your whole season playing cat and mouse with a nice buck on big field or kill him on a small plot. Micro-plots really are that much different — and that much easier.
Second, you can locate micro-plots closer to bedding areas and therefore the deer are more likely to visit them during daylight hours. All of mine are set up this way. These small plots are the last place the deer (especially the bucks during the rut) visit before bedding in the morning and the first place they visit upon rising in the afternoon.
Micro-plots become the focal point of deer activity in that area, especially during the rut. Every buck passing through that area will swing by the plot — it becomes the center of the wheel with a spoke pattern of trails leading to it.
He will be checking a few scrapes and sniffing around for signs of any hot does and will generally cruise the entire plot in the process, offering an easy shot. You can almost call these social plots because micro-plots take on the role of a community center for deer — their favorite restaurant and meeting place.
Third, deer feel safer in these small plots because they are only a bound or two from the cover. Again, this encourages the deer to spend more time in these areas during daylight.
The Best Shape
Most of my micro-plots fit available openings found in the timber or along its edge. They tend to be oval, rectangular or possibly L shaped. You have to work with what you have. But, if you are creating one from brush and the opening in the trees is not a restriction, or if you are able to move a few big trees out of the way to create the plot, your ideal shape is the L or crescent.
This gives you two stand locations separated from each other visually. You can hunt one side, and sneak away, without the deer on the other end realizing you were there. That makes the small plots hunt even bigger — almost like two plots.
For hunting purposes, narrow is better than wide. When a buck enters a small plot, he will often walk the length of it, checking scrapes or just boldly strutting right down the center. I see it all the time. If the plot is only 30-35 yards wide, he will be within range of your stand when he comes past, even if he is on the other side.
However, for the purposes of getting things to grow, you need a reasonable amount of sunlight each day. That means that wide is often better than narrow. Even if you select crops that tolerate some shade (brassicas and clover are classic examples), a narrow plot may not furnish even that minimum amount of sunlight. You can improve the productivity of your narrow plot by planting it so that it runs east and west to follow the path of the sun with the least amount of shaded hours.
Further, I cut back trees around the edges of my small plots to allow even more sunlight to enter. Just drop them and let them fall back into the cover away from the plot. Even if you are doing this on permission, you may be able to cull back a few trees if they aren't cash producing species. It is fine to have a brushy edge, but the big, overlapping canopy of branches and leaves will suffocate your plot.
And the root systems produced by these big, nearby trees will suck the moisture out of the soil and leave your plot dry and lifeless in a dry spell. You need to kill the root too, so be sure to spray the stump with something like Tordon RTU (Ready to Use) that you can get at most farm co-ops.
It makes a huge difference in the productivity of your small plot when you cut back a few sun-hogging trees and killing the stump.
The Best Location
Where you put your micro-plot has much to do with how successful you will be hunting it. The best spot is on a ridge, right near a drop off on the prevailing downwind side. That way you can place your stand near that slope and use that as your entry and exit direction. In theory, your scent may even stay over the heads of deer on that side.
Another option is to locate the plot where there is some kind of obstacle, natural or manmade, on the downwind side that will keep deer from approaching from that direction. For example, possibly the edge of a large pond or lake, or even a river would be a great choice to make up one side of the micro-plot giving you a safe entry and exit route and a direction for your scent to blow without fear of alerting deer.
I have even used small county roads for this purpose. Though deer will cross them readily, these roads serve as marginal barriers and make entry and exit super easy — just walk the road and then pull into the timber for a short walk to the stand. Create the plot far enough into the cover that it can't be seen from the road and you have a great little hidey hole hotspot.
You can set up on the safe side of the plot and hunt it only when the wind is blowing from the plot toward your stand. In this way, deer should never wind you, and because the plot is small, those entering from all other directions will eventually be within bow range.
Finding perfect spots such as this is not easy. You may have to skip past many good micro-plot locations until you find one you can hunt effectively. There's no sense in building a plot you can't hunt!
What to Plant
Because these plots are small, it is easy for the deer to wipe them out during the summer or early fall if you plant the wrong thing. I would not plant corn or soybeans in a small plot, for example. Better choices include clover and brassica blends. Typical examples of brassica blends include Mossy Oak Biologic Maximum and Frigid Forage Big-N-Beasty. Both clover and brassicas can do well in areas that don't get full sunlight all day. Both can also sustain some browsing pressure during the summer and still grow.
Most of my small plots are in a clover blend with the remainder in a brassica blend. I have had great success with clover over the years. It is low maintenance, easy to establish, will stand moderate to heavy grazing pressure and deer love it. Plus, it remains attractive to them through the critical month of November here in the Midwest.
I write a lot about the importance of getting in and out of your stands without deer knowing you are hunting them — I call it getting in clean. It is the primary goal when hunting small food plots. This is the biggest challenge in deer hunting. In the case of hunting micro-plots, getting to the stand in the morning and away from the stand in the evening is the hard part, because deer may be feeding or lingering nearby at those times.
Fortunately, micro-plots tend to be stopover locations for the deer, much like staging areas. The deer hit them and then move on, often creating lapses when no deer are on the plot, making it much easier to sneak in and out. You just have to move slowly and be patient. The residents turn over faster in a micro-plot than in a larger field.
Not only does a clean entry and exit require creativity, but you need to spend some time thinking about the stand location and even the location of the plot itself. I like stands located right next to terrain features like ditches, or cover features like a thick line of cedar trees that I can use for undetected entry and exit.
Creative Exit Strategies
You can also create low-profile exit routes by moving cedar trees into strategic spots during the off-season or planting a screen of Egyptian wheat and forage sorghum along the edge of the plot near your stand. This mix grows thick and stands about 10 feet tall. It is easily short enough to shoot over but tall enough to hide behind.
These plants are annuals, so you will need to plant them every year; just a strip eight to 10 feet wide will give you enough cover to slip out of the area.
Be quiet and careful in the way you descend the tree and have a raked, cleared trail to walk on and you can get away clean as darkness falls, even with deer 40 yards away. Place your stand on the side of the plot that permits the easiest escape, so you can head directly away from the plot using terrain and cover to your advantage.
The Best Time
Deer will use micro-plots at all times of the day. If they are on their feet, these spots come into play. It is not like an open field, or even a funnel between two bedding areas. These plots are close to bedding areas, and when a deer gets up for a stretch, it is likely to pop out on the plot. Morning and evening can be equally good during most of the season, and micro-plots make for a good all-day option during the rut.
I really love hunting small food plots. Most of my hunts take place on their edges, not because I don't have other places to hunt but because micro-plots are where I get my best shots at deer.
Poor Man's Food Plot
Follow these steps from Bill Winke to create a viable food plot on a budget.