PLOTS THAT PULL: There are countless food plots sprinkled across the whitetail's range. But how many of them really produce as intended?
As I gazed out one of the blind's windows, a mature doe walked into view on the plot's far edge. From the instant I saw her, she was looking intently in our direction. But I was sure she didn't suspect human danger--because her eyes were locked on another deer. At least, what she thought was another deer. Our Dave Smith buck decoy was standing 28 yards in front of the blind, and the doe's entry point into the plot had, by sheer happenstance, put the fake whitetail directly between her and us. She was wondering exactly which new buck had invaded her area.
"Where's your boyfriend?" I whispered as I slowly reached for my TenPoint crossbow.
A moment later, that question was answered. The doe's suitor, a wide 9-pointer, popped out on the same trail she had and began staring even more intently at the decoy.
"Shooter," I whispered to Justin as he eased his finger to the video camera's "record" button.
I try not to laugh when I hear a hunter claim no buck trailing a "hot" doe will ever leave her for any reason. Fact is, in the face of perceived competition for breeding honors, many will move away from her briefly to threaten or even whip a challenger. And that's evidently what this buck intended to do with the fake one standing before him.
Seconds later, the real buck was running away with an Easton carbon shaft in his lungs. Even as he crashed to earth just off the edge of the plot, a young 7-pointer began displaying his own fascination with the decoy. In fact, he stood only a few feet until Justin and I exited the blind to follow the short blood trail to the deer I'd shot.
It always feels good to fill an archery tag with a solid buck, but especially on the last afternoon before gun season. And of course, taking a good one on your own land never gets old. To have done it in a plot put there just for that purpose was antlered icing on the cake.
THE POINT OF PLANTING
We plant food plots in hopes deer will eat them. That's self-evident. But the reason we want them eaten can vary from place to place, season to season and person to person.
Sometimes we're mainly concerned about the welfare of the deer herd. We're into healthy wildlife and habitat and want to see both thrive. So we look at our options and figure that if we can find a practical, cost-effective way to increase prime forage on the land, we might as well go for it.
To this end, warm-season annuals such as cowpeas, forage soybeans and lablab have become popular plantings in many parts of whitetail country. These large-seeded legumes provide literally tons of highly digestible, high-protein forage per acre from late spring on into fall. While some early-season hunting is done over such plots (particularly in the South), for the most part they're used for general herd nutrition.
Of course, the driving force behind most habitat tweaks--planting plots included--is to lure deer for harvest, not just to make them fat and happy. These "kill" plots most often are cool-season annuals (winter-hardy oats, winter wheat, rye, triticale, Austrian winter peas, rape, turnips, etc.), and they're placed where deer should feel reasonably comfortable venturing into them during shooting hours. While the nutrition offered can boost herd health, it isn't the main reason for their use.
Some perennials, such as alfalfa, chicory and clovers, of course serve both purposes. But the vast majority of whitetail plots today are planted to annuals, whether in spring or late summer/fall.
AVOIDING PLOT FAILORE
Plot problems can take any number of forms. Some seeds never even germinate. Others sprout but then don't survive nature's assault of drought, cold, shade, flooding, weed competition, disease, insects or incorrect soil pH.
Long before planting, do your homework to determine adequate growing conditions for a given crop--then make a full effort to meet those requirements through sensible site selection, soil preparation and timing of planting. To do otherwise is to ask for major trouble, in the form of forage failure.
Planting a seed blend is a common hedge against a plot disaster. All else being equal, the more varieties of seeds you plant, the better the chance at least one will thrive. Then again, the more you plant, the more likely it is not all will perform as hoped.
I avoid mixing large and tiny seeds in the same planting pass. Large seeds need to be planted deeper than small ones do. Planting cowpeas or oats an inch deep, covering them with soil, then broadcasting tiny seeds such as clover and chicory on top before cultipacking, yields better results across the board.
Weather matters. On that Missouri plot I hunted last fall, land partner Tommy Witt had had to cope with extra-dry soil when planting the Real World Wildlife Products Deadly Dozen mix. That made site preparation tough. Even so, by mid-fall that plot had grown well enough to lure quite a few deer.
If nothing ends up getting shot in a plot, some hunters will feel it a waste. But that's a mental trap we'd all do well to avoid. Some of the most helpful plots rarely, if ever, are kill sites. Only after assessing your management and hunting goals can you decide if a plot is a bust or not.
Sometimes we're playing the long game. In Missouri, I've often paid for plantings I not only never hunted, I never even saw before they were turned under. Why? To give deer places they could count on as secure feeding spots after local farmers had harvested their beans and corn. I figured my plots--primarily Buck Forage oats with a few turnips and Austrian winter peas mixed in--would imprint those places on the brains of all deer in the valley.
I can't tell you if this played a role in my success in one of the cool-season plots last fall. All I know is that the buck I shot hadn't yet been born the last time I'd hunted it, which was in '09. During this 8-year span the bottom next to the plot had grown into thick cover, giving deer a private dining room to use at their leisure all fall and winter. No wonder the plot was so full of tracks.
I feel the presence of big crop fields west and north of the farm reduces my need to grow warm-season plots. It would be tough to compete with those hundreds of acres of beans and corn. But as those crops get cut each fall, and as the acorn crop on the surrounding ridges starts to play out, deer shift back into the adjacent creek bottom and begin to focus more on my plots. By the time the November rut hits, much of the best forage in the vicinity is on my farm. That makes it an intersection of deer activity.
In intensively farmed areas, many hunters and landowners still feel there's no reason to plant food plots. But as Dr. James Kroll has often noted in our pages, farm country can offer slim pickings once the crops are out. Today's harvest machinery leaves relatively little waste grain on the ground.
As farmland deer retreat into wood-lots and creek bottoms after crops are cut, they often find themselves hurting for food. There's shelter from the weather, but not enough good forage to hold the herd over for the rest of winter. In such places, well-planned plots of the right plants suddenly can become the hottest feeding areas around.
TOO MUCH PRESSURE?
Sometimes forage is being eaten well enough but not when we'd prefer, which is during daylight hours in open season. Maybe that's due to the plot location being too exposed, but at least as often, hunting pressure is the real culprit.
How hard a plot is pounded is often the difference between hunting success and failure. No matter how lush a plot or where it's located, hunting it wrong will shift nearly all feeding to nighttime. So go to extremes to make deer feel safe using your plots in daytime. That can mean curtailing hunting right on a plot or too frequently checking trail cameras hung over edge scrapes. Tread lightly.
Nobody knows how many acres of plots are planted each year, but I suspect it's an area larger than some northeastern states. Dozens of types of crops are used, with results ranging from awesome to awful.
In the long run, the first goal should be to have more and healthier deer on your land as much of the year as possible, of course including hunting season. The second should be to make them feel comfortable enough that they'll regularly feed in your plots--or at least, spend a fair bit of time on their feet near them--during legal shooting light. With the right plot plan in place, both goals are attainable.
BY GORDON WHITTINGTON
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||North American Whitetail|
|Date:||Feb 21, 2018|
|Previous Article:||BOTH SIDES OF THE RIVER: THIS UNIQUE BUCK ROAMED FAR AND WIDE OVER THE COUNTRYSIDE OF UPSTATE NEW YORK. BUT ON A COLD DAY IN LATE SEASON, HIS...|
|Next Article:||ROOT OF ALL EVIL.|