We typically divide food plots into two categories: feeding plots and hunting plots. Feeding plots are designed to attract and hold deer on your property and are laid out with high volume production in mind. They are typically 2 acres or more and are often located near the center of a property. They are designed to be "farmed" with larger equipment and are planted in crops like beans or corn or high volume forages like clover, brassicas, or a combination of food plot forages. They are capable of producing 2-4 tons of forage per year which can support quite a few deer. But, unless you are with a long distance weapon it is quite difficult (and often ill advised) to take mature deer from a feeding plot. They are designed to feed deer; not hunt them.
Hunting food plots are laid out differently than wildlife eeding plots. They're usually smaller — 1/4 to 3/4 acres — irregularly shaped, and planted to attract deer during the hunting season. Cover juts into the plot to take advantage of wind direction and maximize hunter concealment. These peninsulas of cover provide close-range encounters for hunters, and add visual interest to the plot. Good hunting plots look like they've been there forever because they blend into the landscape. While feeding plots are laid out for agricultural efficiency, hunting plots are set up for close encounters with game.
Before creating and setting up a hunting plot, it's vital to select your hunting location. Analyze how deer move in and out of the area by studying their trails. Early spring is a good time for this. Consider prevailing winds during the hunting season, and leave concealment cover intact. Consider bedding areas and anticipate a deer's route from the bedding area to the plot area. Study wind factors and weather patterns the hunting season before you lay out your plot. In most areas, prevailing winds come from the west, varying southwest to northwest. We set up most of our plots to take advantage of these winds. Spend time at these sites studying the wind. Windfloaters work great for wind mapping, so do smoke bombs and, believe it or not, bubbles. Be sure to release them from tree stand height. Better yet, release them from the tree you wish to hunt from. Besides testing prevailing winds, it's also important to understand how morning and evening thermal drafts affect drifting scents.
Also, since hunting plots are often bordered by trees, make sure most of the plot will get at least 4 hours of direct sunlight per day. A 60-foot oak can cast quite a growth inhibiting shadow, so be careful about carving out a postage stamp sized plot in the middle of the woods. Small plots often work better in overgrown fields and brushy areas.
Pay attention to how you approach your hunting plot. Deer usually try to approach smaller food plots with the wind in their face, but deer-blocking wind-rows created by felled trees and piled brush channel deer through ambush sites. We always try to use wind-rows of piled brush to prevent deer from entering the plot downwind of a bow stand. Wind-rows get there with the help of a bulldozer or chainsaw.
Once you've studied the area, begin laying out the location and shape of your plot, and where you'll place your stands. Whenever possible, locate your stands in dense, dark trees. Conifers are excellent hunting trees because they provide concealment and shelter from the elements.
Be Creative but Plan Carefully
Be sure to plan carefully before you take down cover that can't be replaced.
Once a chainsaw or bulldozer removes a piece of cover, it will never be there again. Plan carefully. Plan in advance. Pick sites for your plots with hunting in mind. Hunting plots are often laid out in a wooded or heavy-brush environment. A bulldozer is usually needed to clear the ground. When using a moderate-sized bulldozer, plan on at least eight hours of bulldozer work per acre of ground to be cleared. Lighter brush can be mowed with a stout rotary mower and 30 hp tractor. Mowing and liming the brushed area for a couple of years takes care of all of the brush and improves your soil. Plant food-plot quality forage the second or third year, and you will have a killer plot.
Aesthetics should be considered in creating all food plots. After all, you will spend hours in those locations, and most of us would rather be surrounded by beauty than something that resembles a construction site. A skilled bulldozer operator can hide debris by pushing it into the brush on a diagonal line to the plot. Initially, you should push the brush pile at least 30 yards from the plot's edge. That way it won't back up into the edge of the plot. Clearing debris is nasty work, and it's tempting to leave several piles around the edges. It takes more work, but we suggest creating no more than two piles, and hiding those piles by pushing them as far from the plot as possible. A bulldozer operator unfamiliar with food-plot conditions will want to leave all debris banked around the food plot like a halo. This is ugly, and it blocks the deer's entrance and exit trails. Tell the bulldozer operator what you want beforehand so he can lay it out. A month after its construction, a food plot should look like it has been there for five years. Paying attention to details now reaps dividends as you sit hour after hour watching the plot.
Over the years, we have designed and sited hundreds of hunting food plots. We have pretty much figured out what works for bow hunting and what doesn't. Remember, the purpose of a hunting plot is to attract and kill deer, not just attract and feed them. We do not recommend round food plots. We can't think of one application where a round plot is the ticket. They're difficult to plant, and do little to control deer movements. Round works in fish bowls, but not in hunting food plots. Square plots aren't much better. What we really like is irregular shaped plots designed around good stand location trees and with plenty of visual interest to both deer and deer hunters. Before tackling a hunting plot, take time to study the wind, the lay of the land, and deer-movement patterns. And whatever you do keep an eye peeled for good stand locations. You may need to do some strategic mowing or brush clearing with a tractor or dozer but a good hunting plot is well worth the effort.
One of our favorite hunting plot designs is shaped like an hourglass. It is also seems to be the most popular design with food plot enthusiasts. The key to the hour glass design is its neck that is about 30 yards wide. This is where your stand should be located. Two stands can be placed there to take advantage of different winds. Licking branches and mock scrapes should also be located in the neck. It's important that deer be able to see that the neck doesn't dead-end. That is, deer should be able to see some open space beyond the neck, no matter where they are on the plot. This piques their curiosity and draws them into the neck to see what lies beyond.
|Aerial photos are great for locating food plots on property.|
The neck of the food plot will serve as a stopping place for most deer. Not only because of the signposts — the scrape and licking branch — you placed there, but because the neck affords deer their best visibility of the entire plot. Deer relax more when they can see what's ahead as well as behind. Keep deer from approaching behind your stand by blocking that direction with brush-piled wind-rows. Deer will learn to approach the plot from another direction. Wind-rows should also be used on the upwind side to direct the deer's approach.
We've made good use of boomerang shaped plots which "capture" deer and direct them around the corner to a waiting hunter. Hunting plots located in inside corners of overgrown fields have also worked well for us.
Locating a hunting plot in thick cover increases deer visitations during hunting hours. Mature bucks spend most of their daylight hours in thick cover, but will visit this plot for a quick mouthful of food or to check for does.
The most common stands are hang-ons, ladder-stands and, of course, climbers. Be sure not to cut down trees in strategic locations that will support or hide your tree stands. We don't build permanent stands into trees. They not only damage trees and are unsightly, but mature deer learn their whereabouts and avoid them. They are also unsafe in a couple of years. Check the wind 12 to 16 feet up in these trees. Two or three tree stands per plot are not too many. Each should be set up for a different wind direction. Set them early in the year and be selective about removing limbs that aid concealment.
Don't forget ground blind strategies. When no trees are suitable for hunting, and ground blinds are your only option, lay out the plot with that in mind. A ground blind can be a backup or strategic choice that is used perhaps once a year to ambush a buck that's wary of your tree stand locations. They are also great to hunt out of in nasty weather.
Be creative when laying out the food plot, and plan multiple ambush sites so you can hunt in various winds. On some hunting plots, wind conditions might not be appropriate for certain stands and — based on which days you're able to hunt — you might have to avoid them for two or three years. Don't force the issue. Wait until you get the perfect wind to move in and kill that trophy whitetail!
Think Big Picture When Planning a Food Plot
Food plots should not be laid out in isolation on your property. That is, they should relate to each other. Aerial photos are terrific tools for locating food plots on a property. Smaller hunting plots are often located between bedding areas and feeding plots.
Plan your layouts carefully, both from macro (overall property) and micro (individual plots) levels. A well designed food plot complex will improve your property's huntability dramatically. It will add value to your property and provide a lifetime of high quality hunting.