There are two main types of food plots for deer, nutritional and hunting plots. In general, nutritional plots are larger (1 to 5 acres) and are intended to provide abundant nutrition over numerous months. Hunting plots are typically less than 1 acre in size and are intended to provide attraction during hunting season. Many food plots serve both purposes, but this article will help you design hunting plots to maximize your chances of crossing paths with the deer of your dreams this fall.
My favorite hunting plots include the following two things. First, they are located between good bedding cover and a good food source, like a nutritional plot. The perfect scenario is deer leave their bed in late afternoon heading to the nutritional plot. Their plan is often to enter that plot just before to just after sunset. However, a well-positioned hunting plot allows those deer to have a snack en route to the nutritional plot.
The hunting plot is small, so deer don’t stay long. They enter, feed for a few minutes, and leave for the larger plot. The small size of the hunting plot allows them to feel more secure visiting in daylight. The location has them entering with abundant shooting light remaining, and since they’re at the larger nutritional plot at sunset, you can get out of your stand and exit without spooking any deer. This allows you to hunt that stand numerous times during the season.
This strategy also works for a morning hunt as instead of bumping deer off the nutritional plot, you easily get situated by your hunting plot, and you wait for deer to stop for a bite of dessert on their way to bed. This design is genius!
Cover Your Hunting Plots
Second, in addition to location, the key to good hunting plots is cover. I like a lot of good cover immediately adjacent to the planted area. Deer will use that cover, and when standing to stretch or relieve themselves, they’ll often step into the plot for a quick snack. The small plot with abundant surrounding cover helps them feel secure, the planted area is an irresistible midday treat, and yours truly has a front row seat to the big show.
The great thing is this cover can be created in any environment that holds whitetails. You can do this in a hardwood forest by cutting a lane(s) of trees wide enough to get ample sunlight to the ground to germinate clover, brassicas, oats, winter wheat or whatever you choose to plant. You then create thick cover around the lane(s) by cutting or girdle and spraying enough trees to get at least 40 to 50% of the canopy open so sunlight reaches the ground and stimulates seedling growth. You can also create immediate cover by hinge cutting trees around the lanes. A lot of deer in the northern U.S. have met their fate in these setups.
You can create this same setup in pine stands. Thinning rows of pines is routinely done to enhance growing conditions for the remaining trees. Similar to the hardwood example, you can plant the rows where you removed the pines and thin additional trees around the rows to create thick cover. A lot of deer in the southern U.S. have eaten their last meal in such hunting plots.
You can create this same setup in regenerating hardwood or softwood stands. In this case, the cover is already there. You simply cut or mow the lanes you’d like to plant. Likewise, you can create this setup in ag country where trees are few and far between. Simply plant corn or sorghum for the cover, and then mow lanes and plant with your desired hunting season attractant. A lot of Midwestern deer have been fooled with this setup.
In addition, powerlines, gas pipelines, woods roads and old fields provide great opportunities for hunting plots. Just be sure to create thick cover around them, have good entry and exit routes for yourself, and preferably have them located between good bedding cover and a good food source.
Now that you have the premise of location and importance of adjacent cover, let’s cover some other items that can increase your hunting plot success.
Shape of Hunting Plots
Your hunting plot shape can be influenced by the existing vegetation, terrain, topography and other factors. However, certain shapes favor deer use and can enhance your odds at getting within bow range.
I’m a fan of long, thin lanes or strips. One lane is good, two are better, and three are preferred. If one lane is used, I often widen the ends and neck down the middle to create a bowtie appearance. This is typically the best place for a stand, and I ensure I can shoot the entire width of the neck. This narrow area helps facilitate deer movement from one end of the plot to the other.
If two lanes are used, I like to arrange them in a “V” pattern with my stand at the bottom where the lanes meet. If three lanes are used, I like to arrange them in a turkey foot shape with my stand at the base. Shape is important, but it’s crucial that you have good cover around the lanes.
Hopefully you can choose the orientation of your plot. This allows you to take advantage of the prevailing wind direction, and multiple plots can ensure you have stands for all wind conditions.
Since I’m in northern Pennsylvania, I orient the majority of my hunting plots in an east-west direction, but I always have some north-south plots too. These allow me options to hunt any wind and also take advantage of plots that need more or less sun with respect to what I planted.
For example, clover does not do well with extreme heat, so north-south strips adjacent to timber allow the surrounding trees to shade the plot during especially warm periods, and that keeps the plot producing more food leading up to and during hunting season.
Access is twofold. First, you must be able to get equipment and supplies to your hunting plots. I can get a tractor to most of my plots and an ATV/UTV to all of them. It’s a lot easier to grow successful plots when you can transport lime, fertilizer, seed and sprayers with something other than a backpack.
I plant many hunting plots by broadcasting seed with an over-the-shoulder seeder, so you don’t need large equipment, but I sure appreciate my UTV carrying the 50-pound bags for me.
Second, and more importantly, you need to be able to access your hunting plots without spooking deer on the way in or out. Many hunters spook deer on their way in, but far too many spook deer while leaving. Your plot location helps with this, since a good setup has deer mostly arriving and leaving at different times than you.
However, your goal for hunting these plots is to be able to enter and exit your stand with deer in the plot without spooking them. Easier said than done? A little strategy on your part during stand setup can go a long way. First, you don’t need to be sitting right on the edge of your plot. It’s better to create, plant or leave some cover between your tree stand or blind and the plot.
We discussed this at a 2019 Deer Steward Habitat Module in South Carolina. Jason Hewitt, the manager at Clarendon Plantation, took our advice and created the dynamite setup you see below in his Instagram post a year or two later. They kill more than their share of mature deer, and it’s stand setups like this that help make it happen.
The final consideration is hunting pressure. Regardless of how well your hunting plots are designed, over-hunting them will negatively impact the number of deer you see, and this is especially true for mature bucks and does. When food plots are properly designed, you can hunt these several more times per season than average plots, but there’s still a limit. That’s why it is helpful to have multiple stand options when property size allows.
If you hunt 20 acres, then you’ll likely only have one to three setups. Larger properties allow for more setups as long as you’re working to provide multiple blocks of cover, nutritional plots, and hunting plots. Golf is overrated. Get off the course and into the woods this summer to enhance your hunting this fall. A round of golf takes 4 to 5 hours to play. You can do a lot of habitat work in 4 to 5 hours!
You can reduce impacts of your hunting pressure with wise stand placement, by keeping cover between your stand and the plot, by having a good access route to and from your stand that won’t spook deer, by spreading your hunting across multiple stands, and by only hunting stands with favorable wind conditions. I create a stand wind chart, and I stick to it religiously throughout the season. Creating this chart makes me really think through my stand setups, ensures I have stands for all wind conditions, and keeps me from foolishly hunting a stand when the wind is not in my favor.
Finally, there are some stands you simply cannot get out of at night without spooking deer. For these, I like to use the buddy system. I’ll stay in the stand until one of my kids or camp mates drives an ATV/UTV into the plot. That scares the deer away so I can exit the stand. In this scenario, deer were not alerted to my presence in the stand and that allows me to hunt that stand more during the season than if I spooked deer from it. You can’t do this night after night, but it’s a great strategy to use occasionally throughout the year.
I’m a huge food plot fan, and how I use them continues to evolve. There’s no doubt the items I included above have helped me get closer to more mature bucks and does than any prior food plotting strategies. They’ll work for you too, and they’re directly applicable everywhere whitetails call home. Good luck this hunting season.