Use These Food Plot Strategies This Hunting Season
It’s that time of year again where most of us start to get a little stir-crazy thinking about cooler weather and sitting in a tree stand. Although the hot summer weather reminds us we have to wait a while longer, it’s hard to get deer hunting off the brain once that calendar turns to August. Luckily, this is about the perfect time to start planning your food plot strategies for this fall if you live in a northern state. If you live down south, you’ve got a few weeks left before you have to kick your food plot plans into gear. Start by reviewing and avoiding these common food plot mistakes, which could quickly derail your hunting plans. Then take a hard look at your property and see if the seasonal approach below could work for you.
Early Season Food Plot Strategies
We all look forward to opening day of archery season from the day it closes the previous season. The early season period includes opening day until early October across most of the country. During this time frame, summer nutrition patterns are still in full swing for most deer. That means small doe groups and bachelor groups of bucks sticking to most of their summer routine (i.e., feeding in the morning and evening in large destination fields and loafing in the shade nearby during the rest of the day and night). So how can you capitalize on hunting food plots during the early season?
Since deer are on summer patterns, or just starting to transition to fall home ranges, hunting over a food plot planted in clover or small fields of forage soybeans would likely be the best spots. In August, use a Bush Hog® to clear trails and start preparing food plots. Ideally, you should leave enough time to also spray the plots with herbicide to reduce or remove the competition from other plants. But other plants don’t usually outcompete food plot seeds as aggressively when fall is on the horizon. Broadcast annual clover seeds for hunting over this fall, or perennial clover seeds if you plan to turn it into a perennial clover food plot for the next couple years. Clover is one of the best plants for low maintenance food plots. You can broadcast or drill soybeans, depending on the gear you have and the size of the plot.
For the early season, pay close attention to trail cameras to keep an eye on bachelor groups of bucks. They are often very predictable this time of year, so don’t ruin their existing pattern by checking cameras too frequently or otherwise disturbing your property. If you see that a hit-list buck has been coming into your plot regularly, it’s time to slip in and hunt the food plot. Hunting evenings (after the heat dies down) may be best, but deer could come out any time of the day since they have not been pressured up to this point. Hopefully the routine pattern of the buck you’re after will give you a chance to use your Hoyt® bow and slip a G5® broadhead behind his shoulder.
Mid-Season Food Plot Strategies
The mid-season timeframe is usually the most beautiful time of the year to be in the woods, and it’s definitely what most hunters look forward to when they think of deer season. We’ll define it as the time between early October and mid-November. This portion of the deer hunting season is when the misunderstood October lull occurs and when most deer ruts happen. It’s luckily also when most fall food plots are in their prime, so this can offer the best hunting opportunities of the year.
During the mid-season, hunting can be frustrating or outstanding. The deer woods and the deer themselves are going through a lot of changes during this month. For example, the weather often starts to change dramatically to cooler temperatures and leaves fall from the trees rapidly to expose a much more open environment. The shorter days start triggering changes in deer, which sets the rut in full swing. These changes all have a big influence on hunting success or failure.
Since most crops are being harvested during this month, the available food starts to shrink quickly for deer in agricultural areas. Deer in wooded environments depend on acorns and soft mast (e.g., apples, persimmons, etc.), which can confuse the hunting a bit. As such, unharvested corn/beans, brassicas, turnips, clover, and cereal grains can all be highly attractive to deer during this confusing time period. Of these, Michael’s favorite fall food plot species for the south include forage oats and white clover. Since some of these species (e.g., corn, beans) need a much longer growing season, you need to plan your food plot strategies well ahead. That being said, young beans will still be like deer candy this time of year. Plant any of the species mentioned in this category in late August, and you should have lots of forage by the time mid-October comes around. If you notice it looks a little sparse 2-3 weeks before you go hunting, you can broadcast some more brassicas or cereal grains to kick start some new growth. If deer in your area are a little skittish, try planting a food plot in the woods, which should make them feel more comfortable to use during daylight hours.
With all the changes going on, it’s critical that you keep the hunting pressure low at all times. Since it’s a beautiful time to be out hunting, many other hunters are pushing deer all over the place with their hunting activities. When dispersing deer find a sanctuary on your property, especially if you are using these best food plot strategies, it’s a recipe for a great October mid-season.
It’s usually a better idea to hunt the trails leading to food plots this time of year, because that leaves you the most flexibility for getting in and out without spooking/pressuring deer. Keep your core food plots untouched. A good alternative is to plant several food plot trails that lead to larger food plots. Since the rut often occurs during this time period, it’s a good idea to hunt all day instead of just morning or evening. Bucks could come through at any moment following a hot doe. Most deer start to develop their winter coats by this time period, so any unseasonably warm temperatures will drop the deer activity to zero. On the flip side, if you have a cold front coming through in October, you definitely need to be in your tree stand.
Late Season Food Plot Strategies
While the late season (late November-close of season) has its pros and cons, the payoff for hunting it can be incredibly high. On one hand, deer have been hunted for several months – they are extremely cautious and educated. Daylight appearances in fields or food plots may be few and far between unless: some very cold weather pushes them to feed; you are hunting hidden food plots in the woods; or you have left your food plots unpressured. Any bucks that made it through the hunting season are also extremely physically worn down, and they need to feed heavily to build up body mass again before the winter sets in. This combination can make your food plots/fields a gold mine for late season hunting.
Since most crop fields have been harvested and soft mast is gone by now, any standing crops or food plots will be deer magnets in the late season. So the common question of, “How big should a deer food plot be” is simple: the bigger the better. Standing corn/beans and large turnip bulbs can be some of the most attractive options for post-rut bucks. Unless you have very large agricultural fields you have left standing, there’s a good chance the deer could browse all the food out before the late season arrives. For smaller plots, you might want to fence the deer out temporarily if you are relying on this plot to attract them in the late season. As far as deer food plot placement goes, late season plots should be large and concealed from disturbance (i.e., screened from roads and dwellings) for the best chance of seeing deer during daylight hours.
As mentioned, late season deer are very skittish animals. You need to keep very little to no pressure on them if you want them to use your food plots during daylight hours. But even then, most deer (especially bucks) won’t use these fields until early evening. In these situations, hunting in insulated box blinds just off the field’s edge can be a good option. The box blind contains and conceals your scent, sound, and movement, and keeps you warm so you can sit through the bitter late season conditions. Speaking of which, when the mercury really drops, it will trigger deer to feed earlier. Make sure you’re sitting in your blind with your Thompson Center® muzzleloader ready to go.
If you’ve got private hunting land at your disposal, try using these three food plot strategies this year. It takes a little more planning to do this right, and even more restraint to pull it off. But when you keep the whole season in perspective, it makes it a little easier to resist hunting a certain food plot at the wrong time of the year.