Creating a Smorgasbord for Whitetails
By Steve Bartylla
It was an absolutely amazing sit. In 3 hours, I’d passed up easy shot opportunities at 14 different bucks! If it hadn’t been for Fair Chase Outfitters owner John Redmond’s desire to have me pass up the 3.5 yr olds showing promising potential, I’d have been thrilled to arrow 3 different bucks, all going somewhere between the high 140s and mid 150s.
Two factors made this even more impressive. The first is that the Houston Minnesota area isn’t exactly widely thought of as an area for producing mega bucks. Granted, bluffs along the Mississippi are known by many Minnesota hunters as a producer, but the state in general just isn’t thought of as one of the big 7 for turning out P&Y bucks.
The other is that this was mid October. Anyone that hunts the Upper Midwest much fully understands that the dreaded October lull is not a great time to be in the woods. Sure, it isn’t totally unheard of to pass 14 bucks on a mid November day, but tell a serious Midwestern bow hunter you pulled it off on October 16th and they’ll cry BS faster than you can blink.
The fact that I’d barely stepped foot on the land before that afternoon would seem to elevate my scouting and stand hanging skills to unfathomable levels of greatness. Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to take credit for it, both John Redmond and Driven TV host, Pat Reeve had told me to be sure to check spot before I’d even glanced at a photo of the property.
That one glance swiftly revealed why. The property consisted of an enormous ridge, with a strip of opening on top and wide open bottoms, leaving plenty of fully wooded top, points and side hill for cover. At the northwest end of the opening, Redmond had established an acre food plot, divided between the rape, clover and chicory mix of Antler King’s Trophy Clover and the barasica and turnips mixture that comprises their Honey Hole. The combination would certainly draw deer.
The flat of the ridge top then continued through the woods for another 70 yards or so, before flaring off into a series of points. Even without the man made pond, the pinch on the top at the flare was an obvious stand site. With deer certainly bedded on the points, they naturally funneled through the pinch in route to the food. The pond just made it better by transforming it into a natural staging area as well.
In reality, the setup and incredible days on the stand it provided me with had nothing to do with any skills I may or may not possess as a hunter. No, without a doubt, they were the results of John Redmond’s carefully planned out food plot location, as well as his insightfulness to offer a variety of food sources in that location. Best of all, nearly anyone that leases or owns hunting grounds can do the same.
Most reading this piece already realize that the keys to producing and holding superior deer on a property really boils down to providing ample year round nutrition, protection from both predators and harsh winter conditions, water and a feeling of safety. If you subtract winter cover from the equation, the remaining elements are keys for southern deer, as well.
Next, we can apply a simple philosophy. If we provide deer with everything they desire, at a level better than they can find elsewhere, they will spend a disproportionately larger amount of time on our property. This holds true whether we are managing a 40-acre piece in Northern Wisconsin or a 6000-acre spread in Texas. Granted, we can certainly do more to shape the herd on the 6000-acre property, but we can also make a positive and noticeable difference on the 40. The true key to inspiring deer to spend a disproportionate amount of time on our property lies in giving them all they need better than they can find anywhere else.
Taking this a step further, a wise move is to not only hold deer, but also dictate their movement patterns in a way that’s most beneficial to our hunting efforts. The placement of the pond and food plot on Fair Chase Outfitter’s farm is a prime example of this. With the pond placed in a pinch point between the food and bedding, it creates a slam dunk stand site.
“Careful forethought and planning is absolutely important when designing habitat improvements,” explained John Redmond. “If you just go out and start putting in food plots, you’ll have better hunting. If you place them in areas easy to hunt and force deer to use funnels to get between bedding and feeding, you can have outstanding hunting, instead.”
The awesome buck Redmond took off of another of his farms is a perfect example of this. Knowing that bucks were bedding in a nasty, brush choked draw, John took advantage of an erosion cut. Placing an Antler King Honey Hole and Trophy Clover food plot on the opposite side of the cut, the deer were literally forced to parade by his stand when traveling between feeding and bedding.
With that, all Redmond had to do was wait for the right wind and a day that the bucks would be moving. As luck had it, that happened to be on the second day of Minnesota’s 06 bow hunting season. The result of this careful planning was a 189” grossing main frame 8 point!
The Smorgasbord Effect
As helpful as it is to position food plots to take advantage of funnels, a tremendous advantage can also be gained by pairing that plot with locations that also offer other natural food sources.
“Deer need a lot of high quality food to be at their healthiest,” stated Redmond. “Giving them a lot of high quality choices allows them to achieve that and draws more deer.”
Additionally, it caters to their diverse palette. As I wrote in my article in D&DH’s Equipment Annual, I have no doubt that deer crave diversity in their diet and bore with eating the same foods day after day. Furthermore, their nutritional needs change from requiring high protein diets through late winter, spring and summer to high carb and fat diets in late fall and early winter. Of course they can survive on almost anything, but those types of foods meet their needs best during those seasons.
When one adds all that up, you can start to see the advantages of offering several food plot choices, as well improving naturally occurring foods in the same location. The deer’s desire for diversity and changing nutritional needs will both draw and keep them feeding in the same location more and longer than one feeding option can.
When selecting what to offer in food plots, it all begins with selecting a high quality seed. “What most people don’t realize,” Redmond explained, “is that the seeds you can get down at the local feed mill aren’t the same as the ones developed for deer. Every strain has different traits. A regular clover seed may have a though, thick stalk. That’s fine for cows and horses, but deer like a tender stalk. The seeds sold for deer cost more, but are worth it.”
The next consideration is what to plant. I almost always strive to offer 2 or 3 different seed blends in the same area. For example, I may put in ½-1 acre of clover. This will provide high protein during the spring, summer and early fall months. You can then toss in another similarly sized plot of barasics and beats. This will be a good draw during fall and winter. When dealing with a larger area, one can then offer 3-5 acres of soybeans mixed with corn. By planting both at 1.5-2 times the suggested rate, you can produce a good amount of grain in a relatively small plot. With all 3 plantings, you covered all phases of season and have taken an important step towards satisfying their desire for diversity.
However, you can take yet another step. Plant some apple trees. When doing so, offer a variety. Planting a couple that drop early, medium and late will keep fruit on the ground for a longer period of time. Just be sure to protect them from rubs and rodents with fencing and a wrap.
As long as we’re at it, when practical, pair the location with naturally existing food sources. Oak trees, stands of woody browse and even overgrown meadows all are important foods for whitetails.
Getting the Most from Nature
Speaking of naturally existing foods, they are often the most ignored. Numerous books and countless articles have been written on maximizing food plot production. By now, anyone that’s truly interested understands the importance of obtaining ideal pH, soils fertility, preparing a proper seed bed and so on.
What many may not realize is what we can do to maximize Mother Nature’s foods. Obviously, because we’re striving to focus as much feeding as practical in a handful of locations on the property, we’d be doing most of these acts around our food plots.
Oaks receive the most attention in this group. So, we may as well start with them.
It begins by fertilizing them in the spring with a 10-10-10 to 15-15-15, slow release fertilizer. After raking the debris from the base of the tree on out to the drip line, apply a medium dosage of fertilizer from the drip line to a foot shy of the base of the tree. Just be certain to do this in the spring. Summer and fall fertilization can prompt fresh growth at inopportune times and harm the tree.
When finished, either rake debris back over the exposed area or lay down straw. Either helps in retaining soil moisture, which can be important during dry periods.
Lastly, one can thin the canopy of less desirable trees. Trees require sunlight to perform photosynthesis (the act of producing food). Think about where most of the largest, healthiest trees are located. They are generally found in open areas. Open areas allow them to receive adequate levels of sunlight, making it much easier for them to maintain their lower branches. By removing some of the competing trees, we can accomplish the same effect.
Though we were talking about oaks, these procedures can be applied to any mast producing tree. The net result will be the same. Healthier trees are capable of increased crop production. As the
effects of our efforts begin to pay off, deer will begin gravitating to the “healthier” trees.
Natural greens are ignored even more, but can be real producers. Unfortunately, as most greens mature, their cell walls harden, they significantly drop in nutrient content and also become more difficult to digest.
A spring burn on meadows is a good starting point. That removes the dead matter and adds nutrients to the soil.
Applying a lawn fertilizer in spring and early fall will also help. Simply put, nearly every form of land based plant life is healthier and more productive when the soil’s nutrient content is ideal.
Finally, as the grasses and weeds begin reaching maturity, the meadow can be mowed like a hay field. Doing so will keep it from reaching the undesirable state for a much longer period of time.
As with everything else we have covered, applying fertilizer will aid in increasing its health of woody browse. We can also apply the same clearing principle we discussed for the oaks. Removing mature trees that block sunlight will encourage browse production.
Finally, we can also trim them like a hedge. This extends the time in which the browse they produce is at a level where deer can reach it. It also creates more shoots then it normally would and its fresh, young leafy growth is more desirable.
These techniques can be adapted to work with virtually any type of natural deer food. For example, one can certainly fertilize honeysuckle and increase both its production and desirability. Locust trees will respond just like oaks, by producing more and larger pods. When treating natural foods around our food plot location, we are providing yet another reason for the deer to come to that specific area to feed.
When creating a smorgasbord for whitetails, it all begins with the food plot. Finding the proper balance between a location where the plot will thrive and still do the hunter the most good is job one. Next, coming up with a combination of plantings that will satisfy the both the deer’s nutritional needs and desire for diversity is an important step. Finally, boosting the natural food sources around the plot helps even further.
This combination of acts helps the deer achieve greater health. In turn, that results in better fawning and improved antler growth. Furthermore, when properly planned, it can also be an exceptional aid to hunting by creating great stand sites. Creating 3 or 4 such smorgasbords on a 500 acre farm often results in more than enough killer stand sites for a group of hunters to enjoy.